Paul Hawken started Smith & Hawken, the garden and horticulture cataloguecompany, in 1979. Paul was also the founder, in 1966, of Erewhon, one of thefirst natural-food companies in the country. He is the author of The Magic ofFindhorn, The Next Economy, and Growing a Business. This article is adapted from a recent speech of Hawken's to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.
It strikes me that we in America understand little about what business is. Given that business and the free market have become the most dominant social force in this century and, presumably, of the one to come, I realize that this is an odd observation. Yet most of us still do not understand how business works. I think our understanding of business -- what it does, its effect on society, what makes for healthy commerce -- is at about the level that medicine was before Louis Pasteur.
Now, 100 years ago it may not have mattered how much we understood about business -- what makes for healthy commerce -- but today it does because I think we can say in no uncertain terms that business is destroying the world. And while consumers and producers are becoming aware of their interrelated impact upon the earth, what also needs to be said is that business can restore the planet upon which we live.
I don't believe there's any choice about this. Either we see business as a restorative undertaking, or we, businesspeople, will march the entire race to the undertaker. Business is the only mechanism on the planet today powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse global environmental and social degradation.
Doing that will depend in large part on the willingness of customers to change what they buy, how they buy, and from whom they buy their products and services. I know it sounds a little venal, if not smarmy, to say this, that you can make money restoring the world, but it is true, and it may be the only way it happens. There is an economy of degradation, which is one objective way to describe industrialization, and there is a restorative economy that is nascent but real, whose potential size is as great as the entire world economy is today.
How bad is the degradation? As I speak to you today, there are 5,000 fires burning in the Amazon Basin. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a dead beluga whale has to be handled with gloves and face masks and is classified as a toxic waste because of the amount of toxins it contains. It is estimated that we lose 100,000 species on the planet every year, mostly invertebrates, and mostly species we've never seen or classified. When cattle ranchers clear rain forests to raise beef to sell to fast-food chains that make hamburgers to sell to Americans, who have the highest rate of heart disease in the world (and spend the most money per GNP on health care), we can say easily that business is no longer developing the world. We have become its predator. And this predation is invariably, directly or indirectly, in the form of the corporation, a corporation that's satisfied, sometimes smug, convinced that its goals are justifiable and worthy, so long as they lead to profitability.
Because business is so well organized, capitalized, and managed, we fail to see that business has run amok. It is simply out of control. And despite our efforts and the efforts of many people worldwide, we face on the planet today what mountaineer and naturalist Jack Turner has called the "final loss" -- a point in the not-too-distant future when environmental degradation will no longer require our active participation. It will just happen. Biological diversity is messy. It walks, it crawls, it swims, it swoops, it buzzes. But extinction is silent, and it has no voice other than our own.
In order to do anything about the planet where we live, we have to know where we are. I doubt very much that the chief executives of any of the Fortune 500 corporations can name five edible plants, five native grasses, or five migratory birds within walking distance of their homes, or name the soil series upon which their house sits. And I would contend that if you don't know where you are, you are in fact nowhere at all. And yet it is with the hands and minds of these CEOs that the environmental battle is being waged and lost.
The great writer-naturalist Aldo Leopold had it right when he said, simply and bluntly, "Things are wrong, morally wrong, whenever our biotic community is degraded." The question we must ask is: Can business change in time to arrest global environmental degradation? And on the face of it, the answer would have to be no. The force of human greed expressed through commerce is powerful and increasing worldwide.
All of us have been touched, if not sent reeling, by the last 10 years, a decade-long excursion into mindless speculation and debilitating indebtedness that has left one-third of our corporations staggering under that load, a time when a handful of men absconded with a half trillion dollars of our money to build real estate projects we don't need, homes they don't deserve, and a lifestyle that was corrupt. As H. Ross Perot put it, "It is a sad day when the lives and jobs of millions of Americans are in the hands of men who fly around in corporate jets with personal trainers, hair implants, and trophy wives." In that sense, we can look at the 1980s and say, economically speaking, they were utterly neurotic.
I think we have to ask ourselves again, What kind of businesses have we created where the Karen Silkwoods of the world are run off the road and killed simply for calling plutonium what it is: contamination? We have to ask ourselves, What kind of world is it where a baby-food executive substitutes artificial flavoring and sugar for apple juice? What kind of businesses have we created when we even lie to infants? When timber-company executives propose to start a hate-them campaign against environmentalism to "kick them in the crotch," and to disguise the fact that the funding came from the timber industry? What do companies think of us when they advertise biodegradable Hefty trash bags that are not biodegradable, and in the process of advertising quote the Native American chief Seattle?
Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel wrote a groundbreaking work called The Addictive Organization (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988). In it they point out how closely American corporations mimic the behavior of addicts. The first thing addicts do is lie to themselves. The second thing they do is lie to their families or to their organizations, creating confusing patterns of behavior. The last thing they do is lie to the world around them. And that last lie is what we call advertising. So we know that if lie number three is present, then lie number two and lie number one are present as well. Addiction is simply a way of not feeling. When we talk about addictive organizations, we're talking about institutions that cannot feel the world around them. Once you've lost that sense, then anything's possible, isn't it?
I recently read a description in a business magazine of a "successful executive" who was described as taking no prisoners, having the hands-on quality of Attila the Hun, and who not only did not suffer fools gladly but shot them on sight. And that was meant to be a compliment. Is that what we want our children to be when they grow up? Is that the model of behavior we're holding up in our culture?
My question is, Can we envision businesses that are honest, that tell their customers the truth? Is it conceivable that every business of a certain scale would do an audit every year of the impact and damage it has visited, directly and indirectly, upon the environment -- an audit as careful and fastidious as the ones we do with our accounting firms, accompanied by a management letter just as fiscal audits are, that would make specific recommendations to our boards of directors, telling us how we can waste less, pollute less, become more efficient, become more economical, avoid future litigation, and provide a safer and cleaner world? Every company in the Fortune 500 has refused to do precisely that. They have been asked -- and they won't do it. Who are these people? Is that what you want from your business leaders?
Can we imagine a society where virtually nothing is thrown away? Where products are cyclical, not made for onetime use? How about corporations beginning to clean up other people's messes? Yes, other people's, not just their own. And to restore the resource base upon which we all depend.
Can we imagine businesses that act like Mohawk Indians, that look seven generations ahead to measure the impact their actions will have upon the land? Are we in such an all-fired hurry to "prosper" that we can place one billion pounds of toxic pesticides upon our land, in our water, on our food, in our bones, in our babies? Can there be, on the other hand, businesses that are so meaningful to those who work for them that they feel they have found their life's work and that their jobs have dignity and integrity and that their own creativity is enlivened and that they experience their own imaginations richly? Why is it that work is so hellish for the majority of Americans? Why do the majority of Americans who were polled by Gallup -- Americans who work for large corporations -- say they'd rather not? They'd rather work for themselves or for a smaller business.
The economics of restoration is the opposite of industrialization because industrial economics separated production from the land, land from people, and ultimately, personal values from economic values. Restorative economics is slow. It's a patient reconstruction and repairing of social and environmental wounds. It begins with seeing products in relationship to raw materials and to the sustainability of those raw materials on land and sea, whether in forestry or farming or fishing. Restorative economics means producing products in ways that do no harm to workers, the environment, and society. And finally, it means educating customers so their values are honored, awakened, and informed. In order to restore that relationship with the customer, business must change from being predator to being educator.
Of course, we can continue, as businesses, to lie and gull and wheedle and fudge the facts, using sex, power, vanity, and rock and roll to convince our customers that we're adding value to their lives. Or we can emulate the Japanese and learn something from our customers. To use an ecological term, a customer is a symbiote. Symbiosis is the intimate living together of two dissimilar organisms.
We have too long treated our customers as wallets disguised as human beings, and our customers have obliged us and disguised their humanity from us. We have demeaned them. We have pandered to their base selves, their lowest common denominator, and in so doing, we have created a wasteful society and companies that are increasingly uncompetitive in world markets.
There is a video documentary of a Japanese couple buying a car. It shows a salesman coming up to their home, and they inspect the car, a car I dare say that you and I would drive out of the showroom very happily. And they find 30 or 40 flaws and defects in this car. The salesman notes them all down and rushes away, taking the car. He comes back the next day and delivers the car to the customer. The couple inspect it again, and they find 9 or 10 more things that aren't correct about the car. He rushes it away and brings it back the same day. Finally, they're satisfied with this car. Now, what's the point of this story? The point is that the Japanese are absolutely creating the most demanding, insistent, and critical customers in the world. And if a Japanese company can survive and prosper in its marketplace, when it comes to our marketplace it's a cakewalk, because American businesses have done quite the opposite. Our businesses have tried to make us stupid. In Japan they say, Is it good? In America, we say, Is it good enough?
