Flipping Pyramids: anyone else think these ought to be inverted?

This post is a long time coming. There are at least two conceptual pyramids involved in our research and teaching in business schools that, while very useful, may be overdue for turning on their heads. Here they are, top-to-bottom: Carroll’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Pyramid and Prahalad’s Fortune at the Base of the Pyramid:


A pyramid is a powerful symbol. Generally, being at the top implies being in a position of privilege in a hierarchy. On the other hand, it can be interpreted to mean that the base is more essential than the top, a good foundation being essential in supporting the upper tiers (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs illustrates this point). This brings us to the first obvious problem with the CSR Pyramid: being profitable is portrayed as more essential than following the law. Similarly and perhaps most disturbingly, being profitable is designated as more important than not harming people or the environment – bettering environmental or societal conditions is “discretionary.” We all agree we would not want this kind of enterprise – that puts profits ahead of lawfulness and our safety – as a neighbor, right? And that short-term profit-chasing has led to current, real, and severe societal and ecological crises?

Would we be better off if we provoked business leaders to see the CSR pyramid precisely the other way around? That your ideal future (of your enterprise and yourself) is to find problems and solve them – to restore or improve conditions in terms of ecological systems and society? That the next obligation is not to harm? Next, that in solving problems and avoiding harms, you should follow the rules of society? That, if you can do all of this and cover all your costs and compensate yourself and your people, the final and most discretionary aspect of running an enterprise should be seeking ways to extract more money from all transactions than needed?

There is no shortage of books and instructional case studies about companies finding sustainable profits by effectively flipping this pyramid: figuring out how to provide water, sanitation, energy, transportation, food, and shelter in ways that save lives, improve lifestyles, harm no one, and, like an oyster farm or composting waste, restore or improve ecological conditions. Paul Hawken, Gunter Pauli, Ray Anderson… there are plenty of thought leaders who have advocated for Blue Economy thinking or Restorative Economics. So why have we not flipped the CSR pyramid to reflect this thinking and these enterprises as the ideal to which to aspire? Is it time to take this valuable conceptual tool and to flip it?

For the next pyramid flipping thought, I need to credit John Fobanjong, a colleague at UMass Dartmouth in the department of political science, for an insightful question that he asked a few years ago. At a brief seminar highlighting a few key big ideas from the world of sustainable business and examples in South Asia, especially India and Bangladesh, we covered Prahalad’s Fortune at the Base of the pyramid and micro-credit (Grameen Bank) and life-saving soap (Lifebuoy) as examples of making money by solving the needs of global society’s poorest. John asked a poignant question: could the pyramid be upside-down – why are the world’s monetarily poorest few billion human souls at the bottom, and a few hundred billionaires at the pinnacle?

The top of the pyramid does seem to convey a position of privilege in this context – we routinely refer to the hyper-wealthy as being at the top of the economic pyramid. Could we similarly leave this conceptual diagram as it is (meaning that the largest area of the pyramid accurately reflects the larger number of poor people in the world than the wealthy) – but, again, flip it so that we provoke the thought: start with the world’s poorest and the goods and services they need and their ecological conditions. Find solutions in that marketplace as your first priority? Just like Grameen Bank, Life Buoy, and the creators of the Peepoo bag or other waste composting enterprises, sustainable profits can follow. An inverted “pyramid of fortune” model suggests – accurately – that we (including entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs and enterprises and those trying to help them as researchers, coaches, educators, and consultants) may all be better off with such thinking as the priority.

Thanks for reading this and please contact me with questions, comments, or an FYI if you know of someone who has already written any these critiques – asulkowski@gmail.com.

Image credits:

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (Making Good Business Sense). Diagram of Carroll’s CSR Pyramid. Citing to Carroll (1991).

Robert L. Williams, Maktoba Omar, and Ujvala Rajadhyaksha. The Value Flame at the Base of the Pyramid (VFBOP): Identifying and Creating a Valuable Market (2012).

About Adam Sulkowski

Associate Professor of Law and Sustainability, specializing in research and teaching on sustainable business, corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability reporting, integrated reporting, and corporate and environmental law.
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