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Businesses of the World Unite!

John Fanning
While we can’t be as precise as Virginia Woolf – “In or about December 1912 the world changed” – it is now clear that something similar was afoot in 2016. Most of the subsequent analysis and comment concentrated on the reasons for the sullen mood of the electorate in Western democracies and there was a reasonable level of agreement that although there had been a measure of economic recovery since the Great Recession, it was accompanied by widening inequality, increased insecurity, dizzying disruption and a feeling of bewilderment and dislocation. Individual lives were becoming more complicated and scrambled than ever before and the growing “precariat” was now accompanied by an “unnecessariat”, the former employed but without the security of a pension and the solidarity of a trades union, the latter sidelined by robots and artificial intelligence. There was much comment on the belief that for the first time for as long as anyone could remember the future was something we could no longer shape to our advantage and instead seemed dark and threatening. The so-called “metropolitan liberal elite” were criticised for their failure to find a vision and a language that could compete with the crude xenophobia and “truthiness” of the extreme right and left. In the midst of all this despair, one oasis of progressive thinking was emerging but went largely unnoticed; which is hardly surprising given that it was coming from the consumer goods sector of the business world. It is easy to see why this unlikely source of advanced social concern escaped the attention of the commentators, but there are two reasons why consumer goods businesses might be tempted to abandon the accepted free-market fundamentalist imperative of maximising shareholder revenue to pursue a wider social agenda. The first is the fact that they are heavy users of the earth’s resources and therefore more concerned about the environment than other business sectors. Coca Cola is a good example. It’s one of the biggest consumer brands in the world, selling a product that is ninety per cent water. The conservation of the world’s water is an obvious concern and the company has invested heavily to ensure a continuing supply: We believe that climate change, caused by man-made greenhouse emissions, is the greatest threat to our planet. There is an urgent need for a step-change to achieve not only the significant emission targets we have set but also a low-carbon…



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