Going Beyond Brand Bullshit
William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral is a great novel. In it a character from the past has to pretend to be, in the present, a "neoprimitivist curator", something that she could never even have comprehended - simply because of when she was from. So they implant into her present day avatar a cognitive bundle to enable her to sound something like a neoprimitivist curator. “You’ll spout a reasonably high grade of facile nonsense”, she is told. “Will I know what it means?”, she asks. “It won’t mean anything. . . Were you to keep it up, you’d shortly repeat yourself.” “Bullshit baffles brains?”
And this brain-baffling bullshit has started showing up more and more as the Instagram generation discovers environment conservation as a market niche. A cashmere brand claims it is helping herder communities in the middle of the Gobi desert by building jogging tracks; a high-profile founder claims her brand understands “fully the carrying capacity of the region”. Almost twenty years in Mongolia I have yet to see a cashmere herder out for a jog and not even a rangeland ecologist has ever claimed a "full understanding" of the carrying capacity of a region. So what's going on? Brand Bullshit.
We are seeing more and more bullshit artists setting themselves up as creators of a new and better world. In reality its not about this at all. It is about bullshitting their way into what they see is an underexploited market niche. But there is a reason that the “market niche” of environment conservation and social wellbeing is underexploited - doing it right is bloody hard and its impossible to do right if you are on a venture capital hunt.
But although the purveyors of this bovine dung are false messiahs, the sins they are claiming to be dying for are real and important. When the bullshitting do-gooder says she understands carrying capacities, she knows overgrazing is desertifying grasslands. And when the daring duo cashmere cowboys yodel about their jogging tracks bringing communities together, they know that communities in the Gobi are disintegrating. The textile industry and its supply chains are wreaking havoc on ecosystems and communities around the world. So what to do? How to go beyond the brand bullshit?
The real versions of what the brand bullshitters are claiming to be do exist. Researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society, for example, have been studying Mongolian grasslands and trying to figure out optimal herd mixes, carrying capacities, rangeland health indicators, and management plans. The South Gobi Cashmere Project partly funded by Kering and supported by WCS has been trying to build commercial herder enterprises around science-driven sustainability standards. The IBIS Rice project supported by WCS has crafted a product based on science-based land use plans. Wildlife Friendly protects wildlife by certifying enterprises that assure people and nature coexist and thrive. This is real work. It takes more than a motorcycle ride across the Gobi or a homestay with a herder family to figure out. Making these real solutions financially viable is what it will take to go beyond the brand bullshit. And it is hard work. And this is what the Good Growth Company is about.
We start with an outline map of a business system that can deliver good outcomes. This could be a local-global chain that connects threatened Mongolian grasslands and herders through specialty manufacturing hubs in Scotland through small brands to conscientious consumers or it could be artisan wines from fragile slopes in Georgia through specialty retail to US consumers. And then we work with partners who know what they are doing to understand what ecosystem balance means at key locations in the system. This could have quite different components at different places - from wildlife habitat protection, and children's education in a Mongolian valley to community-owned spinning facilities in Scotland to activity-oriented consumer groups in the US. And only from that understanding determine the parameters of the system including the mix of inputs, the type of products, the type of connections. And the design of a business system - structures that foster long-term symbiotic partnerships based on reciprocal obligations, fair distribution of value, and a sense of community and a shared identity; financial products that are directed at the whole system rather than only a part of it and which are structured to maximise regenerative returns; and a strong brand narrative that ties the participants together - is all directed towards balance at each node of the system - regenerative from the get go, not just "lets try and get there at some point in the future."
Sounds hard? It is going to be bloody hard. And what it will look like will probably be quite different from what each of us has imagined. But this is the only way to get around brand bullshit.