But this lesson is very important because our customers are now telling us something; they're trying to say something, and we have to listen. They're saying they want this world to change, and they want their companies and their products to not harm the world in which they live. And American corporations have a tremendous opportunity to listen and respond.
And how have American businesses responded? One of the ways has been green marketing. I recently saw an advertisement for Procter and Gamble showing a disposable plastic diaper and a great mound of rich, black compost, the kind of compost I have not been able to make in 25 years as a gardener. And the ad implied this compost was made of disposable diapers. But when you read the fine print, you find out this hasn't been done yet, that Procter and Gamble is offering money to municipalities to start pilot programs for composting.
This is a munificent and generous act. No question about it. But . . . this is the same Procter and Gamble that has fought proposals in Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Kentucky to tax disposable diapers to pay for environmental cleanup. In Kentucky it was a penny a diaper. As one legislator said, "We've never seen so many $500 suits in Kentucky," when Procter and Gamble came down to fight the legislation, which lost. So my question to them is, Which Procter and Gamble do you want me to believe? When we see this manipulation of our needs as customers, we know we're being flimflammed. We're not just being taken for a ride. Our intelligence is being taken for granted.
Green marketing by definition is a fraud. The leopard's new spots will wash off in the first acid rain, because green marketing is based on a view of the customer that's just as demeaning as the one that got us into this situation in the first place. In a sense, nothing has really changed.
It's absurd to suggest that American industry has turned on a dime and cleaned up its act. But that's exactly what Madison Avenue would have us believe. So when that happens, it's not just the environment that's degraded, but corporate credibility.
We're subjected every year to 21,000 commercials. We spend more on them than on secondary education. Seventy-five percent of the commercials we see on network television are paid for by the 100 largest companies in America. That means that information in the form of advertising has become a cartel. The windows of communication are being shut, and unless something changes, we will continue to see a devolving pattern of deception, which will result in a consumptive, ignorant society that destroys the world around it, even when the world is saying, We don't want to do that.
We need a new bill of rights, a commercial bill of rights, that sets priorities and establishes principles that people believe are fair and universal. This bill of rights would articulate the proper role of business. These are not rights of the corporations (which already have many rights, perhaps too many) but the rights of the people who work within them and are served by them.
The New Bill of Rights
First: The right to create products and participate in processes that do not harm others. Simply that: that do not harm others.
Second: The right to work in a clean and safe environment.
Third: The right to a job that is meaningful, worthy, and constructive.
Fourth: The right to work in a company that compensates fairly.
Fifth: The right to be told the truth about the company and its products.
Sixth: The right for employees to participate in critical and substantive decisions that affect the work force.
Seventh: The right not to exploit other people or other forms of life.
We lead by being human. We do not lead by being corporate, by being professional, or by being institutional. We lead when we admit our frailty, our imperfection, and our uncertainty. And we will lead not only when we remove the glass ceiling in corporate America, but when women permeate and suffuse the world of business and make us whole once again. The world of business is bereft.
We can't fix the economy of degradation, because by definition it's dysfunctional. It may be operated by moral people, but as Jerry Mander makes so clear in his book In the Absence of the Sacred (San Francisco, Sierra Club, 1991), it is structurally amoral. The economy of restoration is a careful redoing of all that we have undone. Industrialism was wasteful, inefficient, linear, uniform, and out of control. It had no regulating mechanism beyond the capacity of greed. Businesses founded and run on those principles are our businesses. It's the business I work in today. I make no exception for my own company. We are within the circle of dysfunction in this country. We can, however, accept that our commerce is corrupt and that we need to turn around and go right out the way we came in. In that sense, we are Orpheus in Hades, and our Eurydice who follows behind us is our own human nature, our own lost sense of self.
There is a fairy tale that the poet Robert Bly recounts in which a knight on his white charger is riding along in the forest, and he sees a very bright feather on the ground. He stops, and he's going to dismount to pick up the feather. The horse in the fairy tale can talk, and the horse says, "Why are you doing that? Let's go. We have other things to do." He says, "Well, this feather, it's glowing, it's so beautiful." And the horse says, "Come on. You're a strong man. This is sort of humiliating. Why would you stoop for a feather? You're a proud, courageous man. I don't want to see you demean yourself by stooping down to pick up this feather." But of course, the knight finally does dismount and pick up the feather. So what happens to our knight when he picks up the feather? In our fairy tales, all the characters are parts of our own psyche, including in this case the feather.
