Table Speech

Why Elites in the World Seek after Aesthetic Refinement?

November 18, 2020

Mr. Shu Yamaguchi
CEO, Leibniz Co. Ltd.

 Let me start my speech by asking “if you are forced to relocate to outer space, what will be the one thing you will bring to hand down to your offspring?” I have asked this question to different groups, including elementary school children, business school students and business leaders. Interestingly enough, almost everyone chose historic buildings or art works created before the Edo Period (1603-1868). Japan made rapid strides to modernization and industrialization after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Our population has increased nearly fivefold in three centuries and our production capacity has ramped up dramatically at the price of natural resources that caused multiple environmental challenges. Under the leadership of business and administrative elites, numerous large construction projects were executed, including skyscrapers, overhead express-ways and numerous utility poles, that have created a bustling, dazzling and disorderly cityscape. I must remind you nobody chose these structures as a valuable heritage worth handing down to the next generation when I asked the aforementioned question.

 The cosmic values of “truth, goodness and beauty” sought after by Greek philosophers have never been more relevant or urgent for business leaders today. They resonate with Rotary’s Four-Way Test that guides us to put Truth, Fairness, Goodwill and Friendships first and question how Beneficial our deeds are to all concerned. In the business arena, there are different approaches to pursue “truth, goodness and beauty.” Consulting firms, for example, focus on logical thinking based on data and evidence to grasp the “truth”. Attorneys define “goodness” in the context of legal requirements and judicial precedents. Advertising agencies rely on market research and case studies of other companies to get appealing and attractive messages across. Having worked for one of the leading advertising agencies in Japan as well as foreign-affiliated consulting firms, I feel the urgency to redefine “truth, goodness and beauty” based on one’s own moral and ethical standards, historical sense and aesthetic faculties so as to address challenging issues and to ensure long-term prosperity in this everchanging world.

 Companies today face unrelenting scrutiny on unethical business practices. We witness rising discontent against IT-related businesses, including startups, that have caused multiple social problems. Last April, Google was forced to cancel its involvement in a Pentagon program after 4,600 of its employees signed a letter of protest against applying artificial intelligence (AI) technology for military purposes. The company also made an official statement that it would not pursue any research projects that could cause overall harm in violation of “internationally accepted norms of human rights”. Let me share another case that proves how hard it is to rebuild a damaged corporate reputation. A British luxury fashion brand Burberry faced accusations and consumer boycotts around the world for burning unsalable products worth 4 billion yen. To be fair, Burberry was among many other brands which had long destroyed products as a strategy to preserve its reputation of exclusivity. Yet such an unethical practice went viral in an instant on the social media platforms and tarnished the brand image. The company had to rebuild its brand identity to recapture its place in the market. In contrast, let me draw your attention to another outdoor apparel brand Patagonia which puts sustainability ahead of growth and profit under its mission statement “we’re in business to save our home planet.” By voicing its commitment to environmental sustainability, Patagonia has attracted enthusiastic customers and fans which consequently led to revenue growth.

 As we look at GDP growth rates of the world’s 7 largest economies from the 1960s to the 2010s, we find a constant downward curve as if an airplane is descending on final approach. The average growth rate has lingered around 1% during the last decade among most advanced industrialized nations where people enjoy a high material standard of living. As rightfully pointed out by the renowned British economist Keynes, “demand saturation” causes considerably low economic growth. Without formation of an adequate demand, innovation alone would not suffice to generate long-run economic development. Looking back on history, labor productivity improved and our economic growth rate averaged around 8% in the 1960s when there was a strong demand for goods and services to make our life more comfortable and convenient, including home appliances like televisions, refrigerators and washing machines. Today, we are flooded with various tools and items such as computers, virtual conference platforms and email software that make us feel saturated with material possessions. In this world of sufficiency, growing a business has never been more challenging. Marketing strategies become inciting, let alone immoral, to fuel business growth. For example, Dentsu Inc., has been using the following “Ten Strategic Instructions” to turn citizens into its consumers:
 1. Make them spend more
 2. Make them throw away more
 3. Make them waste
 4. Make them forget the seasons
 5. Make them give gifts
 6. Make them combine purchases
 7. Stimulate them
 8. Make them feel out of fashion
 9. Make them shop at ease
 10. Create chaos

 The primary role of business was to offer enhanced safety and security to ensure more convenient and comfortable life for all. Now we have entered a new phase where business leaders are expected to refine aesthetic senses to pursue ethical business that will balance profitability and social good. By envisioning what your ideal world looks like and identifying the gap between the reality, I believe business leaders can support great causes and play an instrumental role in creating positive changes within our society.