Oct 8, 2021Liked by Nick Asbury

This great, thank you for writing it.

“The idealism of every age is the cover story for its greatest heist.” Yes, just read the recent David Runiciman review on Thiel, the man's made a fortune grifting off tax payers $ by selling unproven tech to credulous bureaucrats!

There is something still unsaid. Why purpose?

It's a response to systemic problems caused by finance capital, e.g. cheap labor, even Fairphone can't make a phone without some child labor. They claim their first corporate act was to bribe a govt. minister to get access to a mineral mine. Forced labor is prevalent in cotton production. The CEO of FakikFashion a huge garment employer said passing on just a 2cents prince increase per garment would equate to an 8% pay rise for his workers, none of his clients, the usual brand names, would pay it. Of course "pay your taxes" but it's also a specific and necessary response to, "how are profits being made"? And the corporates are paying their taxes, that's one of the problems, purpose b.s. over here and lobbying over there in direct contradiction. The top 5 coops in UK pay more tax than the big 5 tech co's.

It's also a way to being 'politics' into the workplace without saying politics, we've been working under Milton Freidman's dictat since 1980, a right-wing position normalized into 'common sense'. It's worth re-reading the original essay because that itself was also a response, to CSR.

In his "the sole job of business is to make profit" Friedman’s assertion is that a corporate manager who speaks of the social responsibility of a firm is either stealing from someone or lying to everyone.

"To submit resources of the organization to social causes, a corporate manager must draw them from somewhere. And there are only three possible sources, none of which willingly chose to contribute to the cause: (1) the workers who must devote extra, unpaid labor for the cause; (2) the customers who must pay more for the product; or (3) the stockholders who must forgo potential profit."

Friedman admits to one additional possibility, namely, that the manager is, "actually striving to acquire a good reputation for his organization in order to increase its profits in the long run. In that case there is no specific economic sense to his moral flaw; he is simply lying: he is speaking about social responsibility whereas his real goal is profit."

Which is what you're pointing at, hypocrisy, piety and cant.

Let's say we're moving into an era where the reality behind the brand matters more than the aspirational facade it presents. Or, is it the reality behind the brand is captured by ESG, that consumers are also employees, they experience the inequities themselves e.g. exec share buyback schemes vs their wages, and so brands cleaning up their operational act *is* part of their "service" and does reflect an aspiration of their customers.

But we seem to be stuck in am opposition, "...for whom it sometimes makes sense to put long-term brand protection ahead of short-term profit." Why are those mutually exclusive? That sounds like leaving the door ajar for the practices that "purpose" is a response to, often evoked with the "being pragmatic" smokescreen.

Anyway, rambled on too long, the point is, there are significant problems in production and also in the desire factory. Freidman was the idealist of his generation, too... and purpose is only a partial paper over the cracks response, so what's the next move? Of course, there's always going to be money and markets, but there's more to this than a return to craft and ideas, there's a psychological bias in advertising towards middle-class material aspiration, the people who work in it are deeply affected, I think, so it produces a type of cultural output, perhaps there's something in that Ray William's phrase, "culture is ordinary", brands need to get off their high horses whether it's high finance or moralizing, just be ordinary, reliable, trustworthy, and good.

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Oct 8, 2021Liked by Nick Asbury

* i just started reading yr follow up post and note you raise the spectre of Friedman, so some of above moot.

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Hey Rupert – thanks for the comments, good to hear from someone else who obviously thinks a lot about this stuff.

I'm still getting to the bottom of what I think, but at root I see a damaging blurring of boundaries between business and government, consumerism and citizenship. I think one of the misconceptions about Milton Friedman is that he was arguing for anything-goes capitalism, when he actually emphasises the role of government in setting the rules of the game and taking societal decisions that should be decided through democracy rather than through the market (although I think he could have made more of this side of the argument).

