Greening the Corporates

Greening the Corporates:

The Transition, Local business and Sustainable Development

Article by Wayne Visser

The Short History of Sustainable Development

“Sustainable development” hustled its way into the English vocabulary and onto the world’s political agenda in 1987, with the publication of Our Common Future, an official report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. In terms of this document, sustainable development is defined as:

“Development which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their needs.”

This cleverly crafted concept tactfully allied the fears of powerful business lobbies in the developed countries of the North by not being “anti-economic growth”, while at the same time soothing the governments and civic organisations of the developing world in the South by talking “development and equity”. It also befriended and found a guardian-for-life among the environmental pressure groups by putting their “green” issues on the map.

Five years later, in 1992, 178 country leaders paraded on the world stage of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, more endearingly referred to as the “Earth Summit”, and committed their nations to a variety of conventions, agreements and programs aimed at making the now politically acceptable notion of sustainable development a reality.

Global Business and the Environment

The corporate sector is not generally one to be caught napping and the global gearing up on environmental issues proved no exception. In 1991, a group of 50 of the world’s top executives formed the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) and issued its report to the Earth Summit entitled Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment. (Pick ‘n Pay’s Raymond Ackerman was one of these contributors). In a parallel initiative, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) launched its 16-principle Business Charter for Sustainable Development in 1991 and contributed a book to the Earth Summit entitled From Ideas to Action: Business and Sustainable Development.

Today, there are more than 2 000 corporate signatories of the ICC Charter for Sustainable Development and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which grew out of a merger between the BCSD and the World Industry Council for the Environment, has more than 120 international member countries.

Other environmentally oriented corporate standards have enjoyed similar growth in world-wide support, for example: the International Council of Chemical Associations’ Responsible Care Programme, the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies’ (CERES) Principles, the Keidanren Global Environmental Charter, the British Standard (BS) 7750, the European Eco-management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) and the International Standards Organisation (ISO) 14001 standard for Environmental Management Systems.

Environmental Awareness in South Africa

In general, South Africa has tended to lag behind international developments in public policy and corporate responsibility by between 10 and 20 years. For example, while the US enacted their National Environmental Policy Act in 1970, South Africa had to wait two decades for its own comparable legislation in the form of the Environmental Conservation Act 73 of 1989. Similarly, while the ICCA launched its Responsible Care Programme for the international chemicals industry in …

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Visser, W. (1999) Greening the corporates: The transition, local business and sustainable development. Development Update, Special Issue: Election 1999: Where have we come from? A balance sheet of the political transition, Volume 3, No. 1.

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Grassroots Ecological Economics in South Africa

Grassroots Ecological Economics in South Africa

Article by Wayne Visser

South Africa’s recent political transformation is like a hard won gift which keeps giving, and the environment is one of its greatest beneficiaries. For example, South Africa is now one of the few countries in the world to have the environment enshrined in its Constitutional Bill of Rights, according to which:

“Everyone has the right:

(a) to an environment not harmful to their health or wellbeing; and

(b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that:

(i)   prevent pollution and ecological degradation;

(ii) promote conservation; and

(iii)secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

From this basic premise has flowed a stream of national policy reforms, culminating in a host of new and emerging environmental legislation, including, for example, the Environmental Management Bill, Water Bill, and Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations. As important as the results of these, has been the multi-stakeholder participative process followed.

On the Agenda

Fortunately, the role of economics in this environmental revisioning process has been included on the political agenda. Towards the end of 1993, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism established an Environmental Resource Economics Steering Committee, which issued a number of discussion documents on the use of economic instruments in environmental management. More recently, a discussion document on “A National Strategy for Integrated Environmental Management in South Africa” was released which contains a whole chapter on market-based instruments, covering the following items:

Resource charges, non-consumptive user charges, pollution charges, product charges, land-use charges, input charges, investment credits, accelerated depreciation, product/service subsidies, basic needs subsidies, tradable permits, tradable quotas, tradable shares (resource shares), deposit refund system, environmental performance bonds, green funds and environmental valuation.

The implementation of these various concepts remains to be seen, although they are already finding expression in the anticipated changes to the water laws. In essence, South Africa will be moving towards a “true cost” pricing of water (to reflect its scarcity and ecological value) and effluent charges will increasingly be linked to levels of pollution. In addition, to address the “tragedy of the commons” and inequitable access currently associated with the country’s water resources, the practice of riparian rights will be replaced by a system of regulated water leasing (amidst much political and commercial controversy).

Hence, at least in theory and partially in practice, environmental resource economics has secured a sound basis on which to justify its importance in the national macro-policy arena. That is good news, but not the whole story.

A New Perspective

What interests me equally is the way in which ecological economics is finding applications at a grassroots level – especially in local communities, and among South Africa’s most marginalised people.

