02/20/2013 04:14 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Worldwide Self-Interest: We All Scream for I Scream!

Terry Mollner, one of the founders of the Calvert Foundation and credited for securing the mission of Ben and Jerry's in their sale to Unilever, was invited to attend some of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Terry went to Davos to share the following thoughts with CEOs, major economists, and thought leaders. Those he spoke with included Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart; Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan; Former US Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers; Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate and Founder of Grameen Bank; Ray Schwarez, video journalist with PBS; the presidents of Georgetown and Harvard University; Joseph Stieglitz, Nobel laureate economist; and Bing Yiang, president of the largest business school in China.

He began his pitch: "I would like to share an idea with you: As we all know, the highest priority of multinational corporations is to become number one or two in each product market." This appeared to ease his listeners. Terry had an agenda, and central to it was to make more conscious the duopolization of our economy, where two companies control a large percentage of a product market. It is all around us; but up to now we may not have given it much attention: Home Depot-Lowes, CVS-Walgreens, Airbus-Boeing, Anheuser Bush Inbev-Miller Coors, and many others.

Next he stated, "This will only become more extensive and at some point the public will become aware of it. The political left will then call it a monopoly with another face. The question will then become, 'How do duopolies protect their duopolies?'"

This question was met with silence and keen attention to what he would say next. All the merger and acquisition activity has been fully focused on attaining a duopoly in each product market and not bringing attention to it.

He then continued, "There is only one thing the public will respect: the two companies will need to voluntarily reach agreements to raise their labor, environmental, and social standards while continuing to compete as their secondary priority." Every person nodded or expressed some words affirming complete agreement with that answer to the question. He had not only provided the logical and natural answer to the question but it was also a positive for the duopolies. So there was clearly nothing to dislike.

One person, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, responded positively but then stated cooperation would be illegal and began to walk away. Terry turned to him and said, "You know there is a way for it to be legal.... It is cooperation for the common good, not collusion." Jamie apparently turned and said, calmly smiling, "You are right."

Most were interested in hearing more. He disclosed: "I am on the board of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Ben & Jerry's and Haagen Dazs control 86% of the super premium ice cream market in the USA. Ben & Jerry's is now owned by Unilever. Its CEO, Paul Polman is a progressive thinker. We could pilot this idea by having Ben & Jerry's and Haagen Dazs agree to have the minimum wage be equal to the livable wage in each area where our ice creams are produced. Everyone wins. The employees win, the community wins. All the smaller competitors might follow and relative to one another there would not be an increase in net costs. Governments will love it because instead of collusion it is cooperation for the common good. The duopolies will be seen as cooperating to make the world a better place, ending the exploitation of people, planet and communities. I believe the first duopolies to market with this approach will have their brand names loved...

"However, it will not easily occur as long as we all continue in the immature assumption that competition, not cooperation, is fundamental in nature."

Terry often argues that anytime two people agree to do anything, from a conversation to a good argument, there is a cooperative context: they agree to do it.

"Healthy cooperation is when the parts give priority to the whole. An obvious example is the parts of our bodies... Cancer [results] when cells choose to grow unsustainably."

"If cooperation is the fundamental process in nature everywhere, not competition, then the universe is an indivisible whole. No one has found the beginning, end, or edge of it. There is much more we still do not understand. What is important is that if cooperation is the fundamental process in nature then competition, compromise, and love are three forms of cooperation...and we get to choose.

He concluded by saying, "My point is simply this: when the public learns about the rapid expansion of duopolies and reacts negatively, multinational corporations will be forced to take the lead in cooperating for the common good. What will make it much easier will be the realization that cooperation is, indeed, the fundamental process in nature, and positive cooperation will be in the self-interest of us all, especially the duopolies."

In telling me this story Terry concluded: "I am glad I was able to get some of these ideas into the thinking of so many of our corporate leaders. So, I am glad I went."

As for me, I felt compelled to ask whether it is correct to assume that duopolies can ever be sustainable. If not, then prioritizing ESG breakthroughs might just be like upgrading a sinking ship. We shall see. In the meantime breakthroughs in thinking count for a lot.

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