Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Because we can

A really nice talk by Bruce Mau, of Bruce Mau Design, on society’s response to environmental degradation, and specifically what we should do about oil.

Maybe I only like it because he seems to agree with me – here’s a post I wrote a couple of years ago making much the same argument: we should build a more sustainable, a more beautiful world because we can.

And I especially like his idea of removing guilt and angst from the situation around oil.

But I guess I might not use the word “remove”. Accepting our guilt might be more powerful? After all guilt can be useful, if it galvanises us to more positive action.

I think Bruce understands this. He also suggests that another emotion, embarrassment, can drive us in a positive direction. We “should” be creating a better, and better designed, world because we “ought to be” embarrassed if we don’t.

Everything we do, we do for a feeling. Harnessing those feelings in a positive direction seems, to me, to be a perfectly rational thing to do.


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Do we really count?

It takes me a while to get around to seeing new films, so it was only last night I watched the Age of Stupid. Apart from the very interesting way this film was funded (by more than 620 ordinary people investing getting on for £1 millon), I was most struck by a comment made by the lead character, Pete Postlethwaite, a few moments before we are fully introduced to the idea of our own ignorance and stupidity being the cause of our downfall (and, in the film, ultimate destruction).

He remarks that maybe we humans don’t think we are worth saving.

I find that a really powerful thought. If true, it would explain a huge amount of our behaviour, and not just that related to climate change. It would explain why we allow ourselves to get fat; why we work our socks off to earn stuff that rarely makes us happy; why we poison ourselves with excesses of alcohol and other drugs; why we kill each others’ children in endless wars.

I’d like to see more businesses funding themselves through broader share ownership (Ben and Jerry’s reputedly did a great job of that in the state of Vermont).

And I’d also like to see more business owners reflecting on what their businesses would be like if their purpose was genuinely to enhance people’s sense of self-worth – their own, and that of their staff, their customers and the public at large.

For example, I think I could quite easily make a list of products and services produced by commercial companies that are, in self-worth terms, destructive, neutral, or positive.

The most positive on the list, for me, would include services that encourage people to really get better at what they do; to introduce some kind of professional reflection into their working lives; and to engage more honestly and authentically with other people. And services that encourage creativity, imagination, and the appreciation of beauty and quality.

All of these things, when done well and in a sustained manner, should lead to a better sense of real self-worth and self-esteem.

I’d be interested to hear your lists too.

By the way the same people responsible for the film are producing a (sillier?) daily 20 minute live web TV show, The Stupid Show, from the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Minimum sponsorship only £300 in case you are interested in getting into the TV business.


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What more needs to be said?

Great TED talk by Ray Anderson (from May 2009).

Watch it if you have any doubts about a) our responsibility as business people b) our possibilities (as people who can change ourselves and our impact on the world).

I also love his “impact” formula. It’s worth careful inspection.

As he says, adopting this formula, believing it, following it, would reframe civilisation itself.

Ray Anderson Formula

Ray Anderson Formula

It’s remarkable (to me at least) how a small change in how we assume the world (and economies, businesses) work could have such a remarkable effect.


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Summer reading?

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

For ages I have tried to get my head around sustainability. What a difficult and complex thing it is.

So it was great to hear of the launch of the Sustainability Project by Haus Publishing – the creation of twelve books written in an accessible way but based on scientific and other expert opinion.

It is a complex topic – so there is an introductory book then eleven others covering population, water, food, health, energy, the oceans, climate change, natural diversity, resources, economics, and politics.

You can see the whole list here and buy them as a set.

Or buy them individually from, for example, Amazon.

Now that is what I call summer reading!


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So what's it all for?

I heard someone ask me today what all this conscious business stuff is about. So here goes.

Business is great. It’s a very powerful force. It’s great at harnessing creativity and innovation, but mainly it’s good at getting things done. While governments and non-governmental agencies alike plan and develop policy, business has usually finished the first activity and is on to the next one.

And we are in a hurry. We have a lot of problems in the world. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Climate change. Loss of bio-diversity. Desertification. War. Nuclear proliferation.

All of these threats are coming closer. And many are getting worse as, for example, population grows.

Business can’t solve all those problems but it can contribute to solutions for many. Especially when we need new, radical solutions that haven’t been tried before, the unique structure of business allows their creation and rapid deployment on a large scale.

Even small business can seed changes elsewhere, by setting an example or by being a catalyst.

The problem with business is that for too long the people running it have had the wrong goals. If your goal is financial, and you work at it hard enough, and diligently enough, you are likely to achieve a financial goal. While neglecting other more useful goals – such as addressing the threats listed above.

So, the question is: “How do we get at least some of the people running business to adopt other, more beneficial goals?”

Forcing them won’t work. These are very independent-minded people.

Luckily, however,  I believe people evolved with a set of values that are constructive not destructive. The natural state for people is to select goals that will put back good things into the world, for all of humanity.

All that has to happen is for us all to become more conscious.