This is as important, if not more so, than the government-led national policy initiatives. It is what will decide whether protection of the environment can escape its historical “white, colonial, nice-to-have” image and become a relevant developmental movement enjoying the support of the wider …

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Visser, W. (1998) Grassroots Ecological Economics in South Africa. The Ecological Economics Bulletin, Fourth Quarter.

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Productivity Through Interdependence

Productivity Through Interdependence:

Heeding the Lessons of Nature

Article by Wayne Visser

In our modern economies and businesses, unlimited growth is constantly striven for, institutionalised, almost idolised.  We hold it up as the measure of success.  Yet, by doing this, we could be sowing the seeds of our own destruction.  We know this because in nature, unlimited physical growth is almost nowhere to be seen.

When it does occur, we call it cancer, or imminent species collapse, or ecosystem decline.  Also, we are already seeing many of the signs of exceeding what environmental scientist Donella Meadows called ‘the limits to growth’.

Growth in Nature

In his visionary book on the evolution of life (The Awakening Earth), scientist and business author Peter Russell makes the critical observation that, while exponential growth does frequently occur in nature, it always levels off into an S-shaped curve as soon as a harmonious and life-supporting situation has been reached.  What actually happens is that quantitative growth is always superseded by qualitative growth after a healthy infrastructure has been established.  Our own human growth patterns are testimony to this.  US ecological economist Herman Daly extends this principle to the economy, suggesting that a distinction needs to be made between traditional economic growth (typically measured by Gross National Product), and holistic development.

According to Daly, ‘growth’ means a quantitative increase in the scale of the physical dimensions of the economy, while ‘development’ means the qualitative improvement in the structure, design and composition of the physical stocks of wealth that results from greater knowledge, both of technique and of purpose.

A growing economy is getting bigger; a developing economy is getting better.  In a business context, impetus for this change has already been provided by MIT Professor Peter Senge’s concept of a ‘learning organisation’ and World Business Academy fellows Willis Harman and John Hormann’s notion of Creative Work, in which “employment exists primarily for self development, and is only secondarily concerned with the production of goods and services.”

Practically, this shift away from blind growth will only occur as companies begin to value, measure and integrate qualitative dimensions into their strategic planning, operations and public reporting processes.  Two excellent tools for achieving this are the Balanced Scorecard and Social Auditing.

Productivity in Nature

Another common misconception about Nature is the dominance of competition in its processes – the so-called ‘survival of the fittest’ adage.  In fact, in nature, competition is the exception and cooperation and symbiotic relationships are the rule.  The principle incorrectly ascribed to Darwin could more appropriately read ‘survival of the species best adapted or integrated within their dynamic environment’.  Size, strength or physical agility are seldom the best survival qualities (remember the dinosaurs?).

Among the unsung prophets of the 20th century who first described the dynamic complexity of Nature in these terms was former South African Prime Minister, Jan Smuts.  His Theory of Holism was the precursor to modern day Living Systems Theory, which Fritjof Capra has subsequently applied to the economy and Peter Senge has applied to business organisations.  According to their observations, the key to productivity is synergy – creating the cooperative relationships which …

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Visser, W. (1998) Productivity through Interdependence: Heeding the Lessons of Nature. Earthyear, Edition 17, June.

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Afrocentric Business in Southern Africa

Afrocentric Business in Southern Africa

Article by Wayne Visser

In the dizzy wake of socio-political euphoria following the birth of its new ‘rainbow nation’, South Africa now faces the sobering task of creating an accompanying economic miracle.  The prevailing mood is pessimistic, with many business and economics critics all too ready to point out the grim facts:  In 1996, South Africa saw a dramatic weakening of its currency, a lower-than-expected growth in Gross Domestic Product of around 3 percent, a steady trickle of the emigration ‘brain drain’ of its professional skills, and an unwillingness of foreign investors to commit their resources in a crime-anxious climate with relatively high labour costs and low productivity.

But while many shiver beneath the shadow of these ominous storm clouds, a visionary core of business thinkers and practitioners in Southern Africa has their eyes on the rainbow.  They see the “failure” of most African economies in terms of a neglect of their peoples to foster home-grown indigenous business cultures that are in harmony with the African soil and soul.  And they are working hard to rekindle native values in business contexts, to provide the sparks needed to transform the economy into a blazing sun of new traditions in Afrocentric management.

Values – Colonial Hangovers and Ubuntu

Colonialism is a process whereby one dominant set of values gets imposed on the diverse cultures of ‘conquered lands’.  This has been the thread of the world’s political history and is now being repeated in the economic sphere through globalisation of corporations and trade.  South Africa, which was invaded by Dutch burghers in 1652 and English settlers in 1820, became industrialised with a pervasive Eurocentric mode of commerce, and more recently has begun to internalize the seductive consumerist culture of America as well.  Add to this the legacy of economic marginalisation of the majority of native South Africans through the apartheid system, and it is unsurprising that traditional African ideas about trade and business have to date