Unilever, Aristotle, Maslow and Moral Capitalism

A recent story in the Wall Street Journal reported that Unilever is associating its product Hellmann’s mayonnaise (full disclosure: Hoa and I buy Hellmann’s) with a mission to curb food waste.

For example, in the post-industrial consumer economy of the U.S., each year, 108 billion pounds of food is wasted.  That equates to 130 billion meals and more than $408 billion in food thrown away each year.  Shockingly, nearly 40% of all food in America is wasted.

This follows a “brands with purpose” business strategy adopted by Unilever CEO, Alan Jope.

Some resist this strategy of associating virtue with the products and services provided by capitalism on the grounds that companies should not go “woke” and attempt to impose political, social or cultural outcomes in free societies.  Consumers, it is said, should have the right to follow their own values in the way they spend their money.

But as I argued almost 20 years ago in my book, Moral Capitalism, the values of capitalism come from consumers, from buyers, not suppliers.  Consumers, on the whole and in sub-markets, determine the outcomes of capitalism.  If no one wants a product or a service, any company planning to supply it will quickly run into market failure.  Investors and lenders will only fund such a profitless company for so long, unless they look at it as a charity meeting some deserving need, like a church or a homeless shelter and become donors.

Now, in ethics, Aristotle described happiness as a combination of active virtue and having sufficient material goods.  Thus, for Aristotle, a consumer of mayonnaise who wants to act virtuously, while selfishly enjoying the taste and other sensible physical properties of the concoction, is seeking personal happiness.  Such consumers can use their money freely in the marketplace for food to realize, on their own, their personal understanding of happiness.

The modern psychologist, Abraham Maslow, provides an alternative understanding of why Unilever’s brand with purpose strategy is a sound business model.  Maslow has a different, but rather similar take on happiness than Aristotle.

Maslow described individuals as seeking various kinds of happiness, from the most material and mundane to the most abstract and intangible.  He also proposed that people first seek to satisfy basic needs and then proceed to reach out for more and more intangible forms of  “the good,” as Aristotle would say.

Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human satisfactions is:

From my point of view, Alan Jope is selling in one jar of mayonnaise a product that 1) satisfies a basic need of food, but also 2) provides the purchaser with an opportunity to experience self-actualization and 3) perhaps also meet esteem needs in being appreciated by others who worry over food waste and belonging needs to be part of a cultural community which also worries over food waste.

Thus, both Unilever’s strategy to do “good,” as their customers are now more willing to purchase participation in bringing about such good and the proposal that companies should have a “purpose” over and above profit, shows capitalism evolving along the lines proposed by Maslow – from meeting basic needs to more and more selling opportunities to meet psychological and self-fulfillment needs.

I predict that the market, as driven by customers, will sort out those companies that can meet real needs that customers are willing to pay for satisfying and those that fail to produce goods and services for which there is no demand.

It should come as no surprise that, with the astounding success of capitalism over the last 300 years in creating wealth, humanity today can enjoy living where, more and more, psychological needs and self-fulfillment needs are achievable.  Wealth has enabled so many to meet their basic needs so that they can now aspire to meeting needs higher on Maslow’s hierarchy.  Thus, it is only natural that the forces of capitalism – demand and supply – are now focused more and more on helping us meet those more abstract needs.

But when business seeks to meet psychological and self-fulfillment needs, it begins to trespass into the social spheres of culture and politics, which are contentious, as different people value different kinds of psychological well-being and have different ideas about what self-fulfillment is all about.  What I insist is good for me may be anathema to you, so do I get to cancel you or do you get to cancel me?  Moreover, who between us should be the guide to best business practices?