It’s been a year (and counting) of life in pandemic conditions, not to mention divisive political tactics and fresh injustices worldwide—enough to overwhelm our thoughts and even our actions. Unless, according to Simon Mainwaring, you start with a simple change of mindset.

Mainwaring, CEO of We First and the bestselling author of “We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World” (St. Martin’s Griffin, reprint October 2012), says it’s a question of remembering something we’re hardwired to do, but forgot. Yet the mental shift from “me first” to “we first” has potential that’s so profound that he’ll explore the impact in his next book, “Lead With We: The Business Revolution That Will Save Our Future” (BenBella, November 2021).

We asked Mainwaring to explain more about making the shift and what it can do.

24Life: What does it mean to have a “we first” approach as a consumer?

Simon Mainwaring: A “Me First” mindset is when you put yourself first, at the expense of others. You act in a way that is selfish (as opposed to a healthy self-interest, which is part of every human being).

The problem with this mindset is that when we all act this way, everyone suffers, because each person’s actions come at the cost of others’ well-being and ultimately, the planet’s health. In contrast, a “We First” approach prioritizes the well-being of the collective. You make sure to act and think in ways that serve everyone, because the integrity of the whole is what allows the parts to thrive.

Now let’s look at this from a consumer point of view. Imagine the difference between a prevailing mindset where everyone buys what they want, irrespective of the harm it does to people, the planet or future generations. That is very different from consumers making conscious choices about the brands they support, what products they buy, and how they live their lives, with a goal of protecting the planet on which we all depend.

This distinction is important because brands cannot survive in societies that fail—and our lives, communities and future are increasingly challenged, because the planet we rely on is in trouble.

24Life: What does “We First” look like or sound like?

SM: In short, a “We First” mentality is all about putting the way you live to work for yourself, others, and the future we’ll share.

A “We First” consumer approach recognizes that the choices you make have consequences, and that all aspects of your life can be put to work toward a better future. Choice can take many positive forms, from the products you buy, to the brands you support, to using your right to vote, to shifting toward renewable energy alternatives, to advocating for positive change.

On the punitive side, choice means leveraging your social media to call out brands that are guilty of irresponsible behavior or disingenuous marketing in the form of green-washing, cause-washing or purpose-washing.

24Life: How do we shift from “Me First” to “We First,” as consumers?

SM: The first step is to recognize that we each have agency for change. That means rather than waiting for someone else to fix the problems that we face as a species or the planet, you recognize that every choice you make is a vote for a certain type of future. In fact, every consumer must realize that they can vote with their dollars every day for the future they want for themselves and others.

The second step is to put that new mindset to work in our daily lives, from the car you drive, to the products you buy, to the brands you recommend, to the politicians you vote for, to the issues you speak out on. And though it’s tempting to feel disheartened by the fact that no single person can drive the change we need at scale, we must also recognize that our collective actions can accelerate and scale change in ways we could never imagine.

24Life: What would you say to someone who feels overwhelmed by how much in the world needs to be fixed? How do we avoid the kind of overwhelm that results in changing nothing?

SM: The reality is this: Pessimism or fatalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe that there’s nothing we can do and that our future is a foregone conclusion, then it’ll be true.

But the flipside is equally valid. If we approach things with an optimistic mindset, mobilizing our personal and collective agency to drive and accelerate change, we’ll be astonished at what we can achieve. In fact, that positive mindset is not just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s actually critical to consumer activism at its core. Research shows that fear mongering about challenges like global warming only leads to passivity with people feeling disheartened, apathetic and disengaged.

So we need to celebrate the difference we can make in the world; mobilize people individually and collectively; and celebrate their successes—to inspire others to do the same.

24Life: How can we bring about the shift to a “We First” mentality, to other parts of life?

SM: This idea of agency extends well beyond the idea of being a consumer. In all aspects of our lives, we can have a positive difference. In fact, the more that we can bring our own sense of purpose to all aspects of how we live, the more fulfilled we will feel and the greater impact we’ll have.

As such, we need to recognize that we can make a conscious choice as to what company we work for as an employee, we can make a conscious choice as to what pension or retirement fund we invest in, and we can make a conscious choice as to what brands we recommend to others to support their growth.

When we do bring a sense of personal purpose to all aspects of our lives, we find that alignment between who we are and how we live. This unlocks greater productivity, impact—and ultimately give our lives significance. In that sense, each of us is a leader in that we can activate our personal lives to make a positive difference, and lead together to realize even greater change at scale.

24Life: Why is this important now?

SM: It is more critical than ever to think, act and live purposefully, because the challenges we face are not only enormous in their own right, but also compounding to the point that they present an existential threat to humanity. The climate emergency, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, social inequities—these are all issues that dramatically demonstrate that the way we are doing business, the way we live our lives, the way we are treating our planet is not working.

As such, we need to radically reimagine, re-engineer and repurpose how we live, to meet these challenges with greater speed and at scale. The timelines we are working against are contracting before our eyes, after which many issues will be beyond our control. This is our moonshot, our great calling as a species, not only to protect ourselves, but to rewrite our future.

24Life: So there’s a lot of work to be done. What makes you optimistic that we’re capable of so much change?

SM: As daunting as a sudden and radical shift as all this may sound, the great news is that it does not involve doing something new, but rather remembering what we forgot.

Hardwired in our brains is our deep and profound connection to each other as part of the human family and to the natural world around us. Over the last several decades, we have simply lost sight of the importance and profound benefits of those connections, and we need to reengineer our mindset and behavior to prioritize them again.

Furthermore, every one of these social and environmental challenges is a marketplace opportunity waiting to be solved. These are chances for a business, employees and consumers to build a business, make a product or create a difference that will not only build the bottom line but a better future for everyone.

The final reason there is great cause for optimism is that until now, there has never been the requisite coalition of stakeholders at the table, all at once, to make it possible to re-engineer how we live. But now, we find everyone from leaders to suppliers, employees, customers, consumers and investors (both institutional and retail) recognizing the need for fundamental change.

Once we recognize the power we each have in all aspects of our lives, and once we recognize how that power compounds when we act collectively, and once we realize how quickly and abundantly the natural world can regenerate when we support rather than destroy it, that’s when we recognize just how possible a brighter future can be.

Follow Simon Mainwaring on Instagram @simonmainwaring and learn more about shifting to “We First” @wefirstbranding.

Photo credits: David Clarke, Unsplash; Simon Mainwaring