Helio Mattar: From Consumerism to Conscious Consumption [Transcript]

in dialogue with Walter Link


WATCH Helio Mattar: From Consumerism to Conscious Consumption HERE


Helio Mattar


In life, sometimes we have to say enough is enough. And to define the enough you have to look into yourself, into your soul and not look at what type of appreciation you are going to get from society.


Walter Link


Today I take you to São Paulo where I had a very personal conversation with Helio Mattar about why he chose to leave a highly successful career in business and government to become one of Brazil’s most important leaders of civil society. In business, Helio was a turnaround CEO of General Electric appliances and other corporations.


In government, he served as a minister of industrial trade and policy in Brazil’s federal government. I know Helio from years of working together to build the international movement for corporate social and environmental responsibility. But for companies to change, consumers also need to demand different products.


That’s why Helio founded and leads the Akatu Institute for conscious consumption that empowers people to buy products from companies that are aligned with their values. So today we explore together what is at the heart of this movement for conscious consumption.



When you were fifty you made a big shift from being in a top executive position with General Electric and other companies to run foundations and nonprofit organizations. What motivated that change and how was it?


Helio Mattar


The basic reason for me to make the change and leave the private sector as an executive was a basic discomfort with working in the private sector. I had worked in the private sector for twenty-two, twenty-three years. Started my own companies, ran companies for other investors, made turnarounds of companies who were not in good situations. And I was really tired.


When I think back in terms of that feeling of being tired, what I was tired of was having a mission which was totally directed towards financial returns. And at that point in time I was not the owner of the company, I was a CEO for General Electric appliances in Brazil and it was totally focused on financial returns.


Even the CSR effort, the corporate social responsibility effort, of the company was very, very limited at that point in time. That was 1999. And I thought that I had a relatively comfortable position from an economic and financial standpoint so I could take the rest of my life to do something in which I would give some returns to society.


I have been spending time talking about how companies are liable to societies and have to give their returns to societies. Basically because of an ethical liability which is the fact that the company comes and establishes itself in a society and the relationship of that company to the society is totally dependent on what the society did up to that point in time.


What education it developed, the infrastructure it developed, the health system it developed, so on and so forth. So there is an ethical debt with society and I felt that companies at that point in time I already felt I had started the effort with Ethos Institute for corporate social responsibility one year before. One and a half years before.


And I already felt at that point in time that companies should give returns to society as a whole. And I was not able to do so in that private company specifically. And I thought at that point in time, very few companies were talking about the social responsibility of giving returns to society. Very few companies would realize that there was an ethical debt to society because of the work of many generations before that built a society as it is so that the company could operate in that society which is the basic, from my point of view, the basic ethical reason for corporate social responsibility.


Walter Link


So you have been in CEO level leadership positions in both industrial corporations, smaller companies, then as a minister in government and now in the nonprofit sector. What is the difference or the similarities of good leadership in those sectors?


Helio Mattar


When I left the private sector, there was a transition in the style of leadership which I think I had anticipated by a few years. Leadership in the private sector was going, at that point in time, from a command and control type of leadership in which a bunch of illuminated professionals would decide what the company should be. And a bunch of other people would just accept those definitions and just carry on.


That change had been going on in Brazil for about ten years. And when I left my type of leadership was one which was very participative in which I considered myself more as a person who would articulate the ideas, synthesize visions and propose the synthesis in order to see what will make the bond together of the people and the ideas so that everybody would feel, one, represented by the strategy, by the ideas that were being synthesized. And second, because of being represented in those ideas, to feel responsible for the implementation of it.


That’s a very creative process. Of course it is a process that takes longer than the process of just one genius thinking about it and just implementing and asking for implementation. But it is much more effective both from the point of view of the execution because everybody is convinced that it has to be done and from the point of view of the engagement, the motivation of people.


So my last job as a CEO was to work on the turnaround of a company in a very difficult sector which is the appliance sector. And the turnaround was extremely successful. And in three years actually a company that was almost bankrupt became, by far, the leader of that sector. We multiplied by two the amount of production in terms of volume without almost any increase in the workforce.


And productivity is the name of the game in terms of financial returns, of course. So everybody was happy in terms of the investors, but not everybody was happy on the other side because, although people were convinced that they were doing the right thing for the business itself, for the strategy of the business, for competing in the business, they were not feeling that the returns that they were getting, that different stakeholders were getting, were not exactly in place. They were not exactly giving a fair return to each one of the blocks of stakeholders, that were really working for the company.


