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Sustainable Metaphors

By CSRWire Blogs

Submitted by Eduardo Sasso

Interface’s ‘Mission Zero’ is arguably the most well known example of a bold move towards radical circularity. When Ray Anderson sought to undertake the journey to heal and overturn his petroleum-intensive carpet company he experienced important realizations – ones which have turned Interface into the archetypal carpet manufacturer in today’s world markets.

The superior heights reached with Interface’s magic carpets did not come about by consulting a technological genie in a plastic bottle. Reorienting his company to reach the summit of what he called ‘mount sustainability’ eventually translated into flooring solutions modeled on natural cradle-to-cradle design. The leap was grounded in allowing nature to provide the metaphors.

A Clockwork Universe?

Today’s standard business practices continue to be informed by standard management theories. Kaplan and Norton encouraged us to think of organizations as airplanes with balanced scorecards functioning as instrument panels in the cockpit. Michael Porter’s ‘shared value’ promoted a new ‘key’ to ‘unlock’ and ‘drive’ business growth. Eliyahu M. Goldratt popularized a revolutionary management philosophy that applied the theory of constraints to maximize economic and material throughput. “Adopting ‘making money’ as the goal of a manufacturing organization looks like a pretty good assumption,” he said.

“If the only tool one has is a hammer, one treats everything like a nail,” said Abraham Maslow in his Psychology of Science. The mechanistic worldview that has shaped modern institutions is largely a consequence of 250 years of the pervasive influence of industrialization. But its metaphors often betray us, and in doing so, they often hold us captive without notice. In our increasingly urban and virtual contexts, our imaginations have grown accustomed to seeing the world through artificial grids. We think of the economy as an objectified reality, and business as a machine steered from a profit-hungry cockpit.

Liberating the Imagination

Practitioners of biomimicry and ecological economics have been championing the recovery of organic metaphors to heal our thinking.

Consider a forest. Forests breathe-in polluting gases to release oxygen; they grow at a gradual pace, taking in only what they need; they filter and recycle water and in doing so protect soils from erosion. Not surprisingly, trees have lived sustainably for thousands of years, with equitable trading practices that allow them to reach relatively similar heights. Ecuadorians put it best: forests don’t need development; forests are developed.

To be clear, this is no argument to do away with our 10.000-year-old civilizational experiment. Instead, the call is for the recognition that nature and culture should coexist in reciprocity, allowing the created world to provide the blueprints.

I was witness to an inspiring reverberation of this shift while serving as a consultant for JustWork, a faith-based social enterprise in Vancouver, the traditional Coast Salish territories of Canada.

From a Stool to a Tree

Seeking to open a space for dignified employment for people with barriers such as mental illnesses or physical impairments, JustWork management needed to communicate its purpose to a wider audience. “We’re like a three-legged stool: one leg represents our faith tradition, the second leg our social mandate, the third one our business model.”

But a stool is – well – a stool. A sudden insight grasped me during an ideation session, “We need an organic metaphor”. And the metaphor was a tree: the faith-values were the root system providing nourishment and inspiration, the business enterprise was the trunk, and the employees were the branches whose labor bore the fruit of products and services for customers.  

The metaphor eventually germinated unexpectedly. Aiming to multiply the social enterprise model, JustWork has been championed by World Vision Canada and Enterprising Non-Profits. However, scalability was not perceived in a business-as-usual way. The organization has avoided impersonal bureaucracies by keeping things on relational level. Instead of becoming a gigantic tree, JustWork has seen itself merely as one healthy tree with the mandate of spreading its story so that other – different – social enterprises may sprout and flourish elsewhere.

In our monochromatic world where the same burger restaurants and coffee shops are being endlessly replicated in every corner, this image could speak volumes. It may be a pathway towards business biodiversity; a move away from empire towards earth community, as Vandana Shiva, David Korten, and many others have been calling for.

Towards the Garden-City

The quest for sustainable metaphors could make us believe that we need to revert back to a pristine state of nature. But that is both impossible and illusory. Instead, the quest calls for nature to repopulate our cities and to heal our mental landscapes. It longs for a new world to be born out of the old – for swords to be turned into ploughshares and synthetic waste-dumps into infinitely revolving magic carpets.

And it calls for rediscovering the forgotten horizons of significance that have been obscured by the smokescreen of the Industrial Revolution. For centuries, Western culture had been guided by a blazing image: one of a city with a pure river flowing down its middle and an ancient tree with roots on both sides, shedding leaves and bearing fruit for the healing of all nations.

Just as Ray Anderson was illuminated by a realization that made him change course, perhaps we too, require – not only fresh eyes – but different images altogether. As we journey into a renewable civilization, only fresh metaphors will sustain us along the way. The time has never been riper to reach the heights of Mount Sustainability, and once there slow down to take wonder at the wonderful world that could lie ahead of us.