John Paul

The Race to the Top: Re-Framing Corporate Competition

I was just finishing college in the late 90s when I first heard of the phrase ?race to the bottom?. A few activist friends of mine had arranged a screening of Global Village or Global Pillage, an award-winning documentary that examined the harsh consequences of unchecked globalization. In spite of its underlying optimistic message about community organizing and empowerment, it painted a bleak picture of the private sector’s unquenchable thirst for profit and market domination.

?Today’s global economy lets corporations pit workers and communities against each other to see who will provide the lowest wages, most abusable workers, cheapest environmental costs, and biggest subsidies for corporations. The result: a race to the bottom in which conditions for all tend to fall toward the poorest and most desperate.?

At the time there seemed to be a certain inevitability to it all, and part of me couldn?t help but hope that corporations sped up their efforts, because the sooner they hit the bottom, the sooner they could start moving back towards the top. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the bottom – a number of companies began to realize that the quest for continued profitability and growth in the next century might actually lie at the top!

That’s the focus of Race to the Top, a new report by the Ethical Business Campaigns Network that examines the corporate awareness campaigns that have gradually begun to change business priorities. According to the report, the race to the top has been triggered by the growing influence of NGOs, whose work has catalyzed a corporate transition towards ?natural capitalism?, an economic system that balances the environment, social equality and profits. Much of the work is in the form of corporate campaigns, which raise consumer awareness of the issues and highlight the worst violators. Fearing that consumers will vote with their dollars, many industry leaders are rapidly cleaning up their act.?

But how is it possible that a few low-budget NGOs can force sweeping changes in multi-billion dollar industries worldwide? In a word, framing.

?Frames are conceptual structures that we use to comprehend our experience of the world,? explains University of California linguistics professor and Moral Politics author, George Lakoff. ?Frames are in the structure of our brains. We cannot think without them and they do not change easily. All words are defined with respect to frames. All language therefore evokes a way of seeing the world.?

Re-framing a debate molds public sentiments. For instance, ?anti-globalization? conjures up images of isolationism and negativity, whereas ?fair trade? sounds like an idea worth supporting–who doesn?t want trade to be fair? Since public sentiments drive markets, corporations are paying attention.

?By understanding the circumstances that motivate companies to compete to improve their social and environmental performance, (re-framing) can transform globalization into a more positive phenomenon.?

In many ways, that’s what development through enterprise is all about. Instead of framing the poor as a target for corporate social responsibility, the private sector can eradicate poverty through profit by finding the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s not charity, it’s enlightened self-interest. Some companies – S.C. Johnson, ITC and Unilever to name a few–have already begun to take the lead and made significant investments in these new markets. By focusing on the potential growth and competitive advantages to be had from designing products and services for consumers at the BOP, they are showing their competitors what can be achieved. The social and environmental benefits of these new activities may be enormous, but the profit motive is what is driving this new race to the top.