Conscious Capitalism: The New Way to Conduct Business

Blake Mycoskie, TOMS shoes founder

Blake Mycoskie, TOMS shoes founder

When Blake Mycoskie visited Argentina in 2006, he took notice of the fact that a lack of footwear was a prevalent issue for many citizens. This issue is prevalent in almost all developing countries around the world, so in response, Mycoskie launched his company TOMS shoes, a footwear company that donates a pair of shoes to a child in poverty for every pair of shoes the company sells. The TOMS ethos of “conscious capitalism” may not have been the first of its kind, but TOMS is a shining example of how consumer tastes are changing, and how tapping into the conscience and good will of consumers has had overly positive effects for firms around the globe, but particularly in North America and Europe.

Conscious capitalism focuses around the idea that companies can build a successful business model on the principles of environmentally or socially conscious business practices, high employee satisfaction, and a high level of consumer support. The combination of these 3 factors has led to the success of many firms since the practice of conscious capitalism became well known. In fact, the average annual share price increase for companies who comprise Fortune Magazine’s list of 100 best companies to work for was higher (14.16) than the average annual share price of companies listed on the S&P 500 (5.97) and the Russell 3000 (6.34) indices.

Conscious firms perform better

Conscious firms perform better

Critics of conscious capitalism argue that while “conscious” North American and European firms exist, this type of business strategy cannot be applied to companies in developing countries. They argue that consumers are not as concerned with how a corporation operates, nor do they have the level of concern for the environment or social welfare that consumers in developed countries do. As the world becomes more connected and companies in developing countries are held to the same high standards as those in developed countries, this gap in practices and ethics will be erased.

Most companies that practice conscious capitalism are based in North America and Europe, where almost all countries on these continents are considered developed. The higher amount of wealth and overall quality of life in these countries raises concerns amongst many consumers for health of developing nations, the environment, and even the less fortunate in their own community, because charitable and philanthropic activity increases with a higher income and quality of life.


By growing their business through good stewardship for the three aforementioned factors, business managers experience global benefits; 200 years ago, 95% of the world’s population was below the poverty line, and today that number has shrunk to 60%.  By the year 2050, it is predicted that number will shrink to 25%. Conscious capitalism could be described as the first step towards building global equality.

Developed nations have a role to build sustainable companies and cities to promote the next stage of global development. The developing world has the majority of the world’s population, and that proportion will continue increase into the 21st century. As the wealth and consumption of cities in developing countries increases with the population, sustainable and socially responsible businesses will need to be global leaders. As citizens of the developed world, we need to lead by example and develop improved processes by advancing technology and practicing conscious capitalism. As global leaders, our example will be followed by up and coming firms in developing countries, and this will promote a more sustainable future and secure the health of our planet.


In his famous 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith describes the trinity of land, labour, and capital being placed into his metaphorical business machine, which then produces profits. Once significant profits and wealth have been achieved, concern for the less fortunate and philanthropy also increase, which follows the pattern described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The same societal paradigm shift can be applied to the rise of conscious capitalism in the last quarter century. A higher percentage of North Americans and Europeans are wealthy, and interestingly, the number of charities and philanthropic donations have also increased.

In the early 20th century, the emerging field of social work and the charitable organizations that employed many of these individuals was making significant gains. When the Industrial Revolution forever shaped the economic landscape of Europe and North America, so too did the increased awareness for social well-being shape our wealth allocation. As more people made fortunes during the First World War and into the Roaring Twenties, so did the level of philanthropic activity. The Great Depression further increased the awareness for the need for charity, and governmental policies enacted during the 1930’s reflected that. Another World War and further economic development due to a rapidly expanding population in the post-war population boom kept the average household income of North Americans and Europeans in an upward trajectory.


Today, 80% of the world’s most charitable countries in terms of percentage of income are in the developed world, with Australia, Canada, and Ireland consistently topping the list. Developing countries that have a high “giving index” devote most of their resources to volunteering their time in lieu of disposable income. With increased personal wealth comes the increased concern for human welfare – both locally and globally – and the means for which to contribute to these causes. Such is the mindset of the developed world consumer that has helped conscious capitalism focused firms succeed at a greater level than their competitors. The wealthiest citizens are usually the most generous philanthropists. There is great economic value in philanthropy, and socially conscious firms have taken note of that.


