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Vision: As the American Capitalist Economy Craters, Promising Alternatives Emerge

A growing group of activists and socially responsible companies are rethinking business as usual.
 
 
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The following article first appeared in The Nationmagazine. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

The idea that we need a “new economy”—that the entire economic system must be radically restructured if critical social and environmental goals are to be met—runs directly counter to the American creed that capitalism as we know it is the best, and only possible, option. Over the past few decades, however, a deepening sense of the profound ecological challenges facing the planet and growing despair at the inability of traditional politics to address economic failings have fueled an extraordinary amount of experimentation by activists, economists and socially minded business leaders. Most of the projects, ideas and research efforts have gained traction slowly and with little notice. But in the wake of the financial crisis, they have proliferated and earned a surprising amount of support—and not only among the usual suspects on the left. As the threat of a global climate crisis grows increasingly dire and the nation sinks deeper into an economic slump for which conventional wisdom offers no adequate remedies, more and more Americans are coming to realize that it is time to begin defining, demanding and organizing to build a new-economy movement.

That the term “new economy” has begun to explode into public use in diverse areas may be an indication that the movement has reached a critical stage of development—and a sign that the domination of traditional thinking may be starting to weaken. Although precisely what “changing the system” means is a matter of considerable debate, certain key points are clear: the movement seeks an economy that is increasingly green and socially responsible, and one that is based on rethinking the nature of ownership and the growth paradigm that guides conventional policies.

This, in turn, leads to an emphasis on institutions whose priorities are broader than those that typically flow from the corporate emphasis on the bottom line. At the cutting edge of experimentation are the growing number of egalitarian, and often green, worker-owned cooperatives. Hundreds of “social enterprises” that use profits for environmental, social or community-serving goals are also expanding rapidly. In many communities urban agricultural efforts have made common cause with groups concerned about healthy nonprocessed food. And all this is to say nothing of 1.6 million nonprofit corporations that often cross over into economic activity.

For-profits have developed alternatives as well. There are, for example, more than 11,000 companies owned entirely or in significant part by some 13.6 million employees. Most have adopted Employee Stock Ownership Plans; these so-called ESOPs democratize ownership, though only some of them involve participatory management. W.L. Gore, maker of Gore-Tex and many other products, is a leading example: the company has some 9,000 employee-owners at forty-five locations worldwide and generates annual sales of $2.5 billion. Litecontrol, which manufactures high-efficiency, high-performance architectural lighting fixtures, operates as a less typical ESOP; the Massachusetts-based company is entirely owned by roughly 200 employees and fully unionized with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

A different large-scale corporation, Seventh Generation—the nation’s leader in “green” detergents, dishwashing soap, baby wipes, tissues, paper towels and other household products—has internal policies requiring that no one be paid more than fourteen times the lowest base pay or five times higher than the average employee.

In certain states, companies that want to brandish their new-economy values can now also register as B Corporations. B Corp registration (the “B” stands for “benefit”) allows a company to subordinate profits to social and environmental goals. Without this legal authorization, a CEO could in theory be sued by stockholders if profit-making is not his sole objective. Such status ensures that specific goals are met by different companies (manufacturers have different requirements from retail stores). It also helps with social marketing and branding. Thus, King Arthur Flour, a highly successful Vermont-based, 100 percent employee-owned ESOP, can be explicit, stating that “making money in itself is not our highest priority.” Four states—Maryland, Vermont, New Jersey and Virginia—have passed legislation that permits B Corp chartering, with many others likely to follow.

 
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