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The consumer and his choices: the real factor required for a new economic model

After the "heart attack" of a decade ago, capitalism did not undergo an adequate "treatment". The long-awaited reforms could be imposed by the citizens and consumers

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Valori 23/10/2019 within the context of the Dossier "La bolla del capitalismo etico" (The bubble of ethical capitalism)

Declarations on ethics and values by large multinational corporations must always be taken cum grano salis, i.e. with a pinch of salt because, if on one hand they have to say things that are not too far from the truth (if only for their reputation, especially today in this era of social media), on the other hand it's part of the market game to promise more than you could ever keep in practice. However, one thing is certain by now: the way in which we have understood companies and the market over the last hundred years is experiencing a crisis that is much more radical and profound than the financial crisis of the past few years.

Crisis 2007, a heart attack that capitalism soon forgot all about

The financial crisis which began in 2007 was a sort of heart attack to the system but, once angioplasty was performed and a stent put in place, with the help of a few drugs, "capitalism the patient" continued the same lifestyle as before; for a few months fear made it go on a diet for bit and quit smoking but then, little by little, the old habits all came back as if nothing had happened. This time, however, the matter is of a very different nature: the environmental crisis of a magnitude that has no precedent in human history, does not only represent a coronary crisis but a radical change in life conditions that require an urgent adaptation to something completely new.

The learnings from Fridays for Future

Experts knew and have known all of this for some time now, but thanks to the "Fridays for Future" movement and also to the thoughts and actions of Pope Francis (see Laudato sii and the movement that it led to), in recent times the general awareness that our toy is now broken is becoming vast, popular and universal.

Companies need to change their business culture, not due to altruism, nor for the sake or love of the common good, but simply if they do not wish to go out of business. The only true ruler of capitalism is the consumer and his preferences. This is a dogma of capitalist religion, but it is also its great weakness because, all things considered, if consumers should change their buying preferences together, en masse, companies could do nothing but quickly change the products they offer.

From plastic to new products and lifestyles

We are already seeing it with plastic: only a few months ago we could still hold conferences - perhaps on ethics and economics - with plastic bottles on the table in plain view. Today it is no longer possible (I speak from personal experience) because that bottle in plain view would undermine any speech regarding ethics being delivered from that same table or chair.

All this happened in just a few months (the first global Fridays for Future was held on March 15th of this year). In a few months this wave of epochal change will expand and include many other products: from cars to air travel.

All this is being perfectly understood by companies because, as Jevons recalled in the late nineteenth century, any real entrepreneur is a forerunner of market trends.

But there is more: I could be wrong but it is highly probable that what is happening on the environmental front is progressively and rapidly also moving towards the social front and companies with a non-participatory kind of management and proprietary structures concentrated to a few very rich shareholders, will end up being punished by consumers, by young people in particular, because what happened with democracy, where political power for centuries was concentrated in a few hands and on a few heads (male, rich and noble) but progressively began expanding until it reached universal suffrage, will eventually extend to the economy as well.

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