During the environmental awareness boom of the 1960’s, numerous charities and organizations were established to reflect the cultural shift, and many of these organizations remain prominent to this day, such as World Wildlife Fund, which generated over $718 million in revenue in 2010. Fifty years later in our present day, many of these organizations have been criticized for failing to offer tangible results for their donors or by falsifying scientific data because of their constant push for monetary donations.

Many donors have become suspicious of the actions of large charitable organizations due to recent scandals of many major charities. For example, an inquiry into the actions of the Canadian Cancer Society in 2011 revealed that only 22% of fundraised capital was going to research. The remainder went to employee salaries, marketing, and fundraising events. The growth of the charitable sector in the last century has been staggering, but unfortunately, many organizations have been drifting off their original path.

The Canadian Cancer Society came under fire for devoting only 22% of their revenue in 2011 to cancer research.

The Canadian Cancer Society came under fire for devoting only 22% of their revenue in 2011 to cancer research.

This change in charitable attitude has paved the way for companies like TOMS to experience success due to their more tangible approach. Instead of asking for donations or making them on the consumer’s behalf, they offer a distinct product that makes an immediate impact. While these companies may charge more for their products, the difference is transparency; consumers know where their money is going because the business model is built around a single action.


A Canadian company that has followed this model is Ten Tree Apparel, which pledges to plant ten trees for each product they sell. Similar to TOMS, Ten Tree operates under the “cause capitalism” model, which unites the brand’s products to a positive cause. Although still a young company, Ten Tree has experienced exponential growth since the brand’s debut in 2011 due to their innovative approach to the retail industry. Trees from each sale are planted all across the world, and the consumer can in fact choose where their trees are planted. Consumer involvement increases attachment and loyalty to the brand, and is one of the key components of cause capitalism.

The Ten Tree management team: (from l-r) Kalen Emsley, David Luba, and Derrick Emsley

The Ten Tree management team: (from l-r) Kalen Emsley, David Luba, and Derrick Emsley

Derrick Emsley, CEO of Ten Tree, states:

“At the end of the day, retail is a constant battle for customers’ dollars. If your product has a better chance of bringing the customer into the store or a better chance of catching that consumer’s eye, your product is going to sell better. Cause capitalism has taken hold in retail because it does this. Whether large or small, every apparel brand is realizing this and will either make a switch or find themselves obsolete soon.”

To date, Ten Tree has planted over 1.8 million trees, and the company is forecasting a total of two million trees planted by the end of the summer.  Many apparel conglomerates are slowly transitioning to a more conscious capitalist approach to business either by acquiring these smaller “cause brands” or by developing new products or marketing strategies to give consumers something new in the stagnant retail industry. At this stage in the game, the more conscious firms will win.

John Mackey

John Mackey, founder & CEO of Whole Foods

John Mackey is one entrepeneur who has been a major player in the conscious capitalism movement; he even co-authored an entire book about the subject. He’s also the CEO of the U.S. grocery chain Whole Foods Market. Founded in 1978, Whole Foods Market focuses on selling natural foods in a supermarket setting. Despite offering many higher priced alternatives than traditional supermarkets, Whole Foods has experienced rapid growth, especially in the last decade. For example, in 2006 Whole Foods had sales of $5.6 billion; in 2010 that number increased to over $9 billion. The number of stores in 2006 was 186; that number increased to 299 in 2010, and has since increased to 364 as of 2013. The company’s focus on products that are beneficial to society and the environment, high level of employee satisfaction, and corporate transparency has no doubt led to this excellent performance.

Mackey asserts that in the 21st century, corporations will need to change their operations to adhere to a more conscious agenda. Corporations are perceived as large, evil entities that only care about maximizing profits, and this reputation has alienated many consumers. Corporations have extraordinary influence worldwide, so if the public’s perception of these corporations is negative, that harms their influential power.

Firms that practice conscious capitalism focus on consumer satisfaction through consumer empowerment and involvement; they are clear about their corporate objectives and often allow consumers to share in that vision through their purchases. Because of this focus on consumer involvement, conscious firms have more influence and a greater potential for growth in the future.


