Simon Mainwaring is CEO and founder of We First, a social branding and consulting firm dedicated to creating positive change to generate profits and help communities in need. His new book, We First, addresses the needs of the Third World and the shrinking middle class in America, but with a call for more sustainable business incentives. Mainwaring spoke to Editorial Assistant Koa Beck about why businesses should reconsider the needs of the planet to maintain a relevant and successful organization.
CRM: You make a point in We First of mentioning the rise in poverty. How is that relevant in a book about social media use?
Simon Mainwaring: The rise in poverty is a threat to better standards of living and society at large. Companies cannot survive in societies that fail. When you consider the majority of people on the planet live on less than $1.50 or $2 a day and the human cost involved, it’s not only unconscionable, but it’s also unsustainable. Ultimately, that neglect leads to even greater costs in life and quality of life.
The only way any change of substance has occurred is when people align around shared values and take action. The true power of social media is not the technology itself or seeing everything in real time. It’s the ability to connect people on an emotional level around shared values so they can take action and drive change.
Social media allow people to connect in new ways, and that has political ramifications that we’re seeing throughout the Arab world. It has brand implications, whether in a positive sense, such as the Pepsi Refresh Project, or in a negative sense, like the push-back against the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It has huge implications for the future in midterm and presidential elections. It has huge implications in business practices, transparency, and accountability when you consider WikiLeaks.
CRM: You mention a relationship between capitalism and self-interest. Can you say a little more about that?
Mainwaring: For decades, profit for profit’s sake has driven the majority of business practices. Now we live in an intimately connected global community that we see in the domino effect of the global economic meltdown in 2008 and in social networking. We need an expanded definition of “self-interest” that includes greater good because we are dependent on one another.
CRM: You also discuss Me First consumerism, which is the converse of what the book advocates. How does Me First consumerism function?
Mainwaring: Me First consumerism is an outright disregard for the resources of the planet, the well-being of others, or how financially responsible certain purchasing decisions are in terms of debt. The shift that needs to occur is from mindless to mindful consumption. This doesn’t mean we don’t satisfy our needs or wants. It means when we satisfy these needs, we are more mindful of the choices we make. Also, in doing so, we support companies that are making a positive contribution to the world as well as to themselves and their employees and shareholders.
CRM: Is Me First consumerism still happening? Has it seen a decline? How do you assess it?
Mainwaring: Awareness is shifting in certain sectors in both business and society in the United States, but we still see an untenable acceptance of debt. As we see spending habits return very, very slowly, we are also seeing debt rise again. In 2010, the average U.S. household had 13 debt obligations. The average debt was $16,000.
Debt is still a systemic problem because consumers have not made a sufficient shift, and business incentives have not been put in place to encourage them to make that shift. Corporate executives are still incentivized to make short-term analyst projections, which drives “for profit’s sake.” Everybody is pushed to acquire as much as possible as fast as possible, irrespective of the consequences.
CRM: What is needed for that final shift?
Mainwaring: Without being pessimistic, there needs to be a sufficient degree of pain, not just among lower- or middle-class Americans but also in the upper and very wealthy class. Until our survival instinct kicks in, it is very difficult to expect a shift in thinking and behavior. As long as those whose interests the current system serves best are doing well, they have no incentive to change it.