More conscious of more than just our material drives – in fact, conscious of what drives us mind, body and soul. As we become more conscious of our deeper values, then we will start to work towards them.

More conscious of our individual contribution to the results we create.

Many of us don’t believe that we have much influence on what happens in the world. So then it’s rational to let it just go to hell. But we all do have that influence, and once we realise that then the sky’s the limit.

Many of us believe that others need to be told what to do. And we don’t understand that this approach itself creates unsustainable solutions. Nothing that is enforced will last. The only things that last are those that are created together by those who benefit.

And more conscious of what holds us back and limits our influence. Many of us are ‘hungry ghosts’ – we carry around past emotional pain that makes us greedy, envious, jealous, addicted, obsessed, and compulsive.

Becoming more conscious of this pain, while usually a painful process in itself, is a good way to reduce or even remove its power.

So, as we become more conscious, we do more of the right things, more often. And that’s what all of us need. Now in and in the future.

Simple as that really.


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Relocalisation

At this time of year I guess we are all thinking about hearth and home. But a conversation with one of the founders of Gossypium, a great little business that started here in Lewes in 2001, got me thinking about the reality of building a sustainable business locally.

Gossypium sells organic and Fairtrade certified cotton, sourced directly from independent farmers in India. This is worthy in itself. But I think one of the things  the company has done really well is embed itself in the community.

This isn’t done in a forced way, but simply and authentically. For example, the company supports local initiatives. It’s open to suggestions by local people for local campaigns that matter. It contributes to these campaigns and joins in – both the owners and the team. Generally, and wherever it can, it does the “right thing”.

I think this, and the fact that the business started here, has led to a growing belief that Gossypium “belongs” to Lewes. Gossypium is a business that people who live here seem almost proud of.

I know my wife and I have chosen to shop there this year, and lots of other local people do. It’s probably not the cheapest place in the world. But there’s something special about buying things from a place you know is involved in and supportive of your community.

And the owner told me that this support has really benefited the company, financially as well as in other ways, and she believes it will continue to do so.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing the writers of the Cluetrain Manifesto had in mind. The Manifesto is 10 years old this year. As you may know, the Manifesto sees markets as conversations. And it stresses the importance of talking with a human voice. Principles 34 through 40 are:

  • To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
  • But first, they must belong to a community.
  • Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.
  • If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.
  • Human communities are based on discourse — on human speech about human concerns.
  • The community of discourse is the market.
  • Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.

It’s easy to critique the Cluetrain idea. But, for me, the point about community is essentially true.

Happy New Year.


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What IS a sustainable business?

So what is a sustainable business exactly? Surely we must know by now.

  • Is it a green business?
  • Is it a business that is good at environmental management? That follows an ISO standard?
  • Is it a business that’s good at CSR? At accountability? With a good human rights record?

I have a more simple definition. A sustainable business is one that lasts for ever.

OK, you’ll jump on me now and say that simply lasting for ever isn’t the right definition. Some of the companies on the list of the oldest companies in the world aren’t really green and they may not be specifically concerned about their impact on human rights.

And they almost certainly don’t conform to ISO 14001.

But I believe that lasting for ever is an excellent aspiration for a business. No business (and no human) will ever achieve it. But it’s a really good goal.

It’s a good goal because to achieve it a business has to become really good at a number of things:

  • Being a learning organisation. Fancy words that mean that a company develops and grows – not necessarily in size, but like a person, becoming wiser with age. Stronger perhaps, but stronger with compassion, not violence.
  • Caring for the environment. If a business doesn’t care for the environment, then eventually the environment will hit back. Whether it’s fuel prices or raw materials – any business that is ultimately dependent on depleting these resources will eventually run out of them – or find itself  uncompetitive.
  • Caring for the people it employs. Businesses are people. Businesses can’t learn but people can. And if people aren’t cared for then ultimately they will walk or give less than they can.
  • Caring for human rights more generally. If a business breaks this rule, sooner or later people including customers and investors will figure it out. Ignoring human rights is a violation so huge that most people will eventually, when faced by the facts, turn away. Without customers and investors no business can survive.
  • Really understanding and fitting into the market. The market is all these things: customers, investors, people, resources. It’s more than that too – it’s the complex interactions between these things, the system that makes up the world we all live in.  It’s the connections, the inter-dependencies, the limits, and the whole.

Understanding the market means understanding our world and our place in it.  Understanding that if our goal is human sustainability then we need to address all the complex issues of poverty, war, greed, species destruction, resource depletion, climate change and so on. And find a way to really fit in.

Unless a business gets really good at these things it simply won’t last.

And neither will we.


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Getting better all the time

Someone asked me last week what good management is. We were talking about people management. And  the exact question was “how will we know when we are good managers?”.

Perhaps rather glibly I said that I thought that good was a label and it was perhaps better to consider ourselves all in the process of learning to be better managers. I said that in my opinion management was very hard, and that while it was possible to get better, it was unlikely that anyone would get truly “good” at it, given the uniqueness, and the unique difficulties, of individuals and of human kind in general.

