In 20+ years of work as a sustainability consultant to publically traded corporations, I’ve often been asked by company executives, “What’s the business case?” Meaning, prove the profitability of going green. How will this increase shareholder value? What’s the impact on Wall Street? ROI? Investors? Like so many colleagues, I struggled to come up with an answer that was analytically and financially sound. I failed.
I’ve come to conclude that this was a futile pursuit. The “business case for sustainability,” in a publically traded corporation is a holy grail, an impossible dream. Exponential growth of shareholder value, the indisputable aim of the public corporation, is an anomaly in nature. Nothing in nature that is life-giving grows like that. Indeed exponential growth is the trajectory of the cancer cell, with death as its ultimate triumph. The economic paradigm we participate in disobeys natural law, is incoherent, in violation, does not comply. Compare nature’s model of organization to that of a publically traded business: one has sustained life on this planet for 4 billion years. The other, some 500 years old, is wreaking havoc. Asking for the business case from a corporate quarterly earnings perspective is like inviting a raging hormonal teenager to pass judgment on the value of an elder sage. It is absurd to accept the boy’s opinion as valid and prescriptive. We follow the lead of this risk-happy juvenile at our own peril.
On a personal level, when I ran the juvenile’s race of consumption, restlessness, speed, and lack of reflection the resulting exhaustion, disconnection and fraying of nerve endings practically killed me. I learned I had to change to save my life. Humbled by my unwitting collusion with a destructive paradigm, I chose to slow down. Not a lot. But still some. It’s a lesson I have to practice daily. To choose health and balance as my true North instead of achievement and numbers of things checked off today’s list. I wonder how you are doing if you follow our cultural norms of speed and acquisition? If your compass points to net worth as your true value, how is your health, your family, your community, doing now? Could it be time to start walking to the beat of a more seasoned drummer? If we all changed the trajectory of our actions even slightly in the direction of health, humanity, compassion, imagine the impact that might have on our nation and the world.
To be more kind in our assessment of Fortune 500s, some genuinely seeking to be more responsible have made significant progress. There is a solid argument that decreasing waste in manufacturing cuts costs and adds to the bottom line. This makes a case for eco-efficiency within the current commitment to whatever you are making. You can be more efficient in use of your materials while making SUVs or coal burning electric plants or weapons of mass destruction, for that matter. Yet this waste reduction approach does not make the case for a total transformation of the core values of your business. It does not force you to consider the total impact of your product or process on the earth and its inhabitants. It does not give you a new value system for evaluating what is truly profitable to humanity. You need to begin to ask a different set of questions. You need to calculate your total worth based on a different set of values.
Some businesses are already doing this. They are usually small, privately owned, visionary companies that are making their own rules. Deans Beans in Western Massachusetts for example, states the purpose of their company as, “Using business as a vehicle for social change and people-centered development.” Their coffee is 100% fair trade and organic. When it was time to expand, founder Dean Cycon chose to build his new facility in Orange, MA an economically struggling community where teen pregnancy, dropout rate and unemployment are rampant. He hires locals, gives full benefits, and contributes to community organizations. At the same time, Deans also funds locally owned coffee cooperatives and other small enterprises in the coffee lands in Central America and Africa where he does business. Deans Beans values – indeed the very purpose of this private sector company – are to promote social, economic, ecological and community wellbeing, while being creative by design. Thankfully, there is an exponentially increasing trend of companies like Dean’s out there who are using capitalism to contribute to life and health. They are represented in such networks as CABN (Coop America Business Network), B (Benefit) Corps, Fair Trade Associations, Micro Credit organizations and more.
Yet the vast majority of public corporations are still preoccupied asking, “What’s the business case for sustainability.” As my partner likes to say, “What’s the business case for having children? They’re going to cost you about a million each.” The ROI says no go. “Clearly,” Joe continues, “If this is your conclusion, you are asking the wrong question.” You know what the business case for sustainability is? Nature says so. "Follow my laws or you’re all going to die. Now go and do the right thing.” Nature, the ways of the wild, rule. When we violate these non-negotiable laws – based in physics and biology -- we truly put our lives and the life of humanity at risk. The unintended but inevitable consequences are those before us now: climate change, species extinction, soil loss, poisoned rivers, forest destruction, food toxicity, and demise of cultural diversity. In one week in the spring of 2008 when I wrote the first draft of this essay, we witnessed an earthquake in China, a Volcano eruption in Chile, a tornado in the Midwest US, and a cyclone in Indonesia. Some might observe that these involved the four elements of nature respectively: earth, fire, air and water. Were these events co-incidental? Or were they indicative of a deeper pattern of weather anomalies evoked as a result of human activity gone awry. I believe the latter.
Instead of the deadly scenario above, there is the possibility that life can flourish for us long-term on this planet if we honor the web that connects us all and let it guide our actions. We can choose, as so many now are, to wake up to life. To fall in love with the awesome grandeur of creation. To ask forgiveness, seeing the folly of our 20th century hubris and recognizing how much essential knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors has been forgotten in the pursuit of financial gain. We can reclaim ancient and sacred ways of sustainable living – successfully pilot tested by our ancestors over 50 million years. And we can learn new ways to live in peace, prosperity, abundance and love, while honoring all life. This will require discipline, commitment, imagination and collaboration. It will not be easy. But it may save our lives. And in choosing a life-giving path we may ultimately become a blessing to our children and theirs. The choice is ours to make and the time to begin is yesterday.