Over the last decade, I see two trends meeting – one top-down and one bottom-up. The top-down one is companies embracing 'purpose' as a way of avoiding regulation post-2008. The bottom-up one is younger generations losing faith in the democratic process and turning instead to corporations. Both (I think) are damaging category errors, and the ad industry stands somewhere in the middle, directing traffic.

But it's a long argument to make and I'm still getting my head round it!

It's a long read in three parts, but I found this article by Tariq Fancy really interesting. He's an ex-CIO of Sustainable Investment at BlackRock and he talks about seeing first-hand how ESG/Purpose actively gets in the way of effective environmental action. He's not coming from a cynical, just-make-a-profit stance, but from an environmentalist position – he wants to burst the purpose bubble so we can get on with urgent legislative change (like a carbon tax). Worth a read. https://medium.com/@sosofancy/the-secret-diary-of-a-sustainable-investor-part-1-70b6987fa139

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Oct 10, 2021Liked by Nick Asbury

Thanks for reply, yes, it’s good to talk about the canonization of purpose! Your framing is interesting, the ‘blurring’ and ‘top-down/bottom-up’.

You’re right Friedman didn’t argue for anything goes, to suggest he did is a partial reading, what he didn’t do was unpick the possible consequences of leaving business alone to do what it does to maximize shareholder value.

He didn’t envisage the Pandora Papers. Or, BlackRock/Vanguard/State St combined, holding 20% of F500 stocks where most shareholders do not vote at AGM’s, giving those three about 40% of voting power. Or, the existential dilemma of economic growth’s reliance on extraction and fossil fuel energy. Or, debt swaps melting the financial system. Or, the Fed buying $1m of treasuries per second late March 2020. Or, the reckoning with centuries of English colonization and subsequent US military hegemony. And so on.

He assumed govt. would be a countervailing, independent, balancing power. I don’t remember him warning of corporations essentially buying political influence in secret through lobbying, (often undermining their own ‘stakeholder’ or purpose-y pronouncements), you could argue Friedman was a naive idealist. I’m wondering whether contemporary economics has moved on, and that Friedman’s formulation has been superseded, where ‘purpose’ is one articulation, one attempt at enacting new economic thinking.

You’re right, the lines got blurred. For me there’s a tautology in saying leave business alone to make and sell stuff and let govt. get on with their job, when the act of leaving business alone has resulted in govts. not being able to do their job and legislate on business taxation.

‘Purpose’ for all its sententious, sanctimonious flaws could be a experiment, an exploration in trying to regain focus. It’s great the OECD just announced new measures on corporate tax, they’ve still got to be passed, taken as a whole could the sentiment ‘purpose’ creates provide some small push, along with all the other actions, to help get it through? Could this be one step forward in grinding out a carbon tax?

I had read Tariq Fancy’s long piece, via FT’s Moral Money, what struck me was, for all his experience and expertise, he didn’t suggest any possible new rules, nothing more concrete than ‘call your representative’. And say what? Sure, ESG is froth, but it’s a symptom. Are some corporations instrumentalising purpose to dodge regulations? Perhaps, or, is the contradiction a function of internal political & ethical battles inside corporations being played out in public? Capitalism has a duty to make the conditions of life on the planet better for all, not pillage those that cannot represent themselves. If corporations have ‘responsible sustainable sourcing’ in place why then do we have to rely on human rights activists to expose the corruption and crimes in palm oil production?

That all said, something is “off”, Friedman had a point about CSR as a cynical reputation management tool. As you can tell I was branded middle class at birth and raised accordingly, this has given me a sixth sense for that cohorts capacity for bottomless bullshit! There’s the disingenuous whiff of performative sincerity in service of self-advancement.

I can see top down and bottom up opportunism. One to avoid structural changes to the rules, one to reap the comforts of a corporate salary while playing at social change. Maybe that’s my precariat bitterness.

