How Do We Scale Social & Environmental Finance?

In Oct 2019, kiva.org sent an email update of a thrilling achievement — $1 Billion of interest-free credit deployed to 3 million women in 94 countries since 2006. Across the wealth-divide that wasn’t as thrilling, Kiva’s San Francisco neighbour, Instagram, founded four years later generated $20 Billion (for its investors) in just 2019 from a global user base of 1 billion active monthly users. What Kiva achieved in nine years, Instagram did in one. That’s like 180 times more money we send to the richest than we do to the poorest.

This sounds like comparing apples to oranges, but that’s the whole point. We have separated our personal needs from our need for a flourishing Planet and Society, separated our products or wellbeing from the wellbeing of the source of our wellbeing (Planet & Society), we have separated our immediate present from our gradual future. But is for example my need to move (fast and conveniently in a car) from A to B, separate from my need for a weather not rough to throw me and the car down a cliff, or is it separate from my need for a society without road bandits skilled and determined to rob, and sell my property?

We cooperate more to support corporations than nonprofits, more to support wealth accumulation than its distribution, more to support self-interest than social impact, and more to harvest the future into the present; — for example, we probably would face fewer cyclones, wildfires, and ecological destruction today if Exxon Mobil and others cared beyond profits and acted on accurate findings of the impact of their products on global warming 40 years ago.

Capitalists will argue that Instagram offers us more value than Kiva does. We hang out and share moments on there, while Instagram connects us ‘consumers to products’, so, businesses make more money, employ more people, pay more taxes, and do more donations; compelling, right?

But is this ‘capitalist chocolate cake’ worth the ‘economic, social and environmental inequality’ costs that increase with every single purchase we do on a daily basis? Is our instant craving for this shortcake worth our shared future? Is accumulation worth distribution or worse, is it worth destruction? so do ask the progressives.

Is Advertising a necessary evil?

Well, anti-consumerism activists make some compelling arguments against ‘manipulative’ advertising but for a moment let’s disregard them and say businesses still need to connect to customers; is the current advertising model (auctioning our attention) the most optimal way to connect us to products? do we have to be manipulated to spend just to make more billions for billionaires?

Can’t we still connect to only the products we need without concentrating wealth at current abusive rates, can we reverse this function of “businesses connecting to customers” to distribute more than accumulate and destroy, to care more than ignore, to balance rather separate our personal-needs from our need for a flourishing Planet and Society and to balance rather than separate our immediate present from our shared future? While at it, can we also reclaim our dignity and privacy — I mean, are we property or products to be auctioned to the highest bidder? Can we eat our cake and have it too? I think so.

We can still connect to much-needed products and services while connecting to Planet and Society, satisfy our immediate personal needs while respecting our need for a flourishing Planet and Society, we can balance our immediate wellbeing with our shared future. How?

By reconfiguring advertising into a distribution tool as opposed to an accumulation tool. A tool of cooperation and care not a tool of cut-throat competition and mindless endless growth. Imagine the impact of Instagram for example distributing $20 billion to nonprofits like Kiva and other grassroots changemakers instead of accumulating it to a handful of already rich investors?

We can remodel “customers connecting to products” so that we connect to the highest giver/sharer instead of the highest bidder, connect to businesses that most respect our need for a flourishing Planet and Society than those most concerned with wealth accumulation, to those that respect our shared future than those obsessed with profiting from our most immediate consumer needs.

The Mother of all Injustices: Denied Incentives.

I started questioning the impact of connecting consumers to products a year or two after setting foot into the waters of digital marketing. Prior to this move, I had spent a 40-day sabbatical with a mystic Sufi order that espouses humility, self-discipline against material accumulation and greed, sharing, inviting others to do good, serving others among other selfless characters.

Am by no means a mystic but after several episodes of cynical ‘lack of motivation’ (with the current marketing model) punctuated by ‘optimistic imagination’, a particular incident dragged my thoughts, attention, and now focus on how technology can coordinate consumers to flourish Planet and Society, the same way it coordinates us to flourish corporations. Here is the brief version of this journey;

Every day Ann is on the road with a megaphone calling traffic-jammed drivers to give +100 Uganda Shillings (≈$0.005) to treat & care for cancer tumor-faced children. When I saw the same tumor faces on my way to office for several months, I knew Ann wasn’t getting much from her model. The children are brought to the capital from upcountry where poverty has its strongest grip. Ann is herself old, frail & diabetic; her helping daughter told us; one-time Ann collapsed under the scorching sun.

Ann calling for help at a traffic-jammed road.

Working in Digital Innovation, I felt the skills we use to make a living can also help amplify Ann’s megaphone; invite more care than bystanders by reducing the cost of sacrifice for thousands of altruists to buy from merchants who offer Ann’s cause a small percentage per sale. On further study I learned; the root cause is inaccess to basic resources; and that helping more people out of poverty reduces the chances of this and other such pain & suffering.