So that was the point I left the private sector. Probably, if it were for today with the level of corporate social responsibility in companies and work toward sustainability, maybe I would have thought twice about leaving because a company does have enormous power, depending on the size of the company of course, but it has an enormous power of influence, both from a leading by example and showing to other companies and to other people, to other CEOs. But also it makes an enormous difference in the community.


Walter Link


You left the business sector and you went into the nonprofit sector and you had the experience of course of many of your colleagues, former colleagues were looking at you and thinking, God, this Helio, he is crazy. He left this wonderful CEO job and now what is he doing?


Helio Mattar


People do not really understand. Especially because the definition of success is so much related to how much money you make, what types of things you are able to accumulate and so on, that it’s very difficult to change that perspective and say what really will be a realization for me, which will feed my soul, are just totally different things from what was happening in the for-profit sector. That’s impossible to explain.


But I had some good surprises there. In which still now, still now happens. That people in the for-profit sector, at that point in time very few people, at this point time very many people, would come to me, will call me and say, can we have lunch together? And they want to know exactly that: What is the experience of being in the nonprofit sector?


And most of them will say exactly the same. They say, I made enough money. The for-profit sector doesn’t feed me, especially does not feed my soul. In life sometimes we have to say enough is enough. And to define the enough you have to look into yourself, into your soul and not look at what type of appreciation you’re going to get from society.


Walter Link


You were talking about the importance of feeding your soul. I’d like you to say something about this personally also in this wider context that we have been talking about together for many years which is that, in a way the biggest challenge to social environmental sustainability is also consumerism, what you are now focusing on with Institute Akatu. And we talked about the necessity of a paradigm shift not only from unsustainable production for consumption, to more sustainable production.


But the fact that we are trying to fill nonmaterial needs through consumption, that we have a whole economy, a whole society which more and more is global that attempts to satisfy all our needs in a very material way while we can see throughout human history that, in fact, many of our needs are not material. So I think that leads back to this question of, what feeds your soul in your experience and how does that relate to consumerism?


Helio Mattar


If I talk in general, my own soul is fed, in general, is fed by beauty. Beauty, not only in the aesthetic sense of beauty but in the ethic sense of beauty also. As the Greeks would equalize static and active. In Portuguese I say that there are four A’s: which is affection, friendship, love and art.


These four elements, these four A’s in Portuguese, they are all related to beauty. Beauty in the sense of affection, you can only have affection for other people if you reduce your own importance in that relationship and really try to find what is good in the other one. You can only have friendship in the same way.


You are only going to love, really love someone, if you are going to accept that other person thoroughly without asking what that person has to give you. But asking yourself what you have to give to the other person. And the artist is exactly the same. If you produce the art you are being generous to people, you are expressing your emotions and dedicating your life to expressing your emotions. Through art you are expressing your vision of the world through art.


So it’s all beauty. Beauty is the basic attribute which I think should be part of the Bill of Rights of the human being. The right to beauty. Anyone should have the right to beauty. The right to beauty in relations in terms of friendship, affection, love. The art to beauty in whatever surrounds you physically, tangibly or intangibly.


And that’s what feeds my soul. For instance, I see that I harden myself whenever I stay too long far from music for instance. Music is a most extraordinary art because it talks to anyone of any culture and it touches you without you knowing what is the interface. The interface is sounds. You cannot really understand what is going on, why is it that this sound is going this way? I feel my emotions and you coming from a totally different culture, you feel the same emotion.


Is it the same? I don’t know if it is the same. But you feel moved by music. So I love the language of music because of that ability to talk to different cultures. I would love to find a language that would have that. Actually, the closest to music in my point of view is poetry. In poetry we are able to express beyond the words themselves. So you read poetry and you are not reading the words, you are reading the images, the way the images relate to each other and how they move you in certain directions.


Walter Link


Last year I brought a group from the Triodos bank, we were doing this two-year leadership development program to also meet with you here and the COO in particular was very touched by the way you spoke about beauty. He is a former McKinsey partner and he is responsible, among other things, for the IT area and he has now taken over the financial investment area of the bank.


So he is a numbers man in some sense but he also chose of course to work for a sustainability bank like Triodos. And I wonder whether you can make the connection, in your experience, in your perspective, between this discovery of art and music and how it touches you in this very visceral way, and what it can help us to understand sustainability and shift from kind of materialist consumption to a different way of life that can be rich and satisfying without being so materially demanding?


Helio Mattar


I do think there is a direct relationship, direct relationship, between beauty and emotions that beauty provoke and sustainability. If you look at sustainability as being a process through which companies, people as consumers, public officials will have to worry about the other ones, not about themselves.