I’m not sure there are damaging category errors, but there clearly is confusion, something’s wrong with the traffic directing system. I read your comments on Dove, I didn’t actually look a the work, it all sounds a bit forced, but then I randomly remembered the soap powder (Ariel I think) in India with their “share the load” campaign to encourage men to do the laundry, which I thought was a great idea.

I’m struggling to develop a frame to make sense of it all. On the one hand there are deep structural issues that advertising etc. has no particular role in, and on the other hand, it’s deeply embedded in commodities forging social relations between people, groups and communities.

I don’t think purpose is necessarily a category error, I do think it’s a signal, I don’t think a reevaluation of Friedman or correcting a misconception will change anything, because misconceived or not it helped get us here, I don’t think purpose is going to liberate public reason for collective self-governance, I do think corporate purpose is creating a lot of semiotic noise and not much else. I still think the ‘start selling stop saving the world’ pov is a preliminary skirmish in the coming “green growth” to “post growth” battle, what that means for the consumer economy, advertising, selling, and all the rest, is big quiestion mark and the answer is frustratingly illusive. Perhaps there will be some illumination here, http://designforplanet.org

All the best..

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Thanks – lots of interesting thoughts there. One thing that leapt out – I'd never want to argue we should 'leave businesses alone to get on and sell stuff'. I think Purpose is really the business world saying 'leave us alone, we can handle the societal side' when really we need to NOT leave business alone. (And to be fair to Tariq Fancy, I think he does push for specific policy changes such as a carbon tax.)

I'll probably write something else once I've got my thoughts clearer, but right now I feel like we need to get back to a stronger 'separation of powers' between business and government/not-for-profits/community organisations etc. I think the business world was given this great legal gift of limited liability, but it was always on the understanding that it would only use that gift for the pursuit of its core business. Once businesses start acting as agents of social change, you end up with another Dutch East India Company, which is arguably what Facebook/Amazon is rapidly becoming.

Really is a deep topic once you get into it – thanks again for the interesting ideas.

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Oct 11, 2021Liked by Nick Asbury

Hi, yes def. agree we need NOT to leave business alone...ok, I can see how purpose can have that effect, 'lobbying in the Superbowl', for sure, I guess purpose advocates would circle round and say that's not the intention, bit like what we were saying re: Friedman. I think, they think, they're doing stuff govts can't, or won't do, or in addition to, or 'supporting' role, complementary to..you see where it could go.

At worst superficial market solutionism for deep problems markets can't solve. Or, e.g. a freelance friend is on a job for a SaaS D.E.I. app that as far as I can make out instrumentalizes and corrects for misogyny and racism thru' a process of incentivized unconscious behavior modification. Gives me the chills.

I should have read TF closer! I think I was looking for ideas on ESG regs. and oversight. That agent of change is certainly a risk, I mean it's all about power, ultimately...so all of it needs keeping in check via law, one problem with US anti-trust, as I understand it, is slanted against cartels and softer on monopolies, handy for Amazon. Yes, LLC was a gift, also being abused for dumping externalities...and yes, purpose could become powerful, ppl in the ad industry have gained status as 'purpose pioneers', directing the traffic.

There's a hint of adland driving purpose to deflect from the standard wasteful consumerist critique. See this line from Campaign purpose awards,

"A lot of attention is put on flashy ads and shiny objects, but we know that adland can – and does – make a difference in people’s lives through cause marketing and purpose-led initiatives."


Yes core business, even then I'm sceptical, i.e. I just watched this '21 Campaign (US) Purpose winner, for Chipotle, "Can a Burrito Change the World?" The TV ad imagery and visual is representing certain Big Agricultural interests within a frame of childlike wonder, and the media spend will have an effect on crowding out other pov's in public square, (unless it's ineffective).

Now watch Cindy Gallops general justification for purpose.


I can only see this getting more blurred with climate action. It needs watching.

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Amen, sir. Happy to read longer posts when they are on point like this one.

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Thank you 👍

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