“I have come to believe that we… do not know what business really is, or, therefore, what it can become” writes Paul Hawken in his Preface, “the ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money… the promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy”. It is in the first page that Paul delivers this little nugget, a perspective so unlike what the world has ever suggested to me about commerce.
Yet once Paul’s perspective is brought to my attention, it is so obvious. Passion is what drives great businesses, not just money. Art can be found everywhere, and art can change lives. In the words of Seth Godin: “Art isn't only a painting. Art is anything that's creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator… Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn't matter. The intent does”. The beauty and art of business is how it can make our lives better, through a service or a product. The money, ultimately, is meaningless.
With this viewpoint, Paul explains why the businesses we know today must be changed. Because currently, businesses are harming and not improving our lives in the pursuit of money. They are extracting resources from the environment—forests, land, whole ecosystems—and they are not giving back what they take. Consequently, we are exceeding what Paul calls our “carrying capacity”—“the uppermost limit on the number of species an ecosystem or habitat can sustain, given the supply and availability of nutrients”. Further, some richer nations are expanding their own carrying capacity by exploiting resources in other countries.
Since we take too much, we also waste too much. And the toxins that businesses create are not a natural nutrient-rich waste that can go back to the earth, nor are they a waste that we can safely dispose of. Humans and animals have not evolved to process modern toxins, and therefore they are deadly. Paul tells an awful story of how 1,000 employees of Standard Brands became sterile after working with the chemical DBCP. Here, not creating toxins in the first place is the solution.
Paul suggests that one way of minimising our waste, while not harming the productivity of business, is to create products that can be easily disassembled. This means that such products can be easily repaired, rather than thrown away. This will then create a demand for repairers and therefore create more jobs in the process.
Paul also suggests that we should do away with recycling entirely. This is an idea that I wasn’t convinced of initially, until I read his reasoning. So many resources are put into recycling, from rubbish trucks to wheelie bins, yet so little plastic is actually being recycled. And when they are recycled, they are often downcycled. It made me think of how counterintuitive it is that recycling must be placed in a plastic bag on the curb in Wellington CBD. In that situation, participating in recycling also means creating more plastic waste. I also feel like recycling is a way for companies to earn a ‘get out of jail card’ for creating plastic waste. But just because products can be recycled doesn’t mean they are getting recycled. All those resources could go towards something else more productive.
A way to make businesses take responsibility for the harm they cause is cost/price integration. Here, Paul references Nicolas Pigou, an English economist. Nicolas theorised that if a manufacturer has to pay for the full cost of their destruction, then they will have an incentive to reduce this impact.
So Paul poses a green tax. We should tax the things we discourage, like pollution, rather than things we want to encourage, like income from jobs. So Paul’s green tax involves taxing a product according to how much degradation to the environment the manufacturing process has caused. A product should also be taxed for the further negative impact it will bring when it is at the end of its life. In this way, businesses and consumers will be encouraged to buy products that are environmentally friendly. This is not the case at the moment, as incredibly cheap plastic packaging is so easy to get. But we can make high costs reflect harm and use money to create demand for more sustainable products. As Paul reminds us, “The cash register is the daily voting booth in democratic capitalism”.
Small businesses also have great power. This is because they are closer to their customers and can clearly see the harm that large companies cause. For this reason, small businesses can better see these problems as opportunities to make peoples’ lives better instead, and therefore find further pathways of success through new products and services. Paul also provides a list of principles for sustainable small businesses:
By following these principles, a business can also create high expectations for its customers. As a result, a customer will become unsatisfied with other businesses and come back. In this way, a business can craft the kind of customers it brings in. And this is another way that caring for the environment can create gains, not losses.
The ideas that Paul draws up are inspiring ones. And even though the book was first published in 1993, it is still relevant, and this relevance feels even more desperate to me with the world’s current state. Paul acknowledges that as we live, we do take and harm. But also that the gift of the future, for the world to carry on for generations and continue with the natural cycles it has known for millions of years, is worth the fight and is dependent on our gratitude.
 Godin, Seth. Linchpin, (Great Britain: Piaktus, 2010), 83.