By Donella Meadows
–January 20, 1994–
Paul Hawken, legendary founder of the Erewhon Trading Company and of the garden supply firm Smith & Hawken, was recently presented an Environmental Stewardship Award for his ecologically correct business practices. “I walked to the podium,” he says, “looked out at the sea of pearls and black ties, and … realized two things: first, that my company did not deserve the award, and second, that no one else did either.”
From that realization Hawken has written the first honest book about “green business,” The Ecology of Commerce. Hawken takes on the subject that environmental groups duck, the topic about which there is not quite full freedom of speech in America — the unsustainable behavior of corporations — and he doesn’t duck.
Devoted to business himself, as committed to capitalism as a person can be, Hawken admits that planting trees and printing annual reports on recycled paper cannot come close to making the economy sustainable. “We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth.”
There it is, the elephant in the living room, too obvious, too entrenched, too powerful for anyone to talk about. More money flows through the world’s 10 largest corporations than through the world’s 100 smallest countries. The top 500 companies control 25 percent of the world’s output (and employ 0.05 percent of the world’s people). Many forces cause environmental problems, but the corporate force is the largest and one of the least innocent. With typical bluntness, Hawken says, “Today’s deteriorating culture, environment, and economy are the fruits of decades of corporate dishonesty, a dishonesty that we have created, sanctioned, and supported.”
Hawken makes statements like that without blame and without despair. He sees that destructive business practices arise not from evil people, but from a misdesigned system. That system rewards short-sighted, nature-destroying, people-demeaning behavior, and punishes long-term responsibility. But it is a human-designed system, which means it can be redesigned. So Hawken talks about redesign. Though he cites most of the horrifying ecological statistics of the day, he does so not to induce guilt, but to lay out the work that needs to be done.
The work, he says, falls into three categories. The first is: ELIMINATE WASTE. Nature turns the waste from one process into food for another process, and so must industry. Hawken describes an industrial complex at Kalundborg, Denmark, where an electricity plant sells waste steam to heat an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical firm, several greenhouses, a fish farm, and 3500 houses. The refinery sells gas to a sheet-rock factory and to the electric plant. To clean the air the refinery removes sulfur from its gas and sells it to a chemical company. The sludge from the sulfur removal is used to make the sheet-rock. Organic waste from the fish farm fertilizes crops. Not the zero-discharge system Hawken is calling for, but a step in that direction.
Hawken’s second goal is also taken from the operating manual of the planet: SHIFT FROM CARBON FUELS TO SUNSHINE FUELS. That means developing solar-based energy, from wind to falling water to photovoltaic-generated hydrogen for running cars. That task will be a great entrepreneurial opportunity and a great public benefit. It will solve problems from global warming to local air pollution, from strip-mining to oil spills to the balance of payments.
Those first two mandates require technical redesign. The third calls for economic redesign: CREATE ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS THAT MAKE RESPONSIBLE BEHAVIOR NATURAL AND PROFITABLE. That means proper pricing that includes full environmental and social costs. Proper accounting, to keep track of natural assets as well as financial ones. Setting environmental standards based on what the earth needs, not what business wants. Encouraging diversity by favoring small, not large, companies. And — an ingenious Hawken suggestion — lowering trade barriers not for politically defined MFNs (Most Favored Nations) but for ecologically defined MSNs (Most Sustainable Nations).
Economic redesign requires a government that is not itself captured by the shortsightedness of present economics, and a politics that is not dictated by corporate contributions. Says Hawken: “The most profound act of leadership that could be exerted by business would be to admit that its influence over and manipulation of government is misguided.”
The difference between this book and others that chronicle corporate sins is that Paul Hawken understands business, respects it, and wants to release its powers to truly serve society. He has a vision of a vibrant business community in a sustainable society — a vision that sounds comfortingly old-fashioned. “The corporation borrows the will of the consumer: the will to be warm, fed, and secure; the will to grow, develop, learn, and be approved of; the will to succeed, to lead a happy life, to be loved. Will is powerful stuff, not well understood; when a company borrows will, it is more than a loan, it is a covenant.”
“In the restorative economy of the future, the fundamental principle to be honored is the covenant between company and customer. Businesses will become instruments of the customer; the customer as the passive instrument of commerce will disappear.”
If corporate leaders would read, understand, and implement the ideas in this book, they might not only make profits, and not only save the world, they even might find a way of doing business that satisfies their souls.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994