Money does not have the power to change the world. It is your intentions and values, expressed through your use of money, that will make the world a better place for yourself and humanity.
Let me tell you a story about how I used money to put my values and intentions into effect. After seven years I replaced my car, which is not something I do very often. I have little interest in cars except to ensure they are reliable and safe. My shopping trip begins, therefore, with an open mind and no specific replacement in mind.
The sales consultant at the dealership starts by asking me about my needs and values. She establishes that I have concerns over the environment. I reveal I want a car that is efficient and clean. My new car needs to last for many years before it goes to a scrapyard.
After a long and informative conversation, we settle on a hybrid car with low emissions and high efficiency. It is also extremely comfortable and easy to drive. It has a portfolio of safety features and driving assists, most of which I had never come across before. We agree part exchange terms and I pay the balance to the dealership.
This transaction is a classic case of money being used to affirm my values.
Think about money as if it were water. It’s a well-worn metaphor and no less useful for that. Money that sits like water in a pool gets stagnant and stale and has no impact on the world. Money that moves like a river, however, affects everything it touches. It is an instrument of change that can have positive or negative consequences. The change wrought depends on the flavour given to your money by your values and intentions.
First, however, money has to flow from A to B for it to have an impact. Then you have to understand your values to impart them to your money. They are the compass that guide and direct you in your earning and spending.
I believe that this is one of the most critical roles that money has to play in our lives. It doesn’t just apply to big-ticket purchases like my car. Here are a few other examples of how you can use your money to promote your world view.
At the local mini-market, you can choose sushi in a plastic container or a sandwich wrapped in cardboard. If you intend to keep healthy and you value your appearance, you will probably opt for the sushi. Alternatively, if sustainability and environmental protection are your principle values, you will probably avoid the plastic and opt for the sandwich. Either way, you use your money to reinforce your values and aspirations.
As an investor, you could take the conventional route of established quoted companies and retail investment funds. However, you are enthusiastic about supporting small start-up businesses. You favour those that have a significant impact on the world and meet your values and aspirations. Accordingly, you opt for a selection of crowdfunding opportunities.
You need a new jacket. If you are an advocate of reuse, you might visit the local thrift shop. If appearance is important, you might choose to buy a hand-made jacket from the up-market boutique. Alternatively, you will give the low-cost, high street store a miss to avoid clothes from a sweatshop.
The limited financial infrastructure prevalent before the industrial and scientific revolution provides no incentive to make such philosophical choices. Then, Adam Smith publishes The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He sets out new and profound metaphysical concepts around money.
In brief, he explains how business owners can use their money to deliver their humanitarian values and intentions. Instead of extracting profits, business owners can reinvest in more workers and more machinery. In so doing, they provide employment and increase the wealth of their employees.
Smith’s treatise is arguably the origin of the concept that ‘greed is good’. The wealth of those connected to a growing business would increase, and everyone would be better off.
Smith’s idea that we use our money for altruistic purposes was good in theory. As we know, it does not work so well in practice. Greed overcomes altruism and the profit motive metamorphoses into minimising costs. Wages fall, and businesses develop a powerful reluctance to spend money on improving working conditions.
However, for some, altruism remains an essential part of their business. The great confectionary names of Cadbury and Rowntree are two of Britain’s best examples. Joseph Rowntree turned his small grocery shop in York into a significant business. He is passionate about his workforce’s welfare and correspondingly ascetic in his lifestyle. Rowntree uses his profits to grow his business and establishes charitable trusts in the housing and education sectors. He founds York’s Mount School, a still-thriving school based on social principles inspired by his Quaker upbringing.
In a time of intense poverty, malnutrition and ignorance, Rowntree does much to alleviate society’s ills. He does so by using the profits from his business to pursue his values and intentions.
His work and ethos continue to this day through the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that he established in 1904. The organisation works towards inspiring social change and reform, overcoming injustice and equitably providing housing.
The Rowntree approach commands respect amongst businesses founded on defined values and principles. This approach is the opposite of using your money to boost your status. Lynn Twist, the author and fundraiser, has been instrumental in bringing this vital role of money to the fore. Twist argues that, intentionally or not, our dealings with money reflect our values and aspirations.
However, this should not be a passive activity. Instead, our values and intentions should actively guide our decisions about how we earn and spend money. Anything less leads to a breach of our integrity.
I know from my own bitter experience that money can develop almost total control over me. Moreover, this has always happened when I don’t have any. And, it’s a familiar story amongst my clients. However, Twist argues that money gets its real power from ‘the intention we give it and the integrity with which we direct it into the world’.
Yet it can be challenging to be consistently good at this, even when we want to. Often the information about the goods or services we might want to buy is concealed from us.
A low-cost item of clothing might make us feel good about our financial discipline and budgeting. However, it may be manufactured using a damaging and unsustainable process, or by exploiting child labour. In this case, our economic activities could conflict with our values and intentions, whether we know it or not.
Can you see how money’s role as a vehicle for your values and intentions is so important? Imagine if we all used cash in the way Joseph Rowntree did. In that case, the world would be very different today.
Where to start?
First, set out your world vision and your code of behaviour to begin harnessing money’s role in this area. Creating a values statement is not an easy exercise. Your principles may change over time, and some values may conflict with others.
Then, become more intentional about earning, spending and saving. At its simplest, this means researching the values and vision of the organisation for whom you work. You will check the organisation’s policies and, of course, you will check the organisation adheres to its policies.
And, as a consumer, you will research the people and organisations from whom you buy. Fortunately, help is at hand through organisations that have done the bulk of the work for you. Which, The Good Shopping Guide and Ethical Consumer all provide guidance and assessments on a company’s values and policies and their implementation.
I hope you can see how important this is. Money does not have the power to change the world. It is our intentions and values, expressed through our use of money, that will make the world a better place for ourselves and humanity.
This is the fifth article in a series of articles on the roles that money plays in our lives