When thinking about business decision-making and ecology, it is good to begin with the prefix "eco" or the Greek oikos from which the words eco-nomics and eco-logy derive their meaning. In the ancient world, oikos referred to the household of relationships. Ecology refers to the household of physical relationships while economics refers to the household of production and distribution of goods. Economics, like ecology, is about relationships. The study of ecology in the twentieth century has yielded new ways of understanding the natural world beyond the predator-prey relationship or survival of the fittest. Here I will focus on three aspects of ecology that can provide insight to the world of business leadership: 1) biological systems are open systems; 2) relationship is the desired end, and 3) cooperation and symbiosis define relationships. Each of these areas can illuminate new ways of sustainable business practice.
Today we know that most biological systems are "open systems" operating far from equilibrium and thus open to spontaneous or outside influences. Open systems include change as part of the system. Because a system is an organized web of relationships, changes within the system can produce new patterns of behavior; in open systems, new things happen. Chaos theory describes systems far from equilibrium, open to novelty and new patterns of order. The term "chaos" refers to new order in apparent disorder. When systems are open to outside influences, new things can happen; change can evoke new patterns of life. Closed systems are not open to new influences. They use up the available energy in the system and then wear down if there is no further input of energy. I think a fundamental question for business leaders today is to ask whether or not their companies operate as open systems or closed systems in a global economy. Are they open to new patterns of doing business, new relationships both within the company and in the global economy? Are they attuned to new patterns emerging within the company or society that might be signaling new ventures or new ways of doing business?
We humans tend to focus on "ends" but in the ecological world, it is relationships that matter. Healthy relationships are desired ends. Ecology can offer some vital lessons for the business world based on the system of relationships. Ecology tells us that we are parts of a whole. Each member of the system is a whole and also part of a larger whole. The whole is in each part and each part is something of the whole. The words "system" and "process" describe relationships in the biological world better than "order" or "control." In systems thinking, there is no outside and inside. Instead, systems thinking tries to account for all the parts and how they work together. The organization of the system is not linear but circular and contextual. Each part of the system operates according to its own integrity and thus participates in forming the unity of the system. A single cell, for example, flourishes as a unity when all the different parts work together for the good of the whole. When the various structures work together cooperatively, it is a living cell. Most biological systems are self-regulating (the technical term is autopoietic). This means they have internal control mechanisms and feedback loops. When one part of the system is disrupted or injured, another part of the system will assume some of the work; the system can reorganize itself according to its needs.
Similarly, a business that operates as an open system is attentive to interactions between employees within the business and its customers, not simply the isolated tasks that each performs. The goals within the business flow from relationships that form the business. When relationships become secondary to abstract objectives, then employees can become replaceable parts rather than valuable members. However in an open system, all members of the corporate system, including the CEO and administration team, are part of a single system which means new ideas or problem-solving must be done within the context of the whole company rather than as linear decisions from the top down. A company that focuses simply on production without considering the web of relationships that form the company risks viable growth. When businesses focus on objects as ends, then everything other than the objective end can become subject to manipulation and control.
Systems thinking is based on subject-subject relationships or "I-Thou" relationships. When interpersonal relationships are reduced to subject-object relationships ("I-it" relationships), a critical component is lost. When a material item or a consumer product subsumes interpersonal relatedness, then the business no longer functions as a whole. An "I–it" relationship is not mutual; it is not dialogical. It can easily lead to isolated business decisions or autonomous exercise of corporate power that may cause selfishness and greed at the expense of the whole company. Operating out of a self-enclosed "I" can create a closed system that ultimately cannot grow; there is no feedback loop within the system for self-regulation.
In the natural world the majority of interactions between various forms of biological life are not competitive or destructive. While some competition exists, cooperation is actually more pervasive–both within species and between them. Life in the natural world depends less on survival-of-the-fittest and more on adaptation, natural selection and cooperative relationships. Economic sustainability, like ecological sustainability, could benefit from a virtue ethics that promotes simplicity, compassion, mutuality and justice. Such an ethics might begin with several questions:
What choices among business leaders are needed to form relationships of cooperation and social justice, both inside the company and outside it? How does a business promote dignity of the human person? What sacrifices are business leaders willing to make for the sake of the whole company? Are business leaders willing to be accountable to both human and biological communities?
The American way is to make "the best," but "the best" is not usually the most sustainable or just way. The biological world does not always produce "the best" but it does produce "enough" to meet the needs of the members within the system. In the biological world, life functions very well on simple basic building blocks. All of life, for example, is based on 20 amino acids. From these simple building blocks, molecules and compounds are formed for the generation of life. But in a consumer culture we are told that "basic" does not suffice. We need super-refined, ultra-modulated amino acids, for example. We do not have a sense of "enoughness" that promotes justice for the whole. The ecological world reminds us that life flourishes when relationships are mutual, cooperative, compassionate and simple. When the system has enough to function then the excess can be used creatively within the system or shared with other systems.
What does this look like in the business world? Two examples come to mind. The first is the story of Muhammad Yunus who was teaching in Bangladesh in 1974 and feeling the agony of his newly independent homeland. He wondered why the people in a nearby village had to die of hunger and wondered if there was anything he could do to alleviate the misery. On a visit to a nearby village he encountered a woman making bamboo stools. The woman needed twenty cents a day to buy the bamboo for a stool but had to borrow the money from a supplier who kept her in an indentured relationship. Yunus had the idea of lending the women villagers money needed to make their goods,
providing them with low cost loans. In 1983 he set up the Grameen Bank and began to loan village women a few cents or dollars at a time
with the understanding that they would make small but regular weekly repayments.
The system not only restored dignity to the local village people but Grameen Bank became a successful business enterprise.
Another example of ecological business practice is TOMS Shoes. After his visit to Argentina in 2006, founder Blake Mycoskie decided to get involved in shoe giving. Considering sustainability, he concluded that starting a business rather than a charity would help his impact last longer. Mycoskie saw that children without shoes were not only susceptible to health risks, but were not allowed to go to school.
According to the TOMS Shoes website, there are over 1 billion people at risk for soil-transmitted diseases around the world, and shoes can help prevent it. Mycoskie emphasizes that his company’s goal is to not only give shoes, but to also educate others on the importance of shoes. Hence, TOMS Shoes promotes social justice and the dignity of the human person by giving a pair of new shoes to a child in need for every pair that is purchased. While the company is successful, profit is not the goal. Rather the company functions for the larger cause of helping the poor. It is an example of a business open to the needs of the poor and creating a sustainable environment for those in need.
Businesses that form and operate with an "ecological consciousness" are attuned to the needs of the environment and respond to those needs creatively and justly. The closed business system has led to unhealthy competition at the expense of the less fortunate members of society. We need sustainable business practices that meet the needs of people without compromising the goods of the earth. When business relationships are based on cooperativity, mutuality, sacrifice and compassion, they seek to work for the good of the whole--the whole company, the whole humanity, the whole earth--and this wholeness is the harmonious goodness of interrelated life.