Conscious Business. Possible?

I’m a systems thinker, and for a long time have been aware of the dysfunctional nature of the economic system we live in. That’s what prompted me to write a book about navigating the consumer culture without being swallowed up by it.

When I wrote Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, my view was that the system needed a drastic overhaul. I talked about the work of alternative thinkers such as David Korten, Ray Anderson, Paul Hawken, and Muhammad Yunus.

If I’d known then about John Mackey and conscious capitalism, I would certainly have written about him too. I’ve recently read his book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, co-authored with Dr. Rajendra Sisodia. John Mackey is co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market and Raj Sisodia is an author and professor of marketing at Bentley University.

Their book has broadened my perspective. Perhaps capitalism is not a flawed philosophy. It may have got its bad reputation because it is usually practised poorly. When businesses focus on maximizing profit to the exclusion of other values such as well-being of workers and the environment, we see the system in its worst light.

Yet to say all capitalists are greedy and short-sighted is the same as saying all people are bad because some do unethical or horrible things. By painting a whole group with the same brush, we discount the good that also happens within the system, and limit our view of possibilities.

Conscious business possible? Actually, preferable.

What I like about Conscious Capitalism is the heartfelt way it sets a higher standard and presents a vision of what capitalism can accomplish when practiced with integrity. Using examples of well-known companies, they describe how conscious businesses create more value, are more successful, are more ethical, are better places to work, and can be the source of much good in the world.

John Mackey has devoted his life to selling natural and organic foods, and to building a better business model. He shares the story of the evolution of his thinking and his business in the book. He speaks with the authority of someone who has lived the journey thoughtfully.

You can hear John Mackey and learn more about the book on their website. After you listen to the fifty-second intro, I highly recommend his talk at the University of California, which appears among the video options on the same page. Listening to him speak will do greater justice to the book than I could in trying to summarize it.

Why did I want to tell you about Conscious Capitalism?

Because this book is speaking my language—accountability, systems thinking, self-awareness, purpose, mind-set, possibilities, world-views, ethics, values, intentions, meaning, synergy, empowerment, holistic thinking, integration—these are a few examples of words we both use.

And we address similar issues, based on a conscious approach to society, community and the environment. Our shared concerns include integrity of the future, ecology and the environment, social and personal responsibility, healthy eating, and unintended consequences.

Yet despite these similarities, the content is quite different because their field is business and mine is consumer issues. They write to empower businesses to do better, and I write to help consumers do the same.

If you’re not in business, why should you read this book? 

  • We all need a hopeful vision. We need to know that business based on high standards of integrity is possible and desirable, that it can work for everyone.
  • We need to let businesses know that we care about their conduct. Knowing that better is possible, we can hold them accountable by spending our money consciously—shifting our purchases away from mindless, manipulative companies and rewarding those whose practices align with our values.

It will take time before conscious capitalism is routinely practiced. We, as citizens, are part of that process. It will move along much more quickly if we are engaged and conscious in our marketplace decisions.

We get the society we deserve. If we settle for what’s offered with no sense of discernment, we will continue on the unsustainable path we are on. When we hold business to a higher standard, we will all thrive.

Conscious Spending: A Solution to Stuffocation


In a BBC viewpoint article about the hazards of too much stuff, trend forecaster James Wallman describes an American study documenting what most of us already know—that we have a lot of things in our houses.

According to Wallman, 2 out of 3 people wish they had less stuff. These people are experiencing what he calls stuffocation—an intriguing word that describes the feeling of drowning in stuff. Not surprisingly, the resulting clutter crisis leads to mental stress, which causes physiological symptoms such as elevated cortisol levels. In this way, the mental stress of excess damages our physical health.

I’m with him until he proposes that we solve the problem of excess stuff by spending our money on experiences instead of things. He bases this suggestion on recent research showing that happiness is more likely to come from experiences than from possessions.

