Turkey on Thanksgiving. Chocolate on Valentine’s Day. No white clothes after Labor Day. Cake on your birthday. Shouts of “mazel tov” at Jewish weddings. Black at funerals. Blue for boys and pink for girls. Bowties and long dresses at formal affairs. A diamond on her left hand as she joyfully answers, “Yes!”
All of them are traditions and societal norms (at least in America). Not a single one is legislated or mandated in any way, yet each one governs human behavior. Non-conformity is rare. If we had to explain or justify these customs, we would probably struggle before stammering some version of, “Because that’s just how it is.”
Over time though, our customs can change. Older generations will give way to younger ones, and behaviors will shift in subtle ways. No one oversees that evolution, but rather the transition happens organically and slowly, at least most of the time. Every now and again though, we can observe a cultural inflection point – a moment in time when it’s clear that a societal norm is changing rapidly and will never be the same again.
For instance, “going to the movies” used to be the only way to experience film, but VHS, DVDs and Netflix have given us a new appreciation for comfy couches and microwave popcorn. And our ears used to be our primary connection to sports teams, but our eyes became the new sensory experience for sports as televisions replaced radios. Sure, on one hand these where technological transformations, but they clearly shifted aspects of our culture.
Which brings me to our economic custom of “paying the lowest price.” Now, I’ll admit eating cake on your birthday isn’t quite the same sort of tradition as saving 3 cents per gallon by going to one gas station instead of another. But by any ordinary definition, I would still call paying less money a cultural norm.
And it’s one that, I believe, has reached an inflection point.
More and more people in capitalistic economies are no longer making purchasing decisions solely based on price, quality, and quantity. We’ve begun to see environmental impacts, social equity and philanthropic sensitivities begin to influence purchasing decisions in more and more instances. When a product or service resonates with our deeper values, we are okay with paying more. And as time goes on, I think more and more people will purchase goods and services through an ethical lens.
And just imagine if that type of consumer behavior became the dominant cultural norm! What if every single person instinctively took ethical values into account every time they bought a banana, bottle of wine, cell phone or house?
I think the answer is that we would end up with a new economic system. Businesses would have to compete on ethics, not simply on products. The winners would be those who simultaneously provide a good or service while leaving the world a better place. Wall Street would have to keep up with this new consumer behavior, meaning financial markets could no longer care only about financial returns. Profit maximization would not be the purpose of business. Ethics would be.
Such a system would have a lot in common with capitalism. It might even still look and function like capitalism. But it wouldn’t be capitalism.
It would be an economic system with privatized means of production and a goal of maximizing social, environmental and financial well-being. It would be the economic system I would choose, if I had a choice. How about you?
Well, it turns out we do have a choice. We have that choice every time we buy something. So buy wisely.