Our economic system—once heralded for ensuring customer choice, stoking job creation and upward mobility, and sparking innovation—is failing us. The U.S., the paragon of capitalism, is experiencing crushing income inequality and struggling to provide affordable healthcare and childcare for working families as unprecedented climate change threatens even further disruption. As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, writes bluntly in this issue: “Capitalism is in crisis.”
Business leaders are worried too. We polled members of the Fast Company Impact Council, a cadre of founders and CEOs of fast-growing companies and innovative corporate executives, to assess the state of capitalism, and nearly a quarter of respondents agree with Walker’s statement that we need a major overhaul to better serve society. (For more on the Impact Council, see our coverage here.) In contrast, just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs surveyed by Fortune magazine feel that the system needs an overhaul, though 71% do believe that capitalism “would benefit from some tweaking to better serve society.”
Some of you may be wondering why a business publication would question the state of capitalism—it is like we’re biting the hand that feeds us. Meanwhile, we have a U.S. president who fuels the notion that any critique of or debate on this topic is tantamount to disloyalty. But we’re not turning our back on capitalism. We’re examining its health because we think it can be made better, fairer, and more inclusive. And we’re not just diagnosing the problem: In our package on “The New Capitalism,” our journalists offer dozens of workable solutions, many in practice already, which preserve corporate profits and increase opportunity and wealth for employees, suppliers, customers, and citizens. Ryan Bradley’s story on New Belgium Brewery, for example, shows how employee ownership enhances accountability and focus on the bottom line. Jeff Beer’s interview with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard describes the apparel company’s commitment to regenerative farming, paying small farmers a premium to supply it with sustainably grown cotton.
The key to transforming capitalism is to find ways to expand and scale these solutions, and there is reason to be optimistic. We asked Walker, who runs one of the world’s largest charitable foundations, to write the opening essay for “The New Capitalism” precisely because he has begun to transform philanthropy, pushing the sector to address the causes of inequality and injustice instead of responding to problems with charitable contributions from the wealthy. (For a harsher take on so-called billionaire philanthropy, check out Ainsley Harris’s profile of Anand Giridharadas.)
In addition, we’re spotlighting 15 people working at the forefront of trying to reinvent our economic system. Together, they’re pursuing important structural reforms and ideas that are bringing fairness, dignity, and democracy to capitalism. We’ll be introducing you to them in greater depth over the next couple of weeks, but here’s what you have to look forward to:
- Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who’s working to create a more diverse, modern labor movement
- Zeynep Ton, the MIT business school professor whose groundbreaking research into why good jobs are good for business inspired her Good Jobs Institute to help companies treat their workers better
- Mehrsa Baradaran, the law professor who’s made the most compelling case for using the U.S. Postal Service to solve the national crisis of unbanked and underbanked individuals
- Josette Melchor, a curator and community organizer whose Gray Area arts organization in San Francisco uses art to start a conversation between technologists and the communities in which they live and work
- Bruce Patterson, technology director for the town of Ammon, Idaho, and the architect for an ambitious community broadband initiative that creates competition and gives local residents ownership of an essential utility
- Josh Silverman, CEO of Etsy, the popular artisanal marketplace, who elevated the accountability on the company’s social-impact initiatives to the same standard as its financial reporting
- Sarah Woodhams, a former Toys “R” Us retail employee who lost her job and became an activist for fellow workers whose livelihoods are upended by private-equity maneuvers
- Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California, whose pioneering universal basic income experiment has set the early standard for how to approach and implement UBI
- Kat Taylor, CEO of Beneficial State Bank, who has built a transparent, ethical financial institution committed to serving the low-income communities in which it operates
- Eileen Fisher, founder of her eponymous fashion brand, which is an exemplar of what the B Corporation movement to serve multiple stakeholders can represent
- Andrei Cherny, CEO of Aspiration, whose ethical investing products and efforts to inspire conscious consumption have set the standard for the new wave of digital banks
- Barry Lynn, founder of the Open Markets Institute, who’s advocating for employing America’s antitrust laws to regulate monopoly and create more democracy and liberty
- Rachel Lauter, executive director of Fair Work Center and Working Washington, who played a central role in the Fight for $15 and continues to operate at the vanguard of improving workers’ lives
- Aaron Seyedian, founder and CEO of the startup Well-Paid Maids, who is seeking to create a model business for high-value jobs in traditionally exploitative work
- Marjorie Kelly, senior fellow at the Democracy Collaborative think tank, who is focused on scaling ideas that will create a fairer economy, notably promoting employee-ownership of companies
As Walker concludes: “The deeper we have dug into this work, the more we have discovered how interconnected business and philanthropy truly are, which is why it’s so important that we work together to produce a more inclusive capitalism.” We can’t think of a worthier pursuit.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.