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admin / February 8, 2014

In A Globalized World, Fixing Problems Means Fixing Systems

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Published in FastCompany

When everything is connected, our solutions have to be far bigger than just solving one problem.

Naming an enemy is a great rallying tactic. Examples are all around us, from the healthcare.gov to the 1%. The idea that problems are complex is a harder sell. A simple threat may even mask the deeper fear that, overwhelmed by numerous internal and external challenges, we simply dissolve. So, it is comforting to call out threats no matter how misguided. It helps us forget that, again and again, history shows us that there are limits to what we can prepare for.

I am not being fatalistic. My training in anthropology favors complex explanations. There are moments in history in which societies suffer what anthropologists call “systems collapse.” The phenomenon, which involves the short and long term failures of social infrastructures along with their life support systems, occurs for complex reasons: climate change, population migration, overpopulation, changes in military technology, and so on.

Interconnected global economies and infrastructures means we can mess things up very fast.
In most cases, societies cannot adjust to rapid social and technological changes. Chances are the Mayans or Hittites saw many threats, but they were not the right ones. This holds true today. Interconnected global economies and infrastructures means we can mess things up very fast. It also means we can effect rapid positive change. I find myself wondering, “which path will we choose, what should we really be worried about?”

This is challenging because we prefer, as I mentioned, singular threats (and immediate solutions.) This inclination means we have broken things down into smaller pieces to make them more manageable. Sometimes this hurts more than it helps. For example, traditionally economists have delineated developing and developed economies. Nonetheless, an interconnected global economy suggests this distinction is receding. From mobile technology, green energy solutions, to sustainable foods, the faint trace of convergence can be made out.

I find it ironic that although we hear the word “globalization” all the time, this rarely means “everyone.” On the contrary, mounting problems associated with the scale of development and lack of accountability, spanning from working conditions to the environment, are sowing doubt. When systemic failures happen it usually means we are framing the problem poorly. This raises the question, how should consumers, businesses, and governments think differently?

My own company, Uncommon Union, works with social enterprises, non-profits, and businesses who are starting to answer this question. Several useful starting points are well established. We have some idea why one might purchase “fair trade” foods. From a branding perspective, however, differentiation requires the story behind the seal of approval. In buying into a fair trade model, we might like to know how a product will not only help a small coffee farmer in Ethiopia, but small businesses in general.

Although we hear the word ‘globalization’ all the time, this rarely means ‘everyone.’
If we are going to remain committed to the idea that globalization should be good for all, focus must be placed on improving an entire system as opposed to combating a particular problem in isolation. This is appealing and common sense. The link between quality of life and quality of product is expansive; to be addressed it must be considered broadly. Even though this may strike you as obvious, not only is it not traditional, it’s disruptive. These are not the “brand stories” which businesses are not used to telling… at their peril.

Consider that as organic products define a new standard, they redefine older brands. Because new “organic” foods intersect with so many issues, an old-fashioned product is not only “NOT organic,” but also “NOT green,” “NOT ethically sourced,” “NOT fairly traded” and so on. The cumulative effect can break consumer habits. I like New York City street hot dog vendors as comfort food. Still, I am inclined to steer my children into a restaurant with a big blue health-department-certified “A” in the window. I’m not being ideological when I do this. I am operating with more readily-available information than existed when I was growing up. Likewise, the shift to organic foods tends to happen when a household gains children. My point is, this is not about niche marketing around someone’s pet concern; a new generation of products are shooting to rewrite the rules of quality for a new generation of consumers. It’s starting to work.

It is also true that the volume of information readily available also infers no single answer to many problems. Two of our clients, for example, take opposite approaches to sourcing: small producers vs. contract labor. Laughing Man Coffee & Tea treats small coffee farmers like strategic partners. They co-brand products and invest in capacity on a case by case basis. There is a lot of wisdom in working with artisanal-like models. It respects the autonomy of farmers and provides a rationale for premium pricing. On the other hand, Industrial Revolution II, another client of ours, is working toward big infrastructure improvements in Haiti based on the scale contract labor can muster.

Stopping the “race to the bottom,” by confronting abuses of contract labor or investing in small producers are, of course, radically different approaches. Given that each approach is valid, the difference is more of a feature than a bug. Products produced by two such companies might even be similarly certified. The decision to purchase organic from a local bakery vs. an organic sliced loaf from a supermarket reflect tangible product attributes, as well as the unique relationships which inform each. Both reflect a reality of the product in the world.

This larger framing of what we consume, what business must consider, problems governments must face is revealing a new kind of global citizen. Amongst old business there will be, undoubtably, much denial. Meanwhile, shifting global currents create safe harbor for new leadership. The question of survival relies, as always, on our resourcefulness. We must also be bold. The Romans had the steam engine, for example, but could they have dared imagine an economy without slavery or barbarians? Poor labor and immigration policies may have prevented the industrial revolution from taking hold 2000 years ago. Instead, we got the Dark Ages.