After the altruism experiment/website set up with the above model received a lackluster response I was hellbent on finding out why because consumer data suggested otherwise; plus, the social impact efficiency of this love triangle Product>Customer>Cause can be huge if well implemented — I said to myself.

Other reasons for failure notwithstanding I felt the need to ground the project more in rationality and less in morality, because, under the circumstances, rationality is usually better received than morality, never mind that we’ve tolerated the immorality in the markets for centuries because of our irrationality. Also because people don’t want to be told what is right and wrong — only what makes sense.

On the rationality path, I’m learning that Ann and millions of other grassroots social changemakers (big and small — on a typical day I receive three emails from non-profits like Oxfam, Echoing Green, KIVA asking for micro-donations, etc.) spend most of their time, and cash on begging rather than impact — this so because of a major injustice in the markets.

That the system manipulates consumers to give businesses wealth incentives to innovate products and deny Planet wealth incentives to sustain us and Society to cooperate is the mother of all injustices. This is even echoed by the father of capitalism, Adam Smith;

“It is unjust that the whole of society should contribute towards an expence of which the benefit is confined to a part of the society.”

Unfixed, this injustice will continue to manipulate and coordinate all of us to feed wealth accumulation with our daily purchases while denying Planet and Society the finances they need to flourish.

New Value Creation Narratives

Fixing this injustice starts with revisiting and re-imagining the narrative that sustains it, — that monetised value is not entirely, the product of smart entrepreneurs working hard and taking on business risks rather of them extracting base value from the lengthy incremental evolution of two shared entities; ‘Planet’s natural resources and the global ‘Society’s cooperation to create knowledge and civilisation.’

The system has conditioned us to value our products/services billions of times more than the value we get from a cohesive society and a productive planet. Yet if these two are taken away, the wellbeing or products we purchase from businesses can’t last another day or rendered useless.

The system has made us believe that the products/services we buy to improve our wellbeing are created entirely by businesses or smart, hardworking, risk-taking entrepreneurs and consequently businesses own all generated wealth.

The reality, however, is that value cannot be ‘created, monetised and owned’ — at least not at scale without input from four entities;

  • Planet: every consumer product/service has to use some components that Mother Earth has been painstakingly building for millions of years.
  • Society: from a goldmine of knowledge, science, and discoveries generated over 5,000 years, civilizations, cultures, absence of violence to markets, without global ‘cooperation’, businesses/entrepreneurs would have to start from a prohibitively costly vacuum.
  • Governments: provide physical, economic, political, and legal infrastructure.
  • Businesses: innovate, and invest time/money into a need for a product or service.

An Age-old Monetisation System.

Yet since commerce started, we have blindly used a unidirectional payment system, so that when we — customers buy products/services, we hand over full ownership, power, and control of not just the generated wealth but the fate of Planet and Society to corporations.

As the system uses us to flood wealth to corporations, governments — the perceived custodians of Planet and Society’s interests are usually compromised to develop and enforce policies that serve corporations. Governments also spend most tax wealth on their own self-interest; grip on power, national and global domination, corruption, wars, etc.

This leaves social and environmental ills to worsen to the attention of grassroots changemakers who can’t wait for the inherent inefficiencies of self-interested governments. Changemakers then come back to beg philanthropic foundations (which are offshoots of corporations) for wealth that Planet and Society should have received 10–20 years back or right at the counter.

Like entrepreneurs spot and invest in our need for a product/service, changemakers spot and work on our need for a sustainable Planet and cohesive Society. This indispensable social and environmental value feeds into our wellbeing and the creation and monetisation of products but it’s never on the corporate balance sheet so is unrewarded by our purchases.

Plus, Instagram, Amazon, and other corporations are able to make a million-dollar in a minute i.e. a million times quicker today than they would 2,000 years ago, not because Zuckerberg, Elon, or Bezos are smarter, sleep fewer hours, or take riskier ventures, but because the longest nights, the smartest, hardest and riskiest building blocks are already done by Planet earth and the global Society over millions of years.

Our unidirectional monetisation system fertilises the mother of all injustices to deny Planet the wealth to sustain us and Society to cooperate, create more knowledge and advance civilisation. It sends Planet and Society’s would be billions to billionaires who send some peanuts back to Planet and Society (10–20 years later) as philanthropists.

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” ― Martin Luther

Tech and Masses to the Rescue

Today we have the technology to develop a payment system that instantly directs generated wealth to the four prime investors in value creation. Right at checkout, consumers can divert funds to the neglected social and environmental causes they care about through grassroots changemakers.

UI/UX prototype of a POS system with an API diverting money to grassroots Social/Environmental Need

This peer-to-peer regenerative finance cuts short the looong and most times futile wait Planet and Society currently endure to fund their wellbeing. Most importantly it restores Planet’s incentive to sustain us and Society’s incentive to cooperate, create knowledge, and advance civilisation.

