It is easy to trace direct connections across continents and cultures between the goods and services that contribute to our lifestyles and the people whose hands-on work produces them.

Most well-informed consumers know that our coffee, tea, inexpensive clothes, abundant food, high-tech gadgets and so on are sourced from all over the world and have an impact that is not always positive on individuals and communities in countries that are geographically and culturally distant from us.

Few of us can imagine what this really means for their lives, or think much about what might be done beyond occasionally shopping for Fair Trade goods. 

On the Ashridge MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility, we draw on the work of Robert Chambers, of the Institute of Development Studies, who names the people at the bottom of the supply chain the ‘lowers’; their lives are a stark contrast to the ‘uppers’ who have wealth and make decisions. They predominantly live in the global South and are typically non-white. They have little possibility to influence or to have their voice heard. Their reality is not one that generally informs policy and strategy amongst leaders of either business or government.

The ways in which businesses might work more productively with lowers was memorably highlighted by Prahalad and Hart in their 1998 article ‘the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’. They call for an end to ‘industrial imperialism’ that imposes Western ways of living on people struggling to escape poverty, and advocate an approach that combines global and local knowledge, working with local individuals and communities to create innovation that benefits all.

Echoes of this participative approach can be seen in current initiatives. For instance, Unilever’s brightFuture project commits the company to working with others towards “a better future for our children; a world where everyone has enough food to eat and no child goes to bed hungry” alongside its climate action work.

Meanwhile, the B-Corp movement takes a pro-active stance to use business ‘as a force for good’ through companies that are ‘better for workers, better for communities, better for the environment’. Now with more than 1300 members in 41 countries, its ambition is avowedly to create systemic social change though working with others.

As Chambers points out, working in a participative and respectful way with traditionally excluded communities is not easy: paying attention to the world’s ‘lowers’ requires ‘uppers’ to suspend their own point of view and open themselves up. Three steps in particular are important:

  1. Actively seek diversity: Diversity offers the capacity for learning, new perspectives, ideas that give a different way of looking at issues. Just as a mono-cultural board room is likely to miss seeing opportunities, a business model dominated by the perspective of uppers creates injustice and ultimately lack of resilience.
  2. Listen: People at the bottom of the pyramid do not necessarily give their point of view in the way uppers expect – for instance, when asked to join formal consultation processes. Making opportunities to hear the voices that are routinely excluded requires effort and creativity – building relationship, investing in local partners, demonstrating a willingness to hear perspectives that may conflict with your own and each other’s. 
  3. Collaborate: Being serious about working with people, not imposing things on them, is vital, and difficult. Collaboration takes time, and means a certain relaxing of control over outcomes– both things that are inimical to the business culture. But collaboration also enables you to do things that neither party can do alone, working across and with your differences.

Cultivating these skills is critical to our capacity to share our fragile planet and help build a world in which we can all thrive.

Gill Coleman is director of the Ashridge Centre for Action Research, co-director of the MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility, and a member of faculty for the Ashridge Doctorate in Organisational Change.

Her interests are in participative approaches to personal and organisational learning and change, particularly as they relate to sustainability and corporate social responsibility. 

edie has partnered with Ashridge Business School for this series of articles focused on growing international debate and practice around sustainability. The next part is titled ‘Reinventing Work’, drawing on the entrepreneurship of Ashridge alumni to tell the story of new organisations with new forms of leadership playing their part in creating better outcomes.

Read all parts of the series so far here.

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