Companies which for a long period of time worried about shareholders, if they want to act sustainably they have to worry about how other people feel about their actions. This is the quality of the relationship is the feelings that are established in these relationships. The consumer wants to be a conscious consumer, wants to be a sustainable in the future works for sustainability in a sustainable society.


They will act in a solitary way. They will worry about the impact of their consumption on others. On the society, on the environment. When you are worried about the feelings of others what you are doing is exactly what art does to yourself. The artist, at some point in time, be it develop a piece of music or a painting or a sculpture, and when you enter in contact with that you are moved by it.



And if you would meet that artist you would see that that is a human being with all the qualities and all the problems that human beings have. All the contradictions and so on. It’s exactly the same in sustainability. Sustainability is in the process of establishing that the feelings of people in both directions will have to be considered.


The feelings of consumers, not only in relationship to the products themselves but how they are treated by the company and how they establish the relationship as well as the relationship to communities. So it’s not an objective thing. It is part of how companies and people are being touched in a mutual relationship. And then you have to have sensitive souls on the part of the companies in order to really work for sustainability.


­Walter Link


So that would mean in order to really develop sustainable companies and sustainable societies we have to develop sensitivity. That is not something that the business world, not even the social and environmental change world is considering much. To refine, in a way, our souls, our awareness, our human beingness so that we become something else that has the sensitivity to appreciate the depths and complexity and subtlety of life in the way you are talking about it.


Helio Mattar


And I would add just one thing which is, that sensitivity I think can be expressed in one word which is compassion. I think the basic element that modern society lost, the basic attribute was compassion. So people become so worried about themselves individually, they don’t care about what impact they are causing on other people, on society or the environment. They don’t care.


They’ve lost their compassion. And if we think of compassion as co-passion which means to live the same passion at the same time as the other one is living that passion, that means to say you are sensitive to the other person’s passion, to the other person’s emotions. And that is the basic element of sustainability. That is the basic element of, when a company acts, if the company really worries about compassionately, that’s the way to say it, compassionately worries about what is going to impact, how it’s going to impact a person, another company, the environment. Compassionately worried about that. It will only do good.




I have been thinking about an acid test for sustainability, actions. And the acid test is this: You will act sustainably if you are able to do whatever you intend to do, looking at the eyes of the person who is going to receive the impact. If I am able to do it, looking into your eyes, how you are going to react, how you are going to look at me, then it’s probably a sustainable way of doing it.


You don’t kill anyone looking at the eyes, right? That’s why so many people are killed from the back. Because it demands, it’s not courage that it demands, it demands of you despising your own soul to kill someone looking in his or her eyes. It’s exactly the same with sustainability.


The acid test is this: Call your employee and tell him what you intend to do with him or with her, looking in his or her eyes. If you are able to stand that without hardening yourself, just leave your emotions flowing and look at the eyes of the other one and you still are going to do it? Fine, probably that is sustainable.


Of course I’m assuming in this case I’m assuming good faith, of course. But if I’m assuming, more of anything else, I’m assuming that you are in contact with yourself. If people lose the contact with themselves they can do just anything. They can go to war, they can kill people. But if you keep the contact with yourself that acid test of deciding to do things looking at the eyes of the ones who are going to be impacted is an excellent rule, is a beautiful rule.


Because through the eyes you are going to see the soul, you’re going to see the heart, you’re going to see the emotions, you are going to see the human reaction. It’s difficult to stand that if you are doing bad.


Walter Link


You were just saying when you have to dismiss somebody from your own team, which of course also happens in nonprofit organizations as well, you are saying that that also is really demanding of you, this new standard?


Helio Mattar


And the demanding of me a new standard, and I immediately see that my initial tendency is to harden myself. It’s tough to dismiss someone. Especially, for instance, if it’s a person who is a little bit older, you know that person is going to have a difficulty finding a place in the market, you have to feel vulnerable in order to do this with your soft heart and to really feel saddened by it. Really feel saddened.


If it’s not for that, don’t do it. Wait for another day. And do it when you feel that the other person is as human as you are when you are vulnerable. Because I’m not saying that the people were not vulnerable. I’m not saying they are not human. I’m saying they are humans who are hardened. But when we are hardened it gets the worst out of us.


Walter Link


So there is really a different understanding of strength and courage. It’s the strength to be vulnerable, it’s the courage to be vulnerable that then actually allows you to act in this humane way while there is a certain cowardice in this hardening because you are shielding yourself from that sadness, from that vulnerability that is difficult to feel. And that is so different from the image that traditionally is given to strength which has this macho, especially of course in Latin or male cultures, the hardened, macho, strong part. And you are just expressing a totally different perspective which, in a way, I could say is the power of the feminine in also men.