We also have concerned masses waiting for such a payment system to fix this invisible but major injustice. We can rally the masses via a remodeled, conscious and caring advertising that connects us not just to products but to Planet and Society. This means first valuing Planet & Society the same way or even more than we value the brands or products we love today. It means reversing the tools of capitalism to care beyond profits.

Planet and Society are extracted by entrepreneurs using innovation on the supply-side, to create products and services but by the time we pay at the counter on the demand-side;

  • Planet and Society have been uncredited as valueless using corporate branding — so we value the products, brands, corporations but not Planet and Society;
  • Citizens have been disconnected from Planet and Society using advertising — so consumers obsess for more and more products;
  • Planet and Society’s input has been deleted as zero-value externalities using accounting — so consumers reward only corporations;
  • then Planet and Society’s would be share of wealth is assumed by the corporation using Private Ownership leveraging a unidirectional payment system that just won’t divide a sale according to who contributed to the value/price of the product.
  • and then capitalist competition optimises the whole cycle over and over again.

To scale social and environmental finance, the masses need to value and care for planet/society more, then capitalism will reverse its tools to value, care and finance Planet and Society. Therefore planet/society need to be rebranded as the most valuable ‘brands’ — not Amazon, Apple, nor Google.

Conclusion

For each dollar you spend, 27 cents always end up with the top 1%. The bottom 50% share only 12 cents says the World Inequality Report.

Following Occupy Wallstreet, an analysis of 43,000 transnational companies identified a tight-knit network of 147 corporations that own disproportionate revenues and economic power. So, whether you buy from a local retailer or a global brand, our value-chains, distribution-channels, and financial-systems are so closely interlinked that the 27cents of each dollar you spend find their way to the top. It’s then no surprise that in this COVID-19 crisis alone, as we put millions out of their jobs, we (our purchases) still sent the world’s richest the unjust 27 cents of each dollar increasing their wealth by 27.5% to $10.2trn from April to July, says a report from Swiss bank UBS.

It’s hard to find data to analyze whether advertising is a net-positive or net-negative but it isn’t as hard to start building an alternative model that does the same function of connecting people to products/services but adds the function of reconnecting people to planet and society as well, that invites people to nurture a balance between their personal-needs and their need for a flourishing Planet and Society.

Such a model ought to optimise shared ownership of shared resources — owned by no one, but owned by everyone. Since it is a shared or civic-owned resource, there is no existing legal infrastructure that can hold it. But there is a tech-enabled infrastructure to operate it. The Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) enables decentralised community consensus on how Planet and Society’s wealth is spent.

In between capitalists and progressives, in between our craving for material luxuries and our apathy for a flourishing Planet earth and Society, and in between our obsession with the immediate present and our neglect of the gradual future is the sweet spot, a balance waiting to be embraced for a more sustainable and cooperative world.

To scale social and environmental finance, we don’t need more philanthropy, CSR, ESG, or more Impact investing, rather we need to engage more citizens in fixing the capitalist injustice in value creation, and ownership. This means orchestrating a well-coordinated campaign — something that needs activating the existing network of aligned organisations to mobilise the masses.

Rallying more people means reducing the cost of starting to care for Planet/Society. You don’t have to spend a whole day at a social/earth protest rally or do a hunger strike; every Power-Wallet purchase moves us closer to the flourishing planet/society we desire.

Here is a glimpse of this cost reduction; Even as they protested during Occupy wall street, the 99% still fed the top 1% the full unjust 27 cents every day of the protest.

The Power Wallets equip the +50,000 ‘Occupiers’ to strategically demand that for example 7 of the 27 cents from each dollar of their purchases goes not to the top but to a grassroots Planet/society need they care about. If the ‘Occupiers’ each spent $50 daily, 7 cents yield $3.5, and $175,000 diverted daily.

Protesters aside, “67% are more likely to integrate their causes into daily life by buying products that support social or environmental causes.” BCG — The Millennial Consumer “91% would switch brands for one championing a cause.” Deloitte Millennial Survey. At 7 cents per spent dollar, the 47 (67% of the 71) million US millennials alone yields $167M daily diverted from the top 1% to urgent, neglected grassroots issues.

So, tooling and collaboratively mobilising consumers globally is the biggest part of the solution. But first, a home to host this project’s execution — which is why am actively looking to join an agile team of like-minded multitalented individuals to refine, develop, test, learn and refine-again these ideas.

If you’re or know an individual or organisation interested in experimenting with the ideas in here and would like to engage and see this work in everyday life, please reach out at asemakula@elmot.ug. Thank you.

Idealistic Generalist hunting for How can technology coordinate consumers to flourish planet & society more; just like it coordinates us to flourish businesses?

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