Our consumer tastes reflect our social and cultural attitude, so it is not surprising that conscious capitalism and “cause” brands have risen to prominence. In his book “The Authenticity Hoax”, Andrew Potter argues that humans have always been in a state of social proofing and status seeking. In the developing world, this has been reflected in what is deemed “cool”. Today, the quest for authenticity is driving force behind our status obsessed culture. One needs to look no further than our current tastes in music (folk has become wildly popular), fashion (brands heavily advertise “authentic” and “genuine” products), and food (the rise of the locavore diet, organic food, and urban-farming).

Conscious capitalism unites all these angles and draws heavily on the consumer’s favourite type of product: an authentic one. Conscious capitalism takes the consumer’s desire for the authentic, the honest, the genuine, and applies it to the entire company. Our knowledge and awareness about the planet is going to keep increasing, and the quest for the cool and authentic will strengthen as we gravitate away from the mass-produced products and the deceitful corporation of days past. Conscious capitalism is here to stay, and firms who refuse to adapt will be left behind.












The Modern Tribe: Why Hunting has Declined and Why We Need it Back

Before you read, watch this:

Growing up in the country, I was fortunate enough to have acres of cedar forest in my backyard to explore, a pond in my front yard, and numerous wild animals that frequented our property. This helped to foster not only an affection for nature, but also a great deal of respect for it. I understood basic biological processes from a young age because I was constantly exposed to them and didn’t have to rely on pictures in a book or websites to show me what a frog looked like or what deer ate.

As I grew older and moved into university to pursue a degree in biology, it became clear that many of my urban classmates did not have the same exposure to the wild that I did, and often shuddered at the prospect of field work or going outside for a lesson or a lab. I got visibly excited at even the idea of going out of doors to conduct scientific observation. Thanks to my childhood, I was offered a greater exposure to nature and how complex and fascinating it is. The more you are exposed to something, the greater your understanding of it, and the higher your level of respect for it will be.


The past

The present.  Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

The present.
Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion. 

The Primitive Tribe

Throughout history, humans had to be very familiar with nature in order to survive. We first evolved as hunter-gatherer societies, with our survival hedged on our understanding of the behaviour and ecology of our prey, both flora and fauna. The time-honored tradition of hunting has been more than a way to provide food for your family; many societies and tribes initiated young males into manhood based on the result of a ritualistic hunt. The best hunters were local celebrities, revered for their strength, knowledge, bravery, and ability to provide for the tribe and their family. With all of the apparent savagery of hunting for food or sport, there is also a deeply rooted mutual respect for the hunted.

Nothing can increase your respect for an animal more than when you are pursuing it as prey. You learn about its behaviour, study its movement, groan in frustration when it eludes you, but that one magical moment when the animal is successfully harvested produces a moment of great admiration for your quarry.

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

The Decline

Today, hunting is viewed by the majority of the population as a savage, cruel, and archaic mode of gathering food. Why waste all that time and money to carry around a lethal weapon to kill an adorable animal? As mentioned before, the less you know about something, the less you respect it. Our population has gravitated from relying on great hunters to provide their food, and we now rely on great businesspeople to construct supermarkets to do the same.

Heading to the supermarket is a very sheltered experience. An incredible amount of harvesting, transport, and modification goes on behind the scenes of food production that many of us are not aware of. Even organic food, which I have previously argued is no better than traditional food, is not free from these processes. Organic chickens are still housed in massive chicken farms with cramped conditions; the only difference is the food and perhaps a lack of antibiotics. Regardless of something being labeled organic or not, meat at the supermarket is more likely to be produced in a crowded, stress-filled environment that is a nightmare for the animals’ well-being.


Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

Contrast this with deer hunting. A wild white-tailed deer has lived a happy life, free to roam and eat whenever it pleases, and there are no strange beings injecting it with hormones or antibiotics. It has lived well into its prime, produced a family, and cared for its young. Like all animals, it has a lifespan, and regardless of whether it will be harvested for consumption or not, the animal will eventually die. What is so ethically wrong about harvesting a deer near the end of its life that it has so happily lived?

