Last month, leaders from across the globe met in Davos, Switzerland, to participate in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) conference on finance and the global economy. Drawing more than 40 heads of state this year, the WEF annual meeting has become one of the most prestigious conferences in the world, where the business and political elite explore new and innovative solutions to our most pressing socio-economic problems.
The Ford Foundation recently asked me to reflect on why Davos’s conference attendees, many of the world’s wealthiest individuals, should care about income inequality. The answer I gave is that it is because it’s in their best interests to do so. Human progress and prosperity hinges on access to opportunity for everyone, regardless of economic status. But another way to think about it is by asking the flip side of this question: why should the 99% care about events like Davos?
If you asked most Americans what Davos really stands for, they would likely shrug with indifference or frustration. And who can blame them? Despite decades of discussion, global social and economic challenges seem to be getting worse, not better. Whether it’s inequality, security, climate change or—this year’s theme, the fourth Industrial Revolution—practical solutions seem hard to identify, and the conference’s impact on everyday life seems distant or tangential. In today’s world, what ability do citizens have to shape the trajectory of global economic power dynamics to address the things that matter to them?
In fact, I believe people have a greater voice than they realize. The problem is not that people don’t have an influence on the market. It is that they don’t currently have the information, the tools, or the organization they need to exert that influence in a meaningful, concentrated way. It may be hard to imagine now, but has not always been this way. About 40 years ago, in the wake of globalization, new technology, and a growing complexity and disintermediation across our financial systems, the connection between how the markets function and the purpose they serve diverged. (Karen Mills and Chris Rudnicki discuss some of the deeper reasons for the sudden shift in our modern-day capitalism here.)
At the heart of my organization, JUST Capital, and many others working today to address large-scale social issues is a relatively simple theory: that knowledge is power. I believe that we can address issues like fair pay, equal access to benefits, community development, customer trust, and environmental stewardship using the power of the market. With access to the right information about the corporations we buy from, work for, invest in or otherwise come into contact with, we can connect the dots between our everyday economic decisions and the things we care most about. This not only gives people a greater sense of empowerment; it helps to create the requisite incentives and rewards that business leaders need in order to adjust their own thinking. Over time, I believe we can return to a capitalism guided by a more enlightened form of self-interest.
All of this is taking place against a backdrop of steady but certain change in information and transparency. Access to information is becoming increasingly pervasive, through social media, journalism, and a rapidly growing network of independent news sources. Meanwhile, we are increasingly expecting—and demanding—transparency and just behavior from public companies. Corporate disclosure is becoming more comprehensive on issues material to performance, and the public’s awareness of corporate behavior on matters ranging from lobbying and environmental performance to gender diversity and CEO pay is growing.
Turning information into something we can act on is critical. With their Economic Growth and Inclusion Initiative, WEF itself has begun to integrate topics of inequality, climate change, and just business into the heart of the discussion. Speakers such as Winnie Byanyima and Asmaa AbuMezied (two of an admittedly small number of women keynote speakers), are also now part of a growing cohort of voices representing issues of economic inequality from a practitioner perspective. Among corporations, there is also an increasing awareness that business practices and just behavior must be one and the same. Corporate leaders are re-shaping their businesses with the recognition that socially conscious practices must be inherent to all practices, rather than relegated to a siloed program or department.
If you are an optimist like me, you might see the changes that have already occurred as the shoots of a new kind of business culture, from which a more balanced, humane and purposeful marketplace can emerge.