Hope is in the air. People are aware of new possibilities, and their own new responsibilities as members of united states rather than a color-coded zone of opposition and attraction, as blue states squared off against red states and with each other. The president’s call to responsible, involved and necessary citizenship in the midst of our surrounding crisis has shifted the basis of what our collective and individual goals are. We’ve been enlisted by our new leader. If the inaugural address stuck in your belly, took root, and is becoming something new, this “we” applies to you.
Some of us have felt new growths inside of us by ingesting the unfamiliar seed of allegiance to a citizenship that reaches into where we keep our identity. As we reinvent ourselves as part of something that is at its heart united, we are counting the cost and starting to wonder how to look at the impact we are making.
One result is that people who have been about measuring social value are in the midst of a flood of new converging data. Social value and environmental value are no longer externalities and the cost of poverty is finding its way onto the balance sheet.
At another level, the new moral hunger, as Katherine Fulton calls it, is creating a new economy. New consumption patterns are driving new products, which drive different kinds of production. As that supply chain becomes transparent, impact becomes a consumer value. Something people want to know at retail, to know if they are on board or how they are implicated if their choices don’t line up to help the people and the planet. The impact of our buying decisions on the planet and the people are both starting to be counted in new ways. Thanks to our new president, that measurement now has the weight of being part of a larger civic, collective decision as we get ourselves out of the jam of being dependent on foreign energy and find ways to cool our planet and reduce the cost of poverty to all of us.
The day of externalities, costs that could be pushed off the balance sheet and be borne by the planet or the commons or the government or someone else downstream that we could safely ignore are over.
Measurement makes sense when there is enough flow, with enough diverse forces converging, to make the cost of measurement more than a transaction cost without additive value. The value of social metrics applied to economic data is likely to increase. But the intake will be anecdotal as it proceeds to become quantifiable. You will have to pay attention to people’s stories, and compare them to your own evolving lens of social return theory to see it happening.
For instance, I talked to a woman who works at a major fertilizer company this weekend. She says sustainability is on the agenda at every meeting she takes, whether it’s with wheat farmers in Minot, North Dakota or cotton farmers in Southeast Texas. The people buying and selling agricultural inputs have a whole new language and way they are looking at their business. It’s just good business to make sustainability, long term cost to the environment, and the watershed and the soil and the air part of what they consider as they put chemicals in the soil, they say. They know the cost of not thinking about those things now in a way they did not before. They are happy about the new way they can make decisions with their customers, the new on the farm dialogue that has a deeper and ethically satisfying level of meaning. She’s glad to be part of this new thing. I’ve known her for a decade and this is the first time she’s spoken up about what happens at work. She’s got a new story that now has resonance within the larger cultural dialogue and political landscape.
There is a new joy in the room as the people this woman works with get to focus on things they want to focus on. The needs of the planet are driving a new kind of social decision making, adding dimensions to the financial and business analysis that are in the room when fertilizer is bought in bulk. There is a key element of the intersection of money and meaning in transaction that is showing up in the sustainability related costs that farmers are willing to pay, and that fertilizer companies are learning to sell.
The meaning premium that my friend who works for the fertilizer company received shows up in the story she’s now eager to tell friends, and that I’m retelling here. She has a joy in selling agriculture commodities that she wants to tell people about. Somehow a new reality has made its way onto the balance sheet. Things that were externalities, like environmental cost and cost to people are now being calculated and paid for at the point at which the chemicals are being put onto the crops.
There is something here that is worth counting, because counting it will likely reveal more of this new kind of math being done all over the country. And that new math has a narrative value. They are stories that encourage us and cause more kinds of good business that is more conscious of its impact, to happen. And they fit into the united narrative of responsibility to which our president has called us. There are lots of new things to track, stories to listen to and data to measure and correlate to discover patterns. For those of us who want to be part of the new social capital market, those stories and data points and patterns need to be turned into a compelling and reinforcing narrative.
Kevin Jones is a cofounding principal of Good Capital, an investment firm that accelerates the flow of capital to enterprises that use market forces to create large-scale social change. Jones is a successful serial entrepreneur, angel investor, and cofounder of Social Capital Markets, the groundbreaking conference on social venture investing.