That may be true in some ways, but it makes no sense to suggest that simply substituting experiences for things is going to resolve our issues of excess. Is this not just substituting one obsession for another? Could it not propel us to an excess of another kind?

We can just as easily drown in experiences as we can in material possessions. This is already the case for many North American children who are scheduled into multiple enrichment experiences each week. Psychologists now express concern about the stress these kids are under. The same applies to adults. I know many who rush from one experience to another. They are drowning in busy-ness, which is every bit as stressful as drowning in things.

I don’t want to discount the benefit of experiences. Indeed, they can greatly enrich our lives. What we need, though, is a different conversation. We should not be trying to solve the problem of excess from an either/or perspective. Instead of either possessions or experiences, we need to think about what will most enhance our lives. This is the focus of conscious spending.

The way I see it, conscious spending is a more constructive means of relieving the stress of excess. It shifts the game from “Should I buy this or buy that?” to a conversation about “What will help me make the life I want?” This results in a satisfying mix of both possessions and experiences, integrated to work for you.

Conscious spenders view their lives from an intentional simplicity paradigm. They are the 1 in 3 people who are satisfied with what they have because they’ve found the sweet spot of “enough.”

In Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, I said it this way: “How much is enough? Viewed from the intentional simplicity paradigm, “enough” is not a number—it is what is deeply satisfying. We indulge in excess when what we purchase is not fully satisfying. We try and try again, usually not realizing why we still want more.”

The diagram below is from the Financial Integrity manual published by the New Road Map Foundation. They explain: “Everything after the peak of the fulfillment curve is excess. We call it clutter” This is the point at which possessions become burdens and their owners become stressed.

Fulfillment Curve

The key to satisfaction with what we buy rests in how the decision is made, not what we spend on.

When we buy an excess of stuff or rush from experience to experience without stopping to think, we are in a mindless, unconscious state that usually doesn’t serve us well. Conscious spending is rooted in the opposite state—mindFULness.

Mindfulness is often associated with Eastern meditation practices, but there are other ways to engage mindfully in our lives. The mother of mindfulness, Harvard researcher Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness as the simple process of actively noticing new things.

As she explains it, the act of noticing brings our attention to the present. When we are in the present, we are more aware of the importance of context and perspective. This helps us think for ourselves, rather than reacting on autopilot. As a result, we make decisions that suit us better.

Langer’s research has found that increasing mindfulness decreases our stress and leads to greater health and happiness. Applying mindfulness and conscious spending principles in our daily lives seems a surer way to avoid stress than does buying experiences instead of things. Comments?

Click reply link below to read comments and have your say.

Serendipity happens, with help!

#1  Where in the world?

#1 Where in the world?

Serendipity is often misunderstood as being a condition in which “things just happen”—good luck that occurs without any effort on our part. This mindset comes from wanting to experience the rewards of life without participating in the process.

Viewed from another mindset, serendipity is a combination of intention, action, and surprise. This viewpoint allows for the surprise of finding something good without looking for it AND requires us to put ourselves into the equation through intention and action.

So how does this relate to a photo of my book among tulips? I wrote Conscious Spending, Conscious Life because I had things to say. I intend to bring my ideas to the attention of as many people as possible. Amazon and other on-line sellers, local bookstores and libraries—these were my starting places.

In the process, I learned about three programs aimed at turning the world into a giant library: BookCrossing, Books on the Underground, and Little Free Libraries. Thanks to a number of my travelling friends, copies of Conscious Spending, Conscious Life have been set free to become part of the world library.

It tickles my imagination to think about how this action facilitates serendipity—putting copies of my book where people can unexpectedly come across them—in a cafe, on a seat in the London Underground, in a hostel, on a ferry, or who knows where…

You can probably guess where the tulip photo was taken. Here are a few more. Locations are identified at the end.

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#2 Where in the world…

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*7  Where in the world...

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#9 Where in the world…

Here’s where…

With thanks to Nollind, Teresa, Patti, Maggie, David, Diane, and Keith for setting books free at these and many other far-flung places. The next one is headed for the Faroe Islands.

