In today’s market, countless companies are moving towards creating a more sustainable future. They tirelessly overhaul their practices in an attempt to be, or at least appear to be, a business that can thrive in a more equal and survivable world. A little bit, or even a lot a bit, of elbow grease does not guarantee that sustainability can be achieved this way. Capitalism normally thrives when people and the environment face unfair conditions and are exploited. Can, then, companies actually be sustainable under a political regime that is, at its heart, capitalist? Can capitalism and sustainability ever coexist?
The answer to these questions depends on how sustainability is defined. Currently, it is measured across a number of different metrics, focusing mainly on the environment and society. As such, ecology, gender equality, and health and safety are all concerns that are central to sustainability. That means that in a sustainable world, companies will have to either ensure they protect these three things, or survive without threatening their balance.
On the other hand, unbridled capitalism requires that a free-market determines all of these metrics. The insurance of environmental protection, gender equality, and health are all, according to the capitalist, possible in a free-market system. Clearly, up until this point in history, the free market has utterly failed in this venture. We currently stand at the precipice of a burning earth, dire global gender inequalities, and a significant lack of safety for those at the bottom parts of society, living without homes or health insurance. Of course, no state is truly endorsing unbridled capitalism; even in the US, the market is regulated and its limits defined by legislature; while in the UK, the NHS ensures healthcare for all citizens. However, are these measures enough if people continue to be homeless, bankrupted by health complications, and/or discriminated against personally and professionally due to gender?
One thing worth noting is that capitalism is a system that not only thrives on—but requires—winners and losers. In a free market, money does not come from nothing; in order to make money, someone has to lose money. A zero-sum game, if you will. The success of some has to come at the failure of others. The greatest profits are made in the areas where there is the greatest demand, which, in turn, begs the question: where is the greatest demand? The greatest market demand will always be those things that people need to survive. People need somewhere to live and medical attention to survive. It is no accident that pharmaceuticals and home-owning are some of the most lucrative markets there are (combined they take up 7 out of 15 of the most lucrative markets according to Forbes). Beyond this, capitalism thrives on the ability to profit from unfounded inequalities. This is exemplified most illustratively through slave and prison labour, but can clearly be seen in the continuing fact that women are still paid less for the work that they do for no defensible reason. The pursuit of profit continually tempts the capitalist to cut corners and utilize inequalities and unavoidable market demands for their benefit.
Is capitalism truly reconcilable with sustainability then? In short, no.
Unbridled capitalism is theoretically against the idea of a sustainable future. The logic behind profit demands that capitalists reap the benefits of inequalities and wring out the poor, the sick, and the environment for as much as they can because they create the most desperate market demand. This desperate market demand, though, is often the simple demand for the recognition and assurance of basic human rights. Humans need secured shelter and access to health care in order to survive, and capitalism simply cannot reasonably ensure this. The free market of human rights profits from those things that all people, everywhere, need in order to survive. The reason that this cannot be done is that those who cannot, or can barely, afford their free-market human rights are the most vulnerable. Someone who will die without a life-saving medication will pay whatever they can, and someone who cannot afford reasonable housing will live in squalid and unlivable conditions to survive. The person on their deathbed and the person who is threatened with homelessness are in no position to negotiate with the homeowner or the pharmaceutical company. They are not free participants. They are slaves to the market. They can and will be exploited to the benefit of the capitalist acting under the logic of profit.
This capitalist system of profit is unsustainable because a human society cannot survive on it. The people at the bottom of society will inevitably suffer at the hands of those who have more bargaining power. Imagine playing poker with one chip against someone who was a hundred. If you lose, you are out. That is not even an enjoyable game, never mind a sustainable one. A future that is truly sustainable does not profit from human rights, and ensures these things for all people, because without them, negotiating on an equal level becomes impossible.
What then, does sustainability really require that capitalism cannot offer? Simply going by the three metrics given before, sustainability requires environmental protection, gender equality, and health and safety. Firstly, health and safety requires adequate healthcare and shelter for all people, so both universal healthcare and a severely limited housing market would be necessary. Secondly, capitalism can no longer profit off unfounded inequalities, like those based on gender. How companies, hire, determine pay, and regulate their practices needs a complete overhaul. Lastly, severe regulations need to be placed on how companies interact with the environment, and legislature needs to limit the market’s reach over the Earth. In all likelihood, then, the state (meaning, of course, an uncorrupted and freely, democratically elected state) would need to take over and run the healthcare and housing systems, and would need to severely monitor and regulate hiring and pay. Suddenly the market does not look so free.
In a truly sustainable future, social housing and healthcare is widely available, companies can not profit off inequalities, and the ability to profit off the environment is severely restricted. The state has a larger and stronger reach over the market than a pure capitalist would ever want. The logic of profit can no longer dictate all of the actions that the capitalist makes, and people are secured against the greatest insecurities and vulnerabilities they could face.
What this means for companies pursuing sustainability is that they must abandon the logic of profit. No longer can profit reign as king, as emperor. In order to be sustainable, companies must have a sustainable mindset. They need to lobby for and see the changes in legislation that a truly equal future needs and to change their practices accordingly. Sustainability is not about company practices and policies, it is about their outlook and methodology. The first priority of the private sector should be ensuring the equality and sustainability of people and the environment, and then, and only then, can and should they strive for profit. To do what the logic of profit and capitalism requires is to profit at the expense of basic human rights and the survivability of the environment; it puts the cart before the horse.
This doesn’t mean that sustainability is necessarily at odds with markets. It is at odds with any form of capitalism that does not ensure the protection of the environment and the equality of people. Once these are ensured, the market can then make use of whatever freedoms are available that do not infringe on the mindset and assurances of sustainability. So, as a company, it is not enough to ask: am I sustainable yet? The answer to this will always be no. Only when they stop asking this question and shed the logic of profit, are they truly moving towards sustainability.