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By Raz Choudhury
When was the last time you bought a bottle of water or purchased a piece of clothing? If it was after the birth of Facebook and from a Starbucks or a GAP clothing store, chances are you have either helped provide clean water to children in Africa or raise awareness of the global HIV and AIDS epidemic, or possibly a combination of both. There is a powerful undercurrent that is altering the minds of influential business leaders in America and it is poised to change everything from the way companies do business to the way we choose products and services.
The very notion that giving back can contribute to a company’s bottom line defies the foundation of capitalism. It’s a paradox that Wall Street is still grappling with, a concept that many corporate executives find perplexing, and a practice that some simply dismiss as an experiment employed to sell more products. Yet this business of “giving back" is making in-roads into American corporate culture and winning hearts and minds of people that run some of the largest multinational corporations and manage some of the most well recognized brands. Consider Coca Cola’s mission statement, the company’s long standing mission had been: “to create value over time for the owners of our business" it has now been changed “to create a growth strategy that allows us to bring good to the world -- by refreshing people every day and inspiring them with optimism through our brands and our actions."
With a collage of borrowed text from sources ranging from great literary works, to children’s books, to songs and newspaper articles, Jonathan Lethem illustrates how the very act of plagiarism contributes to the creation of works of art in “The Ecstasy of Influence." In the introductory statement Lethem seems to suggest that the transactions of works of Art serve dual purposes, one in which to allow the creator to reap monetary rewards and the other as a gift to society. The coexistence of both is a natural duality in which a transaction of such work can both be interpreted as an exchange of commodity as well as an exchange of gift. In other words, Lethem indicates that a work of Art can both be a commodity and a gift depending on how the work is treated and exchanged.
I share Lethem’s belief that appropriation, in which pre-existing works are made into one’s own, is a secret ingredient that can be found in many “original" works of art. I also agree that the exchange of such works does not only serve to produce financial benefits to its owners but also serve to inspire new generation of creators and artists. But this is where our agreement ends. Lethem goes on to say: “The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection." Perhaps Lethem is failing to see such connection or at the very least not able to unambiguously distinguish the difference between the two. One can argue that there is a connection when a specific brand of yogurt, such as Yoplait, is purchased to support the fight for breast-cancer or that there is no difference between gift exchange and commodity exchange when a brand of salad dressing, such as Newman’s Own, is purchased to contribute to grants for Arts & Culture and Human Services. Thus, commodity exchange can and does in today’s economy allow for a feeling of bond between people.
Capitalism in America today, also known as the free market economy, is far more complex than Lethem presents it to be. Being an active participant of the great free market society, both as a consumer and also as a business owner, I am contributing to the profitability of corporations by consuming products and services, and reaping financial rewards by providing goods and services. I believe that my actions are not merely a function of American capitalism, but a catalyst in a complex system of commodity exchange that goes beyond the boundaries of Lethem’s summation.
“The power of a gift economy remains difficult for the empiricists of our market culture to understand. In our times, the rhetoric of the market presumes that everything should be and can be appropriately bought, sold, and owned—a tide of alienation lapping daily at the dwindling redoubt of the unalienable. In free-market theory, an intervention to halt propertization is considered “paternalistic," because it inhibits the free action of the citizen, now reposited as a “potential entrepreneur."
Perhaps Lethem is mistakenly referring to “our times" considering that his very classification of free-market correlates more with what Alexander Hamilton envisioned it to be in early America: a society in which the owners and providers of goods and services are free to reach their full potential. Nevertheless, Lethem’s denigration of the free-market is not at all unanticipated. In fact Lethem is not the exception when it comes to slandering the free-market, he is the rule. He is amongst a breed of creative intellectuals who for long have seen nothing but greed, exploitation, and corruption to come out of American capitalism. The same breed that forget to acknowledge the fact that everything from the electricity we utilize to the automobiles we ride to the plans we fly to the computers we use and the internet we depend on had their birthplace in America; fostered and incubated by the forces of capitalism. The same intellectuals who ignore the fact that capitalism makes America the most charitable nation in the world, gifting 1.67 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to charity.
Google brokered a deal with Wall Street in 2004 before becoming a publicly traded company to donate “1% of Googles equity and profits in some form, as well as employee time, to address some of the worlds most urgent problems." This unprecedented act of using free market capital to fund project such as Worldwide Flu Trends and underwrite the advocacy of clean energy cannot simply be dismissed as brand promotion or public relations spin; it is a new form of capitalism, re-invented to make an impact. Impact that can be felt when goods and commodities are exchanged, leaving -- to a certain extent a feeling of bond and interconnectedness.
The winner of 2006 The Nobel Peace Prize was the Founder and President of Grameen Bank, a true capitalist who employed an innovative lending program to end poverty in developing countries. The bank pioneered a micro-lending program targeting the very poor and needy of rural Bangladesh, allowing them to borrow small sums of capital to start businesses. The result was an instant success that allowed new and unassuming entrepreneurs to generate a sustainable living. Another example of this brave new form of capitalism can be seen in the actions of Newsman’s Own Corporation. Since 1982 the company gave back more than $270 million, that’s all of its profits, to charities. One may wonder what Lethem would make out of these citizens labeled “potential entrepreneurs" as calls them, would they still serve as his villains of capitalism or would be the new heroes of a new form of socialism dubbed capitalism?
One must wonder what in heaves is going on with such corporations and what their true motives are. It’s plausible that the leaders of these corporations are some type of yogis, new age executives who are trying to reach nirvana while climbing the corporate ladder. But it is safe to assume that they are influenced by the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the concept behind the gift of giving back. CSR was originally introduced to companies in the early 80s to respectfully abide by government regulations and to comply with industry standards. Companies have since expanded its practice, and consider it to be an important part of their growth strategy today, as illustrated by earlier examples. Discussions on CSR can now be heard in the halls of top colleges in America and be seen on Sunday TV shows.
IBM Global Services conducted a survey of 250 companies that employ CSR and found that CSR activities are considered a “board level issue" amongst corporate leaders. CSR today has more to do with a company’s brand loyalty and employee retention than meeting industry regulations. Everything from a company’s policy on pollution to labor practice may influenced by CSR. The practice of CSR however is not limited to large enterprises, some shape or forms of its adaptation can also be seen in smaller enterprises that make up most of our free market economy. Take for example my small web solutions firm; our quarterly contribution to the Arbor Day Foundation has helped protect 250,000 square feet of Rainforest this year.
The function of today’s economy is more than simply an equation of give and take. The bond that these transactions create often transcends the limited views of those who see the glass haft empty - with a narrow scope. Not all capitalists are alike, there is a new breed of business leaders who think, act, and function exceptionally differently than their predecessors. What ignites their passion and sparks innovation in our society has more to do with fulfilling society’s needs and less to do with greed and profits. Money is not the means with which to achieve an economic end, “Money is how we keep score" as so eloquently stated by Ted Turner, a great American capitalist.
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USA Web Solutions has helped save 18 city blocks of rainforest through its partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation