Charting the Growth of “Conscious Capitalism”

Megatrends Tracker Patricia Aburdene Has Her Eye on the Future and Likes What She Sees

“Had a banana lately?” Patricia Aburdene throws the question out to the audience of ‘conscious consumers’ she’s ad­dressing at a LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) convention on the topic of corporate trends. As many nod, she continues “Chances are it may have had a Chiquita brand sticker on the peel. This would have been cause for caution a few years ago, since the United Fruit Company (which owned Chiquita) had a history of corruption, brutali­ty and environmental destruction.” Today, you can eat that banana knowing the company has cleaned up its act. Chi­quita now embraces vigorous new standards to cut toxic chemicals, control pollution and protect workers. It has also restructured management and investment to reflect a commitment to social responsibility, even winning the Rainfor­est Alliance’s first Sustainable Standard-Setter Green Global award. According to Aburdene, Chiquita is just one of a huge wave of corporations changing their ways. The bubbly, animated trend-tracker hardly seems the consummate li­brarian / researcher, but that’s her passion, and she’s armed to the teeth with facts and figures that substantiate the astonishing claim she makes in her latest book, MegaTrends 2010, The Rise of Conscious Capitalism—that ordinary people are healing capitalism and, in doing so, are changing the world.

Fueled by a BS in library science from Catholic University (as well as by a BA in Philosophy and four honorary doctorates), Aburdene’s “tracking” mission began in the 1980s with her former partner, John Naisbitt. Their book, MegaTrends topped bestseller lists worldwide, correctly outlining major paradigm shifts in business and culture. “A ‘megatrend” is an overarching direction that shapes our lives for a decade or more,” she states, adding that it has to occur in many different areas simultaneously in order to be viable and is “a confluence of changing values and eco­nomic necessity that results in social transformation.” ‘High-Tech, High Touch’ was one of the original touchstones, heralding the popularity of yoga, massage and other “touch therapies” to match the development of technological ad­vances. “That was our most popular trend and it’s still very much in effect,” laughs Aburdene, who, with Naisbitt, also predicted the birth of the Information Economy.

As an “Architect of Corporate Transformation,” Aburdene offers audiences a concrete blueprint of how values, consciousness, and leadership will heal today’s economic crisis, namely, by embracing and participating in the seven new trends she’s uncovered: the power of spirituality, the dawn of conscious capitalism leading from the middle spiri­tuality in business, the emergence of the values-driven consumer, the wave of conscious solutions, and the socially responsible investment boom. Reading MegaTrends 2010 is uplifting and inspiring. While some consider her to be a bit Pollyanna-ish, most readers and seminar participants welcome her upbeat attitude. “I’ve lived my life with a phi­losophy of hope. If there were not a lot of people uncovering everything that’s wrong in the world I might feel called to do that, but it doesn’t fit me temperamentally,” she says. “The positives are so underrepresented in this world that I’ve kind of found my niche holding the positive energy.”

A baby-boomer herself, the fifty-something dynamo feels that the spiritual “work” many boomers have done in their personal lives is now spilling over into larger arenas. “We’re emerging from (meditative) silence to service,” she suggests. Citing Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, The Tipping Point, she elaborates on the power of spirituality. “A quest that was once personal has become more universal. The wounded become healers; the warriors, statesmen. Vic­tims become advocates and managers become corporate activists and agents of change.” Not only that, but such spiri­tuality spells financial success. “Quite frankly, spirituality is highly profitable—there are 63 million consumers now shopping according to their values, and consumers make up 70% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Corporations responding to this demographic and their employees’ changing values are reaping savings, enjoying increased pro­ductivity and capturing larger market-shares,” says the spiritually minded capitalist.

Aburdene starts her day by lighting candles and journaling (“core and central to my life”), then meditating in the Ashaya tradition (focusing on full statements rather than on single-word mantras or phrases) then, she ritualistically turns on CNBC. “I’m a junkie,” she admits. Recently, she saw something she’d waited years to witness: “I turned on the TV and there was (former) Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan saying ‘fraud and falsification, inspired by greed, are highly destructive to free-market capitalism and, more broadly, to the underpinnings of our society’… I was elated.” Aburdene had been eagerly anticipating the day when such a voice of authority would acknowledge what she knew to be true. She’d been patient: “Until we played out the accounting scandals and experienced the market crash, we hadn’t come to the point where we could see this profound spiritual truth…that prosperity and trust are as­pects of spiritual consciousness.” She points out that all great mystical traditions talk about the positive power of abundance, including financial wealth, and says the consumer / investment climate has changed so much in the wake of these scandals that corporations can’t ignore the voice of “cultural creatives” demanding corporate responsibility. She doesn’t yet have a ‘take’ on new Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacki…” except that I wouldn’t want to be in his position! We’re walking a tightrope. It’s not going to be easy. There are a lot of difficult patches we’ll have to deal with.” Usually a ‘charging bull’, Aburdene is a hibernating bear at the moment, but “very bullish in the long-run” with regard to the overall health of the U.S. economy.

Some of those rough patches include navigating the waters of global competition. “India and China will, eventually, probably out-produce us. We’re not going to create new wealth through low labor rates, because they’re just oblit­erating us,” she states. “The only way to compete is in the realm of consciousness; we have to nurture and foster it through the tools and techniques of spirituality—that’s why it’s so interesting that all these technology companies are sponsoring meditation courses. Most will say it’s to alleviate stress (which is true; stress costs business $200 mil­lion a year), but really, that’s where every innovation comes from—the genius of human consciousness. There can be no invention in business or technology without human consciousness, the prime ingredient in creativity. Conscious­ness is now as valuable to business as mundane assets like capital, energy or even technology.”

Living in both Cambridge, Massachusetts and Telluride, Colorado, Aburdene sees her megatrends playing out very differently in each locale. “There’s a lot of mental energy in the east (where, interestingly, McDonalds has begun a partnership with fair-trade grown Green Mountain Coffee); it’s very palpable.” While she can think with the best of them, she loves the more spiritual, physical awareness available in Telluride, where one of her five stepchildren lives. With no children (nor pets) of her own, she revels in the closeness she feels to her stepdaughter, a niece and three grandchildren. “I’m blessed with this amazing number of close relationships with young people.” Calling herself a “bad Catholic,” Aburdene is “a great believer in Mother Earth, in connecting to the natural energy.” She celebrates old Celtic holidays and the new moon each month, but considers herself Christian, not Pagan. She’s troubled by “too many of us new-age folks labeling all Christians as narrow-minded bigots. Though I’m sorry to say there are those people within the Christian tradition, some of the most fantastic people I interviewed for the book are loving Chris­tians who exemplify the tenets of their faith.” Like Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, Aburdene feels that “the middle is expanding,” and that more and more people with varying belief systems are finding and standing on similar ground.

Single for eleven years, Aburdene is starting a new life with “a wonderful man, a former Wall Street guy I met at a spirituality-in-business convention.” The two share an apartment in Boston and, while he works in Geneva, she lec­tures throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, and the Pacific Rim, where audiences are ‘buy­ing’ her message that there are powerful trends reinventing free enterprise. She asks them to consider into which of three concentric circles they might fit. In the center are “core” consumers: dyed-in-the-wool values-driven shoppers. Surrounding them are ‘conscious followers,’ people who are becoming more interested in organics or environmental­ism, but who switch on and off. On the outer circle sits the public at large, the vast majority of whom, writes Abur­dene, consider the moral implication of their choices. The sister of a core consumer (“the family vegetarian, environ­mentalist, hybrid driver and animal rights advocate”) Aburdene calls herself a follower. “I shop at Whole Foods, but don’t buy all organic food. I recycle, but I’m not a trendsetter—my next car will be a hybrid.”

According to Aburdene, corporations can not only wreak havoc, but can do amazing amounts of good: “Once a corporation like Hewlett Packard applies ethical, environmental and labor standards to its 46,000 vendors worldwide, inviting them to comply or sell elsewhere…think of the power!” Looking at billboards, picking up current magazines from Time to Forbes, this ‘do-good trending’ does seem pervasive. Even Wal-Mart has designed a recycling program into its business plan, as well as a plan to carry organically grown food.” Corporations are responding to grassroots consumer demands. “Consciousness is really embedded in people,” says Aburdene. It’s not like a bunch of cigar smok­ing men are sitting in a boardroom saying, (here, she lowers her voice to mimic the imaginary CEO) “damn it, Char­lie, we gotta get more spirituality in this company!” No, it’s being imposed by the marketplace and that’s the best thing, because business can’t afford to ignore the marketplace.”

All this good-natured action isn’t just altruism or philanthropy, either. “Spirituality is profitable in a very big way,” says Aburdene. “My favorite example of the link between spirituality and profit is Frank Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, who took the spiritual techniques he’s long taught individuals to American Express. Their productivity increased from between 60 and 400 percent. Now how could that be? Because he taught them to let go of the petty things that happened in the past and be in the present. This door to human consciousness is the door to human productivity and financial profit. I am making the link between spirituality and …money (she says the word dramatically for emphasis). That’s what makes my book different.”

There is also money to be made in SRI (Socially Responsible Investing). A $40 billion dollar market in 1984, it had grown to $2.16 trillion in 2003 and is expanding exponentially. This is, Aburdene mentions, a 5,000 percent increase in less than two decades. While she admits the jump may have something to do with the “skepticism and mistrust to­wards ‘business as usual’,” she claims that “investors are staying with SRI because it is matching or outperforming conventional funds.” She also asserts that there is a new role for middle managers in the reinvention of free enter­prise. Organizations are changing from hierarchical structures dominated by CEOs to networks managed from the middle. “The leadership that millions of managers practice—quiet, modest, behind the scenes—is more effective than the top down model we’ve come to associate with corruption.”

Aburdene sees the business community embracing what could be called ‘systems theory.’ “Old fashioned capital­ism cares only about profit. Holistic capitalism still wants to make money, but wants to do right by customers, em­ployees, suppliers, communities and the greater environment,” she states. “This synergy has the potential to make more money than ever, yet profit is just a measurement of how the whole system is functioning.” So sure is she that capitalism will continue to spur creativity, innovation and productivity, without continued oppression and exploita­tion of workers and the environment, that she’s delighted to stand behind a podium and make the radical statement many are stunned to hear: “Once we the people transform it, conscious capitalism can absolutely heal the world.”

BY CYNTHIA LOGAN

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