  1. Amsterdam, the Netherlands in the flower market
  2. Borrego Springs, California at the Pegleg Smith Monument
  3. London, England on the Underground
  4. Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Flying Star Cafe
  5. Calgary, Alberta, Canada in the front yard of a residence
  6. New York, NY on the subway
  7. Cambridge, England in the Caffe Nero
  8. New Mexico at City of Rocks State Park
  9. Tucson, Arizona at the Cafe Passe

Holiday. Fun?

With the arrival of December, many people experience angst over the approaching holiday. For some, this has to do with awkward, difficult and/or impossible family relationships, which come into focus under the cultural expectation of family togetherness at this time of year.

However, consumer debt is a more pervasive source of December dread. Yesterday’s news reported on Bank of Canada concerns about increasing levels of consumer debt. The Globe & Mail referred to “insatiable borrowing,” quoting a senior director of Equifax, a major credit reporting agency: “Following a frenzied start to the festive shopping season with more to come in the countdown to Christmas, we can expect the consumer debt to rise even further. Tis the season, so we can anticipate credit cards getting a strong workout throughout December.”

Living in a consumer culture puts us under enormous pressure to spend mindlessly. And our ready access to credit cards has been the marketers’ dream, fuelling the attitude they want us to have: What the heck, spend beyond your current capacity because you can.

Naturally, they love it when we pay their 20% interest for years and years. However, the financial consequences are far beyond what most people imagine. The system is complicated and complex, and there is much we don’t know. Early in my teaching career, I discovered that students generally thought that if they made the minimum payment on a credit card, they weren’t in debt. By using their cards and paying the required minimum, they thought they were doing the smart and adult thing. However, that is an illusion. It takes a shocking length of time to pay off debt by making minimum payments, as explained in a previous blog.

A common-sense perspective

The issue of holiday indebtedness can also be examined from a common-sense perspective. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it make sense to go into debt over gifts?
  • If the recipients knew, how would they feel?
  • Would it detract from their pleasure in the gift?
  • What if we decided this would be the last year we were going to experience holiday spending angst?
  • How might we set the stage for things to be different next year?

Clever strategies

Here’s how you can get ahead of the game.

  1. Change your mindset. How we think sets the stage for how we act. Our thoughts shape what we do. So, if you think there has to be a better way, you will find one.
  2. Make a practical plan to avoid paying interest on gifts. First, decide how much you’ll spend in total for holiday gifts in 2015. Then divide that amount by 10. For example, if your total is $900 and you divide it by 10, you’ll get $90. This is your monthly amount to set aside from February to November.
  3. Open a separate bank account for holiday gift spending. Have the bank automatically transfer that monthly amount from your pay into this account, starting in February.
  4. Use this money only for holiday gifts. If you find yourself tempted to take some out for emergencies, set up a different account to accumulate emergency funds.

This strategy saves you money in two ways

Saving for gifts moves you from mindless consumption to conscious spending.

  • You pay only the price of the item, not the price plus 20% interest.
  • You’ll have money available to take advantage of good deals throughout the year. Suppose you see the perfect item for your brother in May, on a fabulous clear-out sale. With the cash on hand, you can buy it for a lot less than in December when you settle for whatever the price because, after all, you have to give him something.

As a conscious spender, you…

  • think for yourself to make the life you want.
  • decide freely, without being influenced by unconscious emotional factors.
  • trust your common sense and gut feelings as part of your decision-making process.
  • are open-minded to alternative perspectives.
  • meet your needs without causing harm to people and the planet.
  • base decisions on what is really important to you.

The real holiday fun

When you save ahead for gifts and don’t pay interest to the banks, you have the pleasure of knowing you’ve been in the driver’s seat—a conscious spender rather than a mindless consumer—and have beaten them at their own game. Well done you!


Financial Literacy: Crucial for all of us

November is Financial Literacy Month in Canada. This annual event acknowledges the need to educate ourselves in a crucial area of life—how to navigate the consumer culture without being consumed by it.

This initiative came out of the work of a task force that travelled the country to assess the state of financial literacy in Canada.  My submission to that task force expressed the view that all post-secondary students should be required to complete a personal finance course in order to graduate.

I was pleased that the final report of the task force recommended that “…all provincial and territorial governments integrate financial literacy in the formal education system, including…post-secondary education and formalized adult learning activities.”

Realistically, this is unlikely to happen. But there’s a lot we can do ourselves—in our families and the groups we belong to. It’s always possible to educate ourselves. And taking a proactive approach allows us to focus attention on what we most need to learn.

Some people require specific information in order to make more constructive choices. Credit cards are a good example. If we understand the implications of making only minimum payments, then the financial folly of carrying a balance on a credit card becomes clear.

Some people need to learn how to manage themselves rather than their money. Our mindsets and unconscious beliefs are incredibly powerful in influencing our actions—even when we are unaware of their existence. There are many ways to become more conscious in our relationship with money. Learning about this can be the key to greater financial ease.

To help people find the resources they need, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada has recently established a Financial Literacy Database. It’s set up with a variety of search parameters to help you zero in on what is most useful. I’m pleased that Conscious Spending, Conscious Life is one of those resources.

And to further extend the educational value of my book, I’m producing a Group Leader’s Guide to accompany it. This project is in development now and I’m looking for first-run participants to test it. This can be done at a distance, and I’m happy to work with anyone via Skype or FaceTime to make it happen. For details, go to Study Groups.

Whether you’re in a group or on your own, a yearly check-in is a good practice.

  • How are things going?
  • What has changed since last year?
  • Are you moving in the direction you want to be?
  • If not, what changes would bring you back on course?

Financial Literacy Month is a good reminder to focus on our situation and set changes in motion for the coming year if required. In the end, it’s up to us.


Something to think about…

paper test 3 3

True freedom comes from exercising autonomy over our lives. The consumer culture discourages us from thinking for ourselves, preferring that we adopt the cultural story about how to live.

Our challenge is to detach ourselves from the cultural story and look at the illusions surrounding freedom and choice.

  • Has the use of credit given you freedom or put you in bondage?
  • Is it an either/or question?
  • If it’s “both/and,” what makes the difference?

It’s something worth thinking about if we want to make our own lives.

Reference chapter: “Power and Money” in Conscious Spending. Conscious Life.

Like gift-wrapping a tap-dancing elephant…

Word cloud pdf 1 jpeg

My friend Maggie has a way with words. She says that attempting to describe my book is like trying to gift-wrap a tap-dancing elephant. She’s captured the dilemma perfectly!

In the early days, I struggled to wrap up my content in one or two neat sentences­—an “elevator pitch” as the marketers call it. This is essential, they advise. And of course I want to do things the right way.

Well, “right” didn’t happen. I have not yet found two sentences that encapsulate the breadth and scope of Conscious Spending, Conscious Life. I thought I might be able to distill them from the notes I use for making book presentations. I looked at my intention, my premises, and my approach but that didn’t get me very far. So I thought about tackling it another way. What if I started with the phrase “It’s about…”?  I stopped after the first eight:

  • It’s about money, and how we choose to live in relation to it.
  • It’s about financial sustainability (how we think) rather than just money management (rules and techniques about what to do).
  • It’s about personal growth, with money as the catalyst for conversations and self-awareness.
  • It’s about making the life we want, rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the cultural story about what life should be.
  • It’s about deciding mindfully instead of blindly following roles and rules.
  • It’s about considering the bigger picture rather than having tunnel vision.
  • It’s about insights into the workings and dilemmas of the consumer culture, rather than learning a set of instructions about what to do.
  • It’s about self management rather than money management.

Way too many sentences and I couldn’t decide which six to eliminate. Clearly I’m too close to it because everything seems important to me. So I called on the impartial help of technology—in this case a word cloud generator. I fed in my manuscript and let it do its thing. You saw the result at the beginning of this post.

I like the word cloud… and it may be the most effective way of wrapping up the multiple interconnected parts and dynamic elements of my book. At the very least, it tickles my imagination…and that’s never a bad thing.

P.S. You’ll find the Amazon description here if you want more of the nuts and bolts. The book reviews posted here will give you perspectives other than mine.

Walking Our Talk in a Consumer World


Singer Neil Young has been in the news recently—first for his outspoken criticism of Alberta’s oil sands and then for not walking his talk. In a recent article, Licia Corbella of the Calgary Herald reported that Young’s five large tour busses were all left idling for an extended period even though only one was occupied. They were parked outside the venue where he was speaking at a press conference about man-made global warming. Apparently there is incongruence between Young’s talk and his actions.

The same could be said for most of us. As we’ve become more aware of environmental and social justice issues, our consumer choices have become more complex and not always easy to implement.

It wasn’t always so. When I started teaching my college course, the field of consumerism was focused on consumer protection and getting the best buy. It was a self-centered time. Indeed, social historians refer to the 1980s as the era of the “me generation.”

Only more recently have we started looking outside ourselves and our own interests. For me, David Suzuki was the catalyst with his passionate messages about the urgency of the environmental crisis caused by thoughtless and excessive consumption. He made me think.

Not long after that, I read Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo, in which she exposed and explained the prevailing social injustice for workers in developing countries. I could not ignore her compelling description of the race to the bottom, the quest for us to have ever-cheaper goods with no consideration for the disadvantaged workers producing them.

Somewhere along the way, I realized there is no going back. Once I knew about the ozone hole, global warming, acid rain, and sweatshops, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t. Would I change my habits? my curriculum? “Yes” seemed the only answer. Anything else would have been incongruent with my desire to make a difference in the world.

Congruence is important. It is what reinforces the finer points of our selves. “The world we live in and the lives we make for ourselves do not happen by accident. When you are conscious in your engagement with the consumer culture, you are more likely to end up living a life that is congruent with what you really want. Once we have recognized that what we think and how we act is important, it becomes a question of how could one do otherwise.”  (p 314, Conscious Spending. Conscious Life.) Congruent action is the cornerstone of conscious consumption.

In many cases, conscious consumption requires effort. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable—when we are mocked by others for taking a stand, when we wake up in the morning in a chilly house because we turn the thermostat down at night, when we wait for a bus on a freezing winter morning rather than driving to work.

Why bother? Because even our small actions contribute to the greater good. One person turning off unnecessary lights is a small thing. But there is a cumulative effect if half the households in a community do likewise.

The other benefit: our caring requires accountability from corporations. We have seen this more frequently over the past few years. When Anita Roddick founded The Body Shop in 1976 on principles of environmental and social responsibility, she was taking a radical stand. Today, corporate social responsibility (now dubbed CSR) is much more the thing to do.

Corporate conscience has come a long way since the days when Nike was lauded for its “clever” strategy to distance itself from the appalling workplace conditions of people making its products. 2013 was “marked by audacious goals, new industry support, and unexpected partnerships” according to a report by Cone Communications. Their list of ten top trends in corporate social responsibility includes a focus on food transparency, viral visual storytelling, and guerilla cause marketing.

We may be cynical about such corporate initiatives because some companies undertake them just for good optics. But, you know what…it creates more choice for those of us who want to consume in alignment with our values.

I don’t know where Neil Young stands in all of this. Perhaps, as Licia Corbella suggests, he is a hypocrite. On the other hand, by speaking out he is doing something. And that is the least any of us should do—something.

Looking for connections…

Book in Vegas

My book is travelling again thanks to Nollind and Teresa, who recently left it in this lovely library at the Las Vegas RV Resort. Over the next few months, they’ll release several more copies of Conscious Spending, Conscious Life “into the wild” under the BookCrossing program.

BookCrossing puts books into public places with an invitation to take the book, read it, and then release it somewhere when you’re finished with it. Each book has a unique identity number which facilitates following its travels from reader to reader. BookCrossing currently has 2,445,823 BookCrossers and 10,099,359 books travelling throughout 132 countries. Their aim is to connect people through books and they describe BookCrossing as the “World’s Library.”

I love that my book is part of a worldwide library. The free-form, serendipitous nature of BookCrossing tickles my imagination. It allows me to believe that I can put my book in unexpected places where it will be found by people who need it.

Who are these people? Who might benefit from reading Conscious Spending, Conscious Life? Certainly the young­­—those who are just starting out. At this stage of life they don’t fully understand how the system works and are also subject to peer pressure. These two factors make them particularly vulnerable to the persuasive pitches of credit card companies and product marketers. It’s a combination that leads many to a lifetime of perpetual consumer debt. My book gives them a leg up by helping them quickly gain some consumer street smarts. Parents and grandparents tell me it’s the kind of book they’d have written for their kids if they were inclined to write a book.

Age, though, isn’t the defining factor. Many of life’s experiences challenge us to look at how we live our daily lives­­—the systems, the habits, and the thinking behind them.

We encounter many transitions and changes in a lifetime: Starting over after financial disruption such as bankruptcy, business collapse, or job loss. Regrouping after difficult personal experiences such as divorce, adult children moving back home, and death of a spouse or partner. Rethinking when we reach midlife—assessing what we’ve accomplished and taking another look to see things in a new light. Because Conscious Spending, Conscious Life offers fresh perspectives, it helps in that process. For some people, the value is that it confirms their own good sense.

My first job was to get the book written. Now comes the fun part—making connections. Ideas are welcome.

A book I’d have written if I hadn’t been writing mine


Part 4 of my book Conscious Spending, Conscious Life is about health, safety and integrity of the future. It covers food and toxics, among other things. People are often surprised that I included health in a book about consumerism. But the truth is, food has become the ultimate consumer good—commercially grown, highly processed, and heavily marketed.

Navigating the consumer culture—unharmed—is a tricky task these days. Remaining healthy is one of the challenges. Despite relative wealth and an abundance of food products in North America, we continue to become more and more unhealthy.

Much of what we call “food” really isn’t. The dictionary defines food as “material that is used by the body to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes, as well as to furnish energy.” In a consumer culture, it is so easy to make poor choices and eat a lot that fills us up but doesn’t support our bodies in carrying out vital life processes. The choices we make can end up haunting us sooner or later.

When we become conscious of what we eat and try to do the right thing, we’re faced with confusing and conflicting information to sort through. While I was writing my section about food and toxics, I was frustrated by not having enough space to say everything I wanted to.

So I’m happy to tell you about a book I discovered recently. Undiet: Eat Your Way to Vibrant Health gives more detail than I was able to—not just the theory, but practical guidelines and strategies for incorporating real food into your life along with 40 recipes to get you going.

Author Meghan Telpner is a certified nutritionist who comes at this from practical experience. At age 26, she was told she had an incurable autoimmune condition that would require major surgery. Instead, she decided to take her health into her own hands and reports that within a month she was free of symptoms. In a recent television interview, she said that she’s been well in the seven years since. When you see her, she exudes a vibrance that is striking.

Undiet  is a book after my own heart, taking a holistic perspective. It’s an excellent guide to what real food is, why you would want to eat it, and how to consume it daily, even if you are a busy person. It includes crucial information about what not to consume, including BPA and food additives. This is a book about health, not just food, so it also covers making non-toxic personal care products and being happy in how we live our lives.

Meghan Telpner writes in a lively style, backing up her statements with both personal experience and research references. Her book has useful information for all of us, and young people will find it much more interesting and relatable than many nutrition books. I highly recommend Undiet as a valuable resource for navigating the food-related areas of the consumer culture.