In this post, sociologist Sarah C. White reflects on the role business could take in promoting wellbeing, and argues that while there are some encouraging signs it is also important to acknowledge the wider structural changes needed.

In a world where many of the largest economies in the world are companies rather than countries, it is vital that businesses see social and environmental responsibility as core to their everyday practice.

For some businesses at least, this means starting to think about wellbeing. This was the agenda of an OECD workshop I attended earlier this year on Measuring Business Impacts on People’s Wellbeing.

Beyond the immediate focus on measures and indicators, the workshop assumed a much more substantial agenda: that wellbeing should become core business for business, and that business should become the lead agent of wellbeing.

The speakers ranged from OECD and business school staff, through representatives from for profit and not for profit companies, management consultancies, leadership and life coaches, social enterprises, regulatory organisations, lobby groups and think tanks.

Sharing a positive vision for change

Acknowledging the negatives of growing inequality and environmental destruction, the central message was positive and inspirational: a shared vision of inclusive prosperity endorsing the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) pledge to ‘leave no-one behind’, the claim that socially responsible and sustainable investment actually makes companies more profitable, and promoting a convergence between the aims of business and public policy, with business taking the lead role.

Within this broad agenda, there are inevitably some differences. Some argue for the need to generalise Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), transforming it from the marginal backwaters to the central flow of everyday business, so that all links along the supply chain should achieve positive social and environmental impact. In this view the core dynamics of business are essentially sound, but the values need to shift from profit at any cost to profit with maximum benefit.

Others emphasise personal wellbeing, with better individual health and mindfulness seen as leading to happier and more effective organisations.

A third, more critical, approach argues for changes in structures of company ownership and governance, to generate broader and fairer social distribution of value. They emphasise the need to establish social and environmental indicators of corporate success and link these explicitly to incentives and regulation, both for individuals (company bonuses) and for corporations (tax concessions).

Beyond the individual: The need for structural change

As a sociologist I welcome recognition that the market has many extra-economic effects, contributing to understandings of who we are as individuals and as humankind. As many in the workshop said, there is a need for a ‘new narrative’, which releases us from the dead end road of neo-liberalism and its construction of individualised subjects in constant competition. The tricky thing is that our views of wellbeing are often forged in this same crucible, and this may limit how new our narratives can be.

So along with welcoming much in the OECD’s workshop and other related events, I find myself attending to the silences and absences, the things that were not said. History can be presented as a tale of heroic individuals, inspired entrepreneurs who create value through their drive to meet a need or provide a service. Yet accounts of social change should also include structural factors, and acknowledge that social and economic transformations might emerge through complex interactions, beyond any individual’s intention.

Therefore, I am not convinced that we can safely look  to business to take the lead on wellbeing. We need to be wise to the many ways that business is already selling us a particular view of wellbeing as it sells us its products. We need to admit that much that currently goes under the banner of CSR is rightly dismissed as ‘green-washing’.

The point is not to generate a new narrative from the same kinds of people and institutions who told us the old one, but to generate a new practice, a new politics, which includes those who have been excluded – especially those whose reference points lie outside Europe and North America and beyond the global elite. The power of business is undeniable, but this needs to be held in balance by state and civil society being in a position not only to regulate, but also to set the agenda. This will enable us to break the twin ideologies of individualism and consumerism, and develop a more sustainable, relational approach.

So here is a question to re-set the narrative a little: In times of austerity, where poverty results from the erosion of entitlements to land, employment and state benefits, is wellbeing better served by a company providing its workers with excellent working conditions, pay and benefits, including private health insurance, or by paying a level of taxation that supports the universal provision of a basic income, health and welfare services freely available to all?

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