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

What also needs to be taken into account is the population biology of many of the animals currently being hunted. There is currently a population explosion of white-tailed deer in many parts of North America, largely because their natural predators, such as wolves or coyotes, have been driven away due to humanity’s fear of these animals. We are not scared of deer, so we have allowed them to stay in and around our urban areas, and white-tails are flourishing as a result.

A Canada Goose

A Canada Goose

Canada geese and snow geese are also flourishing due to ample food sources being provided to them in the form of cash crops like feed corn. These waterfowl have migration stopovers in corn fields on their way to summer breeding grounds, and very few die from starvation as a result. The issue with this overabundance of geese is that these are ecological pests. Geese overgraze vegetation and ruin habitat for other species.

A Snow Goose

A Snow Goose

Snow geese have been particularly harmful in the north where they breed, outcompeting other species for nest habitat while diminished fragile food reserves in the process. This also decimates the vegetation of the fragile northern tundra.

Habitat destruction caused by snow goose overgrazing

Habitat destruction caused by snow goose overgrazing

Hunting is one of the only ways to effectively control these booming populations of game animals, otherwise the carrying capacity of their ecosystems will reach a breaking point and the population will suffer as a result of starvation, crowding, and stress. We can’t stop farming or growing our cities, so hunting is the most viable human solution to this human caused problem.

Aside from urbanization and conversion of human societies from hunter-gatherer to agrarian-based systems, why has hunting declined? Hunting is still largely prevalent in many primitive tribes scattered throughout the world, but it is also prevalent in some areas where Wal-Marts dot the landscape, so urbanization cannot be the only factor at play here. There are two factors at play here: the increase in organized and professional sports, and an overall decline in violent tendencies among humans.


The Modern Tribe

In 1987, Anthropologist Desmond Morris published a book called “The Soccer Tribe”. The book describes why sports are such a universally attractive thing. Sport fuels our primitive desire for competition and violence, and our great hunters of the past have transformed into the great athletes of our present and future. They are strong, brave, and they provide for their family by winning games and championships. We cheer for one team because that team is reflective of our tribe, and we forge our identity in the tribe by supporting it. War paint and banners of the past have become face paint and jerseys of the present. We clash with members of other tribes, and sometimes violence breaks out amongst us.

Riots and other forms of animosity and harassment occur between fans of various teams, but these are nothing compared to the all-out wars that occurred between tribes of the past, and even some in the present day. Organized sport has satiated our desire for competition and violence such that we don’t require the thrill of the hunt as much anymore. For most people, watching sports is enough to satisfy their tribal duty, and hunting has declined as a result.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a psychologist at Harvard University, and his work, “Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” describes how throughout history, humanity has been getting progressively less violent, despite how our opinion may be swayed by the media. As a result of commerce, cosmopolitanism, the rise of the nation-state, rationality, and feminization, our violent tendencies have largely been repressed. Conflicts that were once solved with the sword or firearm are now taken care of with the pen. Violent forms of punishment have mostly been abolished. Murder and violent crime rates have decreased 30 fold since Medieval times.

With this decline in violence, hunting is no longer seen as an attractive way to provide food or satisfy one’s sporting needs, and the overall decline in the prevalence of hunting reflects this. Convenience is also a factor, but if violence is not, then why aren’t our supermarkets littered with carcasses to butcher? Consider the possibility of having free-range animals available in urban areas to harvest, much like plucking a lobster from its holding tank at the supermarket. These are both ludicrous suggestions by today’s standards, so clearly our declining taste for violence is a factor.

The problem here is that while hunting may appear violent and cruel on the surface, as I have previously discussed, in terms of biology and animal ethics, it is far more humane than purchasing food at the supermarket. This presumption about hunting has caused a disconnect between humans and nature; we no longer rely on a working knowledge and respect for our natural environment to survive, so our desire to immerse ourselves in nature has waned with time.

Image courtesy of Rockhouse motion.