Helio Mattar


Yeah, I really think there is an extremely important change that we need to go through in the modern society. The modern society established itself as being basically a male values society. So it’s a society where values are, the rationality, the objectivity, competitiveness, aggressiveness, these are valued in society.


When you go to companies it’s not legitimate to be vulnerable. It’s not legitimate. And we have to balance that with the feminine values of affection, of cooperation, subjectiveness, intuition which are, in general, would make you much more vulnerable.


There is a wonderful poem by Yeats in which he says, in the worst, all conviction, in the best, all doubts. That’s exactly it. If you rationalize, if you look at it objectively, you probably will harden yourself. You have all the conviction to do it. But the best will be the ones who really would like it to be soft. Would like to be vulnerable from your point of view and to accept the vulnerability on the other side. Who would accept that humanly you feel sad when you do some things.


But that’s not the male society. Unfortunately we are living very much in a male society. I was so hopeful some years ago when women started to get to the higher positions in companies and I realized, at least that has been the case up until recently, that women who get into the highest positions, they harden themselves. They get to be as male-valued as the males.


And now we are starting to see the women coming with this intuition, subjective way of behaving. And being accepted for that. But especially being vulnerable and being accepted for that. That will change the quality of the relationships inside companies, inside organizations and the relationship between people.


Walter Link


I’d like to come back in a way to the consideration of consumerism because what we are now been exploring is that really sustainable leadership requires a cultivation of our consciousness. An increasing of our sensitivity of the capacity to feel compassion. And when I look at why people consume I think we can see that it isn’t actually the stuff they want.


Especially when you buy a brand product which really consumption more and more has become, you want to have something that has a certain brand, meaning a certain image, a certain value attached to it. What you are really seeking is not so much the material stuff out of which it’s made but the myth that is attached to it. The idea that is attached to it.


And we know also that in valuations of companies these days that in fact it is the so-called brand value that often is the biggest value of a company, not so much their material assets. So in a certain way I think we often don’t approach the question of consumerism enough from this psychological and even spiritual perspective of what we really want to get from it.


So I think if we want to change the society towards more sustainability and less material consumerism, we need to understand more deeply what consumerism really is about. And I wonder what your perspective on that is?


Helio Mattar


Well my perspective I would say is better expressed if I refer to a phrase of the Lehman Brothers banker in the 1930s when he explicitly said, in his words, we have to change America from a society of needs to a society of desires. We need a society in which desires, his words, desires overshadow needs. And that is exactly the society that was developed.


Through consumerism what people more and more were convinced through the type of recognition that society was given, the type of recognition that advertising was given, people more and more were convinced that they were what they bought. They were the brands that they bought.


And since there was so much competition in consumption, people were never happy enough with whatever they would have. People would buy something but their neighbor bought something better or his or her sister or brother bought something better or his colleague in work bought something which was better. And immediately you feel the need to continue. And that is the desire.


A desire to compete in consumption. That I think is the best perspective to look at consumerism as it developed in the twentieth century. And it has as a basis, an economic system that despised the human element and to consider almost uniquely exclusively the financial returns, especially in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Financial returns are kings. And anything else doesn’t have to be considered. Consumers are subjected to a process in which their individuality is totally linked to consumption.


Walter Link


So there is a fundamental shift of values happening where on the one hand there is still the, let’s say material consumption desires that are created and that are satisfied. But they are also an increase in the middle class growing numbers of, tens of millions of people in Brazil, who actually value the relationship to their family, the sanity of their lives, their psychological and spiritual well-being and that of their families over these desires of consumption.


How do we create a transition from this old economy that is very much driven by creating and then actually not satisfying desires, just creating desires and then continuously keeping the desire alive so that more and more can be offered toward the desire without ever fulfilling the desire because these desires really can’t be satisfied by material things? How do we create a transition in an economy that is so much based on that to an economy that fulfills needs, material needs with material things and human needs with human life?


Helio Mattar


I think we have a great opportunity nowadays to make that transition. The basic element I think that will lead to that transition is consciousness. It is to raise awareness and raise consciousness of people about themselves. About how they are actually reacting to the life that they are living. How they are actually sensing what is happening in their lives. And I say that I’m very optimistic about the possibility of raising that consciousness basically because, on the one side, most people are not feeling happy about the lives they are living.


People complain about not having the time, not being with friends, I didn’t see my kids during the whole week. And on the other side, they have a way to express that, to many, many people in the digital world, in the digital networks. And to see that they are not alone. That will take people to move in a different direction without feeling that they are leaving society.


Because before the digital networks people who would go in a different direction, they would feel like, I will be alone. I’m going to leave society. Now it’s not the case. They know they’re not alone. They know that that same type of feeling is happening to other people and they feel supported by a reference group that will help us, will help them, and will help us, to go in a different direction.


