April 12, 2024


Supportive Business Potential

Treeconomics: A (Not-So)-New Image for the Business World

Treeconomics: A (Not-So)-New Image for the Business World

Carpet manufacturer Interface’s now-classic ‘Mission Zero’ is arguably the most well-known example of a bold move towards (truly) circular business models. Along with a few other pioneers, Interface remains a point of reference of a company leaping toward reducing fossil fuel emissions, while also becoming a zero-waste, 100 percent recycled-fiber carpet enterprise, where the output of one cycle becomes the input of another.

When former CEO Ray Anderson sought to undertake this 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 global market. However, the superior heights reached with Interface’s magic carpets did not come about by consulting a technological genie in a machine-made plastic bottle.

For one, in his 2009 TED Talk, Anderson came to admit that “business is the greatest culprit” and that he had been “plundering” the Earth and his children’s future (a necessary confession often bypassed even by some of the best-intentioned sustainability practitioners). “We don’t believe anybody (ourselves included) can make a green product in a brown company.”

Most tellingly, the superior heights reached with Interface’s magic carpets came about after its CEO experienced deeper realizations. The shift away from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ model of production, toward a cyclical and restorative one, was grounded in a desire to respect and learn from nature’s patterns. Interface’s flooring solutions have since been inspired by biophilic, cradle-to-cradle design. Reorienting his company to reach the summit of what Anderson called “Mount Sustainability” has since translated into flooring solutions modelled on the patterns of the natural world. And the leap was nurtured, not least, by allowing the living world to provide the metaphors.

A ‘Clockwork’ Universe

In contrast, a good deal of today’s (standard) business practices continue to be informed by (standard) management theories. These we have inherited from a four-hundred-year-old view of the world, whereby the non-human world is perceived as an inert thing to be managed and controlled by us humans through science and technology.

One of the architects of this worldview was a British writer by the name of Francis Bacon, who believed (and has made many believe) that the living world exists solely for the sake of humanity. Bacon argued that, through science, humanity could put nature on a rack and “torture secrets out of her”. As such, he aspired “to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.” And he went as far as urging his contemporaries to “bind nature to our service and make her our slave.” (FOI, Bacon is also the architect of the famous dictum ‘knowledge is power’.)

The result? A ‘clockwork’ universe: a machine-like ‘great scheme of things’ whereby animals, trees, rocks, and even people have come to be seen as inert clogs of a big mechanism. Proponents like Bacon have since fashioned the cultural push and the (now-unspoken) ‘minds maps’ that eventually gave the West full license to set itself over and above the rest of the living world—nowadays at full speed.

Business Betrayed (by Business ‘Gurus’)?

Today, such ‘mechanistic’ mind maps still govern much of our thinking and our acting. Even if many business people pay lip service to protecting the environment, a good majority still operate under this scheme of domination.

Consider a few examples. In the 1990s, Harvard professor of leadership development Robert Kaplan and business consultant David Norton encouraged us to think of organizations as “airplanes” with “balanced scorecards” functioning as instrument panels in the cockpit. Harvard’s guru Michael Porter proponed “shared value”, viewing it as a new “key” to “unlock” and “drive” business growth. Israeli business consultant 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. Hence the title of his famous book, The Goal, where Goldratt proponed the productive process as an uneven “chain” requiring optimization.

This ‘techno-centric’ and ‘nature-as-machine’ scheme of things that continues to shape most of our modern world has been thrust forward by more than 250 years of influence of industrialization. And it begs the questions: Have the metaphors betrayed us? And, in doing so, have the images hold us captive without notice?

In our increasingly urban and virtual contexts, it is no news that our imaginations have grown used to seeing the world through artificial grids. Today, we believe that Wall Street, Hollywood, and the Pentagon ‘call the shots’; that the economy as an objectified reality and business as (heart-less?) ‘machine’ steered from a profit-hungry ‘cockpit’; that the ‘environment’ is something ‘out there’, purportedly external to us, enrobing us, as if we did not depend on it entirely for our very existence; that we are mere human ‘resources’ in an increasingly disposable ‘labor market’; and so on. “If the only tool one has is a hammer, one treats everything like a nail,” recognized Abraham Maslow long ago in his Psychology of Science

Yet, if our ecological track record were to speak for itself, are these labels to be proven wrong? And they beg the question of whether economics and technology should continue to be our masters, and of whether minerals and fossil fuels should be endlessly extracted to keep turning our one and only living planet Earth into a hyped-up version of George Lucas’s Death Star.

Liberating the Imagination

In contrast, increasing numbers of practitioners of biomimicry, the natural step, permaculture, and ecological economics have been recovering organic metaphors to liberate and heal the way we perceive and interact with the living world.