Image courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

The Future Tribe

Despite fleeting cultural attitudes about hunting, there is hope for the future. A recent trend in our media  has brought hunting and the outdoors. Reality TV shows such as “Duck Dynasty”, “Swamp People”, and “Mountain Men” have brought the benefit of living an authentic lifestyle in harmony with nature to the national stage. Films such as “Into the Wild” have sung nature’s song as something sacred, almost romantic at its core. If you watched the trailer for “Game of Inches” at the start of this article, you would see how deer hunting transcends the core act of providing food and provides the hunter with an experience like no other.

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

Recently, consumers have been rejecting mass market companies in favour of local sources to provide more of their food and other products.  This has also affected the real estate sector, as more new prospective homeowners are now purchasing condos instead of opting for suburbia, as urban sprawl has reached the breaking point. More sustainable housing is seen as more attractive because Millennials are more conscious of the rapidly changing environment and climate.

Perhaps this cultural shift will culminate with more North Americans heading back to fields and forests to seek out food. Hunting is about as authentic as one can get, and our generation’s quest for authenticity is constantly seeking the next best habit. After this cascade of events, perhaps the majority of us will reconnect with nature, learn from it, grow to respect it, and return to our roots in the thrill of the hunt.

Flow and Fiero: Why Students Need to Struggle to be Happiest

In 2010, three Cornell University students committed suicide within a month of each other by jumping off a bridge on the Ivy League school’s campus. In response to mental health advocates and national outcry, Cornell installed safety nets on the bridge in 2012.

The Cornell Bridge.

The Cornell Bridge.

Mental health has become an increasingly prevalent issue on university campuses across North America, and suicide has risen to become the second most common cause of death for Canadians aged 15-24 after auto accidents. Many attribute this spike in mental health issues and suicide rates to increasing pressure to succeed at university. 11696-02-chart1-eng Currently, males are four times more likely to commit suicide than females are. Since men are more heavily scrutinized in terms of status and earning potential than females are based on mate choice and evolutionary biology, it makes sense that increasing pressures to succeed and land a good career are weighing more intensely on the mental health of boys than girls. That being said, reported cases of mental health are roughly equivalent across genders, so both sides are feeling the pressures of university. c_5_56_2_1_eng I wrote in a previous article that mental health in university is affected by grade inflation in high school. Thirty years ago, only 10 percent of students were on the honor roll; today that number is close to 40 percent. The high school curriculum has not changed radically, but competition to get into university has.

In Canada, the entrance average to get into the top universities hovers close to 90 percent. With a university education being so highly desired by today’s youth, we are seeing fierce competition amongst high school students that is artificially driving up entrance averages despite the fact that the quality of education or quality of the students has not significantly changed. To help their chances at achieving high grades, more students than ever are attending summer school to take a course or two and maximize their chances of padding their average.

It’s a simple formula: devote time to a course or two during the summer, get an inflated grade due to the increased amount of time spent on the coursework, and consequently decrease your course load in the upcoming school year. While this seems like a great idea on the surface, it’s not adequately preparing students for the struggles of university as well as the real world, which doesn’t involve studying, but work. Less youth than ever before are unemployed, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to a higher unemployment rate (or underemployment rate).

In fact, due to choices students are making in lieu of summer employment, such as summer school or volunteering, less youth are choosing to work because they believe that a higher average or volunteer experience will help them more with their university application.

The problem with this approach is that it is not adequately preparing students for the struggles of the real world, where they may need work experience to even land an in-between job while they search for one after university. Additionally, working at an entry level job at a fast food restaurant, retail store, or a summer camp provides many skills that you can never learn in a classroom or will never be subjected to in a volunteer position that is not as intensely monitored.

Camping out to buy Call of Duty

A gamer camping out to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Major video game releases such as this one have been cultural landmarks akin to the release of Star Wars: Episode 1.

Video games are one of the more popular forms of entertainment on the planet, and they have come a long way since the development of Space Invaders or Pong. Most big budget games now have the polish and presentation of a full-length Hollywood feature, and some game launches have produced lineups akin to Star Wars film screenings. When game designers create a game, they pay close attention to what emotions they evoke in the mind of the player. Two of the most common psychological concepts developers toy with are flow and fiero.

