Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The loaf of bread: a symbol of business inequality?

We buy a loaf of bread once or twice a week. A baguette, sourdough, cob, granary or farmhouse; for most, choice has expanded beyond the wrapped white of post-war childhood. Toast in the morning, sandwiches for lunch, it’s hard to think of an object in more common use, or one replenished more often.

The question is where should we go to get our daily bread? I go to an old bakery with a brick oven that’s been there for 100 years. Going there not only helps them exist, it gives employment to their local suppliers. Yet half a mile away is a big supermarket. This also has a bakery, the bread being almost as nice but usually a bit cheaper. So, according to the logic of the Business School, the little bakery will disappear. It will soon be another of the empty shops that line the road between my house and the supermarket. There is no alternative.

Let’s think about this lack of choice. The supermarket is profitable because it pays staff as little as it can, drives down the price for its suppliers, imports globally regardless of carbon footprint, and employs accountants to avoid tax. Do we have to assume all this is somehow inevitable, that these negative consequences cannot be avoided? Or can we rethink what sort of organizations we want? Even choose the rules to govern them?

Perhaps then it’s not only bread we need to think about. The way we organise and do business also needs to be reimagined. Organizations are human creations, not monsters from another planet. Hence we need Business Schools that don’t just retail ideas that benefit their main clients – the powerful who tell us that economic life provides us with no alternatives.

Thinking hard about bread opens other questions. Why should we see giant corporations, overpaid bankers and working poor as inevitable? The reality today is one of increasing economic inequality, within and across nations, a radically deteriorating natural environment, systemic financial crises, and rising levels of mental illness and unhappiness, even in countries with the highest GDP. The dominant methods of organising are not only failing; they actively contribute towards the deterioration of the planet and everyday life.

Different models do exist for organising finance, production, distribution and exchange. This isn’t utopian thinking. It’s a practical way of saying there are other ways to arrange our world. That’s why we need to explore worker self-management, consensus decision-making, credit unions, fair trade, bioregionalism, gift economies and open source software movements. None of this is taught by Business Schools; and neither are co-operatives, community currencies, the transition movement, scrounging, co-housing and much more. Another world is not only possible but already there, if we look hard enough.

The little bakery is still there, for now, and represents something warm and local when compared to the soulless superstore down the road, with its bad pay, awful jobs and ‘loyalty’ cards. That’s why it’s important that we explore the sheer diversity of organisational possibilities and ensure that Business Schools work for all humankind, and its small bakeries.

Professor Martin Parker

Research interests:

  • To widen the scope of what can properly be covered by the business school
  • Alternative organization, angels, shipping containers and art galleries
  • How academics write, and how they might cultivate new audiences for their ideas

Back to top