The horse is that part of ourself that says, "Things are going to be OK, don't rock the boat." People will take care of things, and other people can solve the problems that face us, and . . . when you make money, you'll start to contribute to environmental causes, but right now the mortgage is expensive and the kids have schools. . . . right now you've got to take care of yourself. Somebody else is going to have to take care of the rest of the world. But what's the feather? That feather is our own innocence. It is the self we put aside in order to be successful, ambitious, and "strong." It is what we lost in our crusade to "achieve."
We can't change ourselves. But we can become ourselves. The economics of restoration is wholly dependent on all people beginning to restore their own nature and to heal themselves, to recognize their sense of connectedness to life around them. You cannot save the world if you're destroying yourself on the altar of workaholism, wolfing food, gulping coffee, taking red-eyes in the middle of the night, trying to do the work of three people. We cannot point the finger of blame for the Exxon Valdez when the underlying cause is a country completely drunk on oil. If our corporate organizations are dysfunctional, and I believe they are, it's because they allow us to continue our own illusions. Business is the only socially sanctioned addiction, the addiction to fame, wealth, and power. It is peculiarly male and represents only one possible reality. The economics of restoration is decidedly female. It is not an economy of stuff and things. It's one of processes, relationships, and connectedness.
Futurist Willis Harman summed it up far better than I when he said, "Business has become, in the last century, the most powerful institution on the planet. The dominant institution in any society needs to take responsibility for the whole. Every decision that is made, every action taken has to be viewed in the light of, in the context of, that kind of responsibility."
Do such businesses exist? I think they do. The Esprit Co., in San Francisco, is making a remark able effort in relationship to cotton farming, a crop that is without question the most destructive cash crop grown today. Patagonia, in Ventura, consistently has been the most generous corporation in America when it comes to supporting the environment. The Body Shop, headquartered in the United Kingdom but also with offices here in San Francisco, is a wonderful company, which not only works to clean up nurseries in Romania to prevent HIV infection, but works with Cultural Survival in the Amazon Basin, producing botanical products that ensure the long-term viability of both the forests and the tribes people that live there.
People today want leadership from their companies. They want business to stand up and be counted. Our government, as you know by reading today's headlines, is paralyzed, no more so than the former Soviet Union's, but just as much so. At the end of this century, people are beginning to draw near, and people are reevaluating and sorting out what is valuable in their lives and what is not. After all, that's what economics is all about -- deciding what's valuable. What the world desperately needs now is to have more value added to it, which is exactly what business should be about. Too much value has been taken away and destroyed. If adding value is what business should be about, then I suggest you can't add values unless you have them. Our personal values, seemingly so distant and removed from the juggernauts of commerce, are important and integral to the healthy functioning of our economy. Does capitalism in the free market have the vitality and integrity to reverse the destruction of the earth? I certainly don't know, but when I think about this question I recall what Mao Tse-tung said when he was asked about the French Revolution: he said it was too early to tell.
We know one thing: tomorrow we can't be the same business we are today. We can no longer evolve at our customers, we have to evolve with them, with their needs. Our businesses, I think, offer us as rich a way to change the world around us as does any institution. Every transaction in the scheme of things is small; it's incremental. It seems inconsequential, but each moment has potential to create real change. Our customers out there are now very apprehensive and they're very unsure. It's a very tough time in the economy. Not all of them are working, but those who are, are working hard, and they're fashioning lives that are connected to the needs and wants of others. They live within budgets. They wear many hats during the day, as do we, and go home, sometimes too tired to become mother and father. What do they want from us as businesses? They actually don't want that much, not really.
They know that commerce has its warts and its faults. Most of them work for a business. But in that moment when we contact one another, when a person comes to us for help and for a product, it's not just a service opportunity to sell more. It's a human opportunity. Because both we and the customer know what poets and rabbis and pastors and preachers have been trying to tell us for years: that this life is transient and ephemeral, that success and failure as popularly defined are really impostors, and that we as people find meaning with our hearts and our minds and our hands and our souls when we have the opportunity to serve another human being.