Reflecting on the question again later, I came up with three simple ways that I think I would use to measure good people management, in the context of a sustainable business, that is, one that is trying to last.

The first is retaining our self-respect as managers. “Managing people”, in my view, is a label for a particular type of relationship between two or more people. Relationships can be very hard if boundaries are not clear. Sometimes managers can be bullied, or at the very least rattled, by the results of the emotional turbulence or needs that the other person in the relationship has.

This is not good, for the manager, for the business, or for the person being “managed”. If the relationship becomes badly skewed, probably all parties will lose out.

Secondly, helping the business achieve its goals. I always try to remember that a business is not a therapy room. It may seem naive but, for me, a business is simply a group of people who have thrown their lot in together to achieve a common set of goals. Finding a compromise between using the business to help an individual to develop and grow personally, while focussing also on the good of the greater number seems to me to be essential. If sometimes the individual’s needs have to be sacrificed for the greater good, well, for me, that’s the right way to go.

Thirdly, retaining our imagination. Or at least enough imagination to believe that there is a better way, and that we just have to find it.

For me, a huge part of people management is about helping individuals in the company to learn, and to grow. Businesses are people. They are one and the same thing.

I love work and I love business. Mainly because it is grist to my personal development mill. It gives me something to work on, to worry over, to chew on. (I’d probably go quietly mad if left completely to my own devices.) And if I fail to truly engage with the relationships I have, perhaps by distancing myself emotionally from the people I work with, or by  falling back on management techniques I have used again and again, it’s just another way of quitting, of giving up on my own and the other person’s development (assuming they want it).

Having faith in people is essential to good management. Faith that working together we will find a way through. This is essential if we are to build businesses that are truly sustainable. For me, growing that faith, despite the inevitable setbacks and let downs that come from working with other people, is therefore perhaps the best success measure of all.


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Live more simply…

Thanks to my friend Oliver, I just finished reading Ervin Laszlo’s 2006 book The Chaos Point. Probably the best book I have read since  the last amazing book I read. They seem to be coming thick and fast at the moment.

We are always busy so my wife asked me to summarise it in 30 seconds. Here goes:

  • The world is in a terrible state, and getting worse.
  • Doom is not, however, inevitable.
  • Changing our own consciousness – personally and as a group – is the answer.

This goes a long way to answering one of the major riddles I struggle with. If you believe the world is a complex system (as I do), and that we can’t predict outcomes with any certainty (even though scientific, economic. and political dogma suggest we can), why isn’t it OK just to live and let live?

It will all work out for the best won’t it? The trickle-down will work. Technology will fix the climate. Crisis will be averted, yet again. Everyone will be happy.

Laszlo’s point is that we humans are both the problem and the solution. We are destroying the planet and in danger of destroying ourselves. But we have the power to change our thinking. And changing our thinking allows us to change the framework by which we all live. Our future is not predetermined. It depends on that framework.

Our ingrained liberalism suggests live and let live. But we can, for example, choose a better morality, summarised by Ghandi’s “Live more simply, so that others can simply live”.

How do we change our morality, change our consciousness? Another riddle: it’s not easy, and yet it is. One clear way forward is to work on oneself. To try to understand oneself better, mind, body and soul.

My wife liked that bit. She’s an example to me. Someone who takes personal development very seriously. And I must go and read another book.


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Roll up, roll up

What a great time to enrol people in the business of doing something about social and environmental issues.

Gordon Gecko was wrong, greed is not good. As some of the financial fat cats get their comeuppance surely we’ll see  an acceleration towards a world where more people use their working lives to do something worthwhile.

But what might stop this happening?

Firstly, I suppose, especially in an economic downturn, people might claim poverty. But as fellow JustMeans blogger Osbert Lancaster wrote in “Responsible business in a time of turmoil?” – one good strategy is to remember we in the West are rich. Wildly rich compared to many of the people in the developing world.

Selfishness isn’t a bad strategy in my view. If you don’t look after yourself, what chance do you have of looking after others? The trick is probably to try to sort oneself out, in every way, then start to see what you can do for others.

Secondly, many people seem to argue there’s no point. The world’s going to hell in a handcart anyway, so why bother. Well is it? It seems to me that our biggest hope is the very presence of sites like JustMeans, and all the thousands (millions?) of people signing up to similar initiatives. If together we create a critical mass, then surely there’s some hope?

Thirdly, some people seem to feel they aren’t able to do anything. Maybe we haven’t got  the skills. Or maybe we don’t have any choice.

That’s something that took me some years to fully understand. That really everything we do is our own choice. We may tell ourselves that we have no choice but it’s simply not true. No one cooerces us. Or very rarely anyway.

Anything else? People like me, preaching? Personally, I hate being told what to do. And I do worry that many of our social and environmental organisations are too exclusive, run by “professionals” and “experts”. People who “know” the answers. (Hopefully that’ll trigger a response!)

I like the message that came across from Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest video – that this movement is wide and deep, broad and inclusive. Everyone, literally everyone, has something to contribute.

So dive in.