And there is a second opportunity which is a most extraordinary opportunity and humankind has to use it. Besides that first one. Which is the fact that if economies become more inclusive, as they are becoming, if the occupy Wall Street movement has the effect that I think it will have, which is to say to people, listen, that’s not fair what is happening in the world. It’s not fair.


There are so many people unemployed leading a life which is not decent, doing work which is not decent. And there is an enormous possibility today to include people and to reduce the amount of work of the ones who are working so that at the moment that you include people you are not including people in the same type of society.


You are including people in a different type of society in which it is more inclusive because these people will be working but they are not going to be working twelve or fourteen hours. They are going to be working six hours, five hours. We have always to remember that the last time there was a radical change in work time, in work week, was in 1890 when the work day was reduced to eight hours.


Walter Link


But then of course you achieve the inclusion of people and you achieve the distribution of opportunity through people and that’s wonderful to have that social sustainability enhanced. But what happens to the environment, to the natural resources if more and more people are included in that widespread consumption?


Helio Mattar


I am assuming that the studies of happiness that have been done in the last several years showing that happiness has a reverse correlation with the level of income. So the more developed countries have lower levels of happiness than the less developed countries, in general. Which shows that consumption has got out of control.


Out of control with people in general. So people are consuming more and more and they are tense in that process. They are worried about their work. They have to work more in order to consume more. They are in debt up to here. They cannot sleep because they cannot pay their debts. They cannot pay their houses.


So all this is not positive. What I am saying is that the seed is there. The level of discomfort that is present in the modern, more developed society has to do directly with too much consumption and too much work. People are realizing that. So the type of consumption will have to change.




I think there is a shift from quantity of consumption to quality of life. I think if we think of a pendular system, the pendulum went too far in one direction. It’s starting to come back. And the coming back will mean that we will go from a society that consumes with fast obsolescence, always individual products even if they can be shared, produced in a very global way and not a local way to a society of more durable products, of shared products, of more local economies, of virtual products much more than material products and that changes completely lifestyles and the way people consume.


It changes a society from a society of products to a society which I am starting to call a society of functions. Which means to say, people are looking not at the product they need, they are looking at the function that has to be performed. So I don’t want to buy a car, I want to have mobility. And I’m going to look at ways to have mobility without losing well-being.


It’s not that I am proposing or people are thinking, people who are unhappy with their consumption and their work, they are thinking of reducing well-being. No. They are thinking of having the same well-being, of even better well-being, consuming a different way.


Walter Link


And that of course also then means to say that I want for example being valued. I want to have value and I can understand that this value is an inner realization. It’s not something that comes through driving a bigger car or having a bigger bank account. So there is in a certain sense a greater maturity of understanding what it takes to fulfill certain needs.


Helio Mattar


And what it takes to feed the souls of people. I see people feeling that their souls are empty and they feel very, very lonely in that situation, in that position. The pendulum went so far that in some communities in the United States people have to learn to touch each other. They are unable to touch. They are unable to touch their children. They are unable to kiss their children. I’m saying the United States because that is the society that I know best. But maybe many other societies that is happening. People are not happy in that type of situation. So what I’m saying is, people are learning what is needed to feed their souls.


The other day I was in New York City and I met a gentleman, his house, wonderful house, beautiful house, full of beautiful art. And that was a guy that was really rough. I came in and I said, very nice to meet you, sir. And he looked at me, sir? Bullshit! All right. We couldn’t talk really. When I left I decided to do something that was very unusual for him. I decided to kiss him in the face. And what I did was I kissed the ladies when I was leaving. I said, you know, this is the Brazilian way of doing this. We kiss.


And I looked at him and I said, we even kiss men. We kiss among friends. And I kissed him. You should see the effect of that. It was as if he was melting. He was melting. He didn’t know what to say. But for sure he wouldn’t say bullshit. Because that took a hard heart to say it. And he really would say, he probably didn’t feel good. He felt that was exquisite, but it was not bad. He melted.


You see more people among the young people, even in societies which have difficulties in touching, you see young people hugging. You see young people kissing. And that’s not only going against what the previous generation did, it is feeding their souls with the emotion of feeling that they are part of the same humankind.


They are not part of a species in which each person is so different that is unable to relate to the other one. So I am optimistic again when I see these things. I am optimistic that people are starting to value relations and value the sharing of emotions, valuing the laughing together and the crying together.


And I’m sure that this will make people better human beings who will require, in terms of well-being, material and psychological well-being which will be brought to them by consumption. It will require a totally different type of consumption.