Ponder on 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 run-off and erosion. Forests host myriads of birds, mammals, and insects. Trees themselves live in community, sharing both air and nutrients, putting down roots and stretching their arms wide open to sun and rain alike. Trees live and, in doing so, allow others to live as well. Not surprisingly, trees have lived sustainably for at least 300 million years since they evolved through equitable trading practices< that permit them to reach relatively similar heights. Ecuadorians put it best: forests don’t need ‘development’; forests are developed.

Can trees and forests serve as a metaphor for the business world? Can trees and forest lead us into ‘Treeconomics’?

As a recovering industrial engineer, prone as I am to simplifying the complexity of the world by fitting everything into tidy boxes and diagrams,  I experienced an inspiring echo of this shift in perception while serving as a business consultant for JustWork, a former 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 mental illnesses or physical impairments, JustWork’s management team 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 a strategic ideation session. Inspired and challenged by folk like Ray Anderson, the necessity became clear: “We need a different metaphor… an organic metaphor”. And the metaphor was, of course, 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 good products and services for customers.

The metaphor eventually germinated unexpectedly. With the aim of multiplying the social enterprise model, JustWork was then championed by World Vision Canada and by Enterprising Non-Profits, an organization in Vancouver supporting non-profits to become more entrepreneurial. However, scalability was not perceived in a business-as-usual way, whereby some massive companies are often referred to as ‘monsters’. (Who wants monsters, anyways?) Instead, JustWork has avoided impersonal bureaucracies by keeping things on a more relational level—‘small’ and ‘beautiful’ as Oxford economist E.F. Schumacher championed already in the 1970s. Instead of becoming a gigantic tree outgrowing and overshadowing all others, 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.

Surely JustWork is not the first or the only company to have made this shift. The living world has also shaped the vision and practices of the archetypical outdoor clothing company Patagonia. When interviewed at Yale University, and asked to compare his company’s priorities with the imperative of fast and endless growth in today’s business world, founder and former CEO Yvon Chouinard pointed to how Patagonia is modelled on the slow, gradual rhythm of trees growing in a forest until they mature and stabilize. Not too fast, not too much, but only one ring at a time. “Our advertising budget is less than half of one percent of our sales.” (Chouinard also advocated for labor-intensive, organic agriculture; although that’s a story for another occasion.)

Sacred wisdom for an accelerated age?

In our monochromatic world, where the same burger restaurants and coffee shops are being endlessly replicated in every corner (boring!), ‘treeconomics’ may speak volumes. And 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

Surely some will be quick to object that lions or sharks could serve as natural metaphors too. In fact, some managers and business leaders selectively praise these predators by highlighting them as exemplary creatures that hunt voraciously after their prey. But in doing so, such people ignore that lions and sharks only kill for need, not for greed—and certainly not for sport.

The quest for sustainable metaphors could also make us believe that we need to revert back to a purportedly ‘pristine’ state of nature. But that is both impossible and illusory. For one, nature itself is bound to patterns of violence, darkness, and death—patterns which some ancient witnesses declared to have been mysteriously undertaken and transcended by a marginalized Mediterranean peasant a little less than two thousand years ago. (Another story for yet another time.) For another, we simply cannot do away with our 10,000-year-old experiment in building villages and cities. The progress we’ve made, as Cambridge anthropologist Ronald Wright remarked, has destroyed the lower rungs of history’s ladder and we’ve reached the point of no return. We must take off from where we are.

Instead, the summons before us is for nature and culture to coexist in much greater reciprocity, always giving priority to the living world to provide the blueprints—and the pace. The quest calls for the living world to repopulate our cities, our businesses, and to heal our mental landscapes and desires. It calls for a new world to be born out of the old—for swords to be transformed into ploughshares and for synthetic waste dumps to be turned into infinitely revolving magic carpets, in the likes of Interface and other forward-leaping companies.

And it calls, not least, for rediscovering the forgotten horizons of significance that have been obscured by the smokescreens of the various Industrial Revolutions. For centuries, Western culture was guided by a blazing image: one of a city with a clean 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 illumined by a realization that made him change course, perhaps we too require—not only fresh eyes—but different images altogether. As we seek to journey into an enduring, life-sustaining civilization, is it the case that only fresh metaphors will be able to guide and sustain us along the way? The time has never been riper to reach the heights of Mount Sustainability, and once there, plant trees under whose shade we can take wonder at the wide view in front of us. Perhaps then we’ll cease to behave as masters and start living as guests, treading lightly in a world that has been here long before us—one that’s certainly not of our own making.