Flow explained graphically

Flow explained graphically

Flow is the feeling of being “in the zone”, where the game just becomes a blur because it is so entrancing in its entertainment value. For those of you who used to play World of Warcraft for hours on end, you can relate to this. Many of the most popular and addictive games throughout history mastered the emotive response of flow and sucked gamers in for hours of enjoyment.

Fiero is the Italian word for pride, and it is used to describe those moments of emotional high or elation after a victory of sorts in the game. Defeating a boss, finding a rare item after hours of searching, or even completing the game are all examples of fiero. Moments of fiero help to break up the “flow” of a game to provide an emotional roller coaster of sorts.

If you were to picture this graphically, imagine flow as a relatively steady line with a few peaks and valleys, with fiero providing the major spikes and the occasional valley upon moments of failure, whereby flow would suck the gamer back in and rescue them from being deterred enough to quit.

The psychology behind game design is fascinating because it draws on parallels of real life and research into game design has determined the ideal ratios for moments of flow and fiero that yield the most successful experiences. A game that is about 75% flow and 25% fiero and associated failures makes for the most immersive and enjoyable game. For example, Blizzard Entertainment, the studio responsible for Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo, found that a drop rate of 25% for important items in the game produced the happiest players.

When designing a game, flow is the most important characteristic and is developed along what developers call an “engagement curve”. Essentially, players are presented challenges in the order that they are equipped to handle them. A player is in flow when they are learning, adapting, and overcoming small challenges as they come. Moments of fiero arrive occasionally when the player gets emotionally attached to the accomplishment. Remember that first time your Charmeleon evolved into Charizard and you cranked the volume on your GameBoy? That was a fiero moment for the ages. Unknown-2

So what does video game design have to do with mental health and education? We should strive to have the same balance of flow and fiero in our lives in order to be our happiest. The problem is, most people today have spent their youth taking the easy way out, ignoring the little challenges along the way and abstaining from a solid “flow” of sorts, in hopes for the fiero moments.

Many high school students are not mentally able to cope with failure because they have barely experienced it by the time they get to university. As a result, when a good number of students inevitably bomb their first big midterm, their engagement curve was simply not prepared. Some students respond by adjusting their strategy to get their mental health into a state of flow by taking the small steps to overcome challenges as they arrive. Other students will not be so lucky, and this is when mental health issues arise.

When you place a group of overachievers in the same environment, competition will be fierce. When you factor in that university classes need to be bell-curved to an average of about 71-74%, many students attending universities with entrance averages approaching 90% will no doubt be mentally impacted.

Today’s students need to start challenging themselves to the point that they experience failure, small or large, so they adequately condition themselves to cope with failure in university. The high school curriculum is not likely to get markedly more difficult, so students should seek external challenges. This is why more students need to work summer jobs.

A job presents an unpredictable set of challenges and a set of failures that help to mentally prepare students for university and beyond. You’re put in an unfamiliar situation, you make mistakes, and you have to deal with difficult people. If a summer job is not an option, consider pushing your comfort zone with challenging tasks such as a canoe trip or other outdoors related endeavours.

In today’s world, many youth are deprived of outdoors experiences, yet these offer youth a multitude of challenges and tasks that help them progress a mental engagement curve. A summer job or going camping will not necessarily increase a student’s grades, but it will help them get into a state of flow in terms of mental health because their mind will be accustomed to failure and how to overcome it, often in moments of fiero.

The problem is that by seeking moments of fiero while not being in a state of flow, a person risks constant states of anxiety. The other side of the coin is that by not challenging themselves enough, the risk is boredom. Humans need a steady balance of challenge and success to be their happiest. 2012-08-26-Flow-balance   Any successful game has equal moments elation and frustration, with most of the gameplay being a steady progression of learning, applying, and overcoming challenges. Today’s youth are too concerned with the fiero moments of their lives without realizing that 75% of your life should be spent in a state of flow.

Our media sensationalizes wealth, fame, and excess, and social media avenues like Twitter or YouTube make it easier than ever for people to connect with celebrities or even briefly become one. Along the way, we forgot the value of working a crappy job and all the lessons it teaches. We need to re-evaluate how we are challenging our youth and realize that failure is a necessary part of success. Very few people can play through an entire game without failing once, so we must work on perfecting our own state of flow so that we can optimize the fiero moments in our lives.