By Giles Hutchins
Can business be a force for good — restoring society and the environment and providing solutions that genuinely help rather than hurt? Ought business to be striving for more than just limiting its harm? I think we intuitively know it can, yet it requires courage to break rank from our mainstream approach and current mindset.
The prevailing business paradigm of maximization, self-interest and short-termism is weakening its own resilience, in turn sowing the seeds of its own demise. Our prevalent business concepts, values, perceptions and practices are being disrupted and systemically challenged. Put simply ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option for those wishing to thrive in the volatile times ahead.
As individuals and organizations, we can either a) retrench (clinging fearfully to outdated mindsets) or b) transform (embracing new ways of operating). It reminds me of the ancient Chinese Proverb:
In times of great winds, some build bunkers others build windmills.
Organizations have little option other than to seek out opportunities in these volatile times, adapt and evolve to what the book “The Nature of Business” refers to as ‘firms of the future’ – businesses more akin to living organisms than mechanistic monoliths designed for the Industrial Era. These firms of the future can take inspiration from nature at all levels within their strategies and operations. For instance:
Places: Intelligent buildings that sense and respond to their environment are effective, vibrant and healthy places to work.
Products: Biomimicry is already well established in assisting the designing of sustainable products – just Google ‘biomimicry’ to come up with many examples.
Processes: Industrial ecology and symbiosis, business ecosystem mapping, systems thinking, eco-literacy, circular processes, closed loop economics and cradle-to-cradle are part of a growing list of approaches applied to shaping business processes based on insights from nature.
People: Traditionally the domain of humanists and psychologists, more and more we find nature’s inspiration positively influencing how we engage, empower and encourage our people to build resilience within their diverse stakeholder group. For example eco-psychology and natural leadership are emergent approaches to help business people deal with complexity and unpredictability
Purpose: As organizations recognise the need to have a higher purpose beyond ‘short term profit maximisation’ in order to galvanise themselves for the stormy seas ahead, many in business question whether it is ‘good enough’ to focus on becoming ‘sustainable’ by focusing on reducing negative social and environmental impacts. Some forward thinking businesses are realising that ‘reaching beyond zero impact’ means becoming restorative and net positive, where business creates conditions conducive for life, rather than merely reducing the harm inflicted.
Diversity, flexibility and inter-relations, we find, are core to the interwoven evolutionary journey of life – the driving forces that provide resilience and regeneration. Yet, the prevalent approach of business (and for that matter human society) sets itself a part from nature. How, then, can we set about attuning our approaches to the inherent grammar running through life?
This question of the moment can be answered through 3 R’s – Re-design, Re-connect, Re-kindle:
- Re-designing – new ways of operating and innovating beyond ‘less bad’ into ‘doing good’ (shifting from the take/make/waste economic paradigm to a regenerative approach that heals society and the web of life rather that destroying life in the name of short-term gain). An example here is the Kingfisher Group aiming to be a ‘net positive’ force for good in the world.
- Re-connecting – reconciling our human relationship with life/nature and our own authentic human nature (re-establishing our vital bond with ourselves, our neighbours and the web of life within which we are a part of through education, authentic leadership and eco-psychology). An example here is the co-founder of Natura, Pedro Passo, who instils a business culture that understands our interrelatedness with nature and community.
- Re-kindling wisdom – working with the grain of nature and operating within the rules of life on Earth (enabling businesses and societies not merely to ‘sustain’ but to thrive in the years ahead by practicing wise approaches to life that draw on, for instance: symbiosis, ecological thinking, permaculture, systems-thinking and systems-being, business inspired by nature, presencing & indigenous wisdom). An example here would be Weleda with its bio-dynamic philosophy and its holistic approach to all aspects of its business.
Giles Hutchins has twenty years business experience formerly for KPMG and more recently as Global Director of Sustainability for Atos International. He speaks and writes about business inspired by and in harmony with nature and is author of The Nature of Business. He blogs at www.thenatureofbusiness.org.