Civil Society

Is faith good for the economy?

Brian J. Grim
President, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
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According to a recent global study published in Demographic Research, social scientists were wrong to predict the demise of religion. The study and its related Pew Research report show that people who are religiously unaffiliated (including self-identifying atheists and agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular”) made up 16.4% of the world’s population in 2010. And while the number of people who consider themselves unaffiliated has been growing, largely because of religious switching in North America and Europe, the study projects that the unaffiliated will drop to 13.2% of the world’s population in 2050.

Although we expect religious switching – where people abandon the religion they were raised with – to continue, this will be more than offset by higher birth rates among the religiously affiliated population. The median age of religiously affiliated women is six years younger than unaffiliated women; the 2010-15 total fertility rate for those with a religious affiliation is 2.59 children per woman, nearly a full child higher than the rate for the unaffiliated.

And most of this growth in religion is in the very same places – Asia and the developing world – where markets are expected to grow but religion can be volatile.

Faith matters

Faith in the economy, as measured by the monthly consumer confidence index, is viewed as a key indicator of the economy’s overall health. But what about religious faith – might it also matter for the economy?

Wells Fargo recently identified four market transformations they expect in 2015. The first three relate to global economic recovery and technology. But the fourth is that business will shift from primarily being about “making money” to being about “doing good”.

Socially responsible business is certainly a theme championed by religious leaders, including Pope Francis, Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Recent studies suggest that faith can positively impact the economy through at least two distinct vectors: ethos and engagement.

Ethos of the company

Worldwide, a number of companies adhere to a religious or belief-based ethos. For instance, Sanitarium, the most popular breakfast cereal company in Australia, is owned and operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. As a practical demonstration of the Church’s doctrinal dedication to health and well-being, Sanitarium is a South Pacific leader in producing healthy products and in organizing community programmes to encourage healthy lifestyles.

One such Sanitarium programme is their popular nationwide TRYathlons, which inspire children to get moving in a friendly and supportive environment with an emphasis on enjoying the experience as part of an active lifestyle rather than competition.

In fact, breakfast cereals in general have Adventist roots. The parent company of Sanitarium was Sanitas, the original company set up by then-Adventists John Harvey and W.K. Kellogg to manufacture toasted corn flakes as a healthier alternative to the greasy American breakfasts of the day.

Such examples are not just limited to the Christian tradition. Some case studies set out in a new book, Practical Wisdom in Management: Business Across Spiritual Traditions, documents the ethos in each of 10 different religious and humanist traditions. These range from the humanism guiding Mondelēz International (formerly Kraft Foods) and the Buddhist influence on WholeFoods, to the Zoroastrian ethos of Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate with operations on six continents and in more than 80 countries.

Tata’s operating philosophy, based on the Zoroastrian faith, is: “Improving the quality of life of the communities we serve.” By producing affordable and reliable products, supporting charitable causes, and standing against corruption, Tata has been recognized as one of the most reputable companies in India.

Promoting interfaith understanding

Recognizing and drawing on the religiously affiliated identities of employees can help companies successfully navigate challenges and seize new opportunities. A study from the UN Global Compact Business for Peace platform and the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation shows how businesses, often at the initiative of people of faith within companies, can promote interfaith understanding and peace. And it is happening in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Brazil, Israel, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as in the tense border between India and Pakistan.

In 2013, based on suggestions from employees, the Coca-Cola Company launched a project to promote understanding and dialogue by installing two “small world machines” in New Delhi, India, and Lahore, Pakistan, areas where religious tensions run high. Long separated by a border that has seen a number of wars, Indians and Pakistanis were able to use the machines’ live video feeds and large 3D touch screens to speak to and even “touch” the person on the other side. People on both sides of the border, who had never met before, exchanged peace signs, touched hands and danced together.

While some are skeptical that Coca-Cola’s campaign will have any long-term impact on relations between India and Pakistan, the company believes it is a step in the right direction, and it appears to be selling more of their produce.

So, if the new demographic projection and Wells Fargo’s business forecast are correct, these brief examples suggest that we can expect faith to be a powerful force for socially responsible investing, innovation and economic vitality in the years and decades ahead.

Author: Brian J. Grim is the President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation; he is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith

Image: A Hindu devotee stands in the waters of river Ganges to offer prayers to Sun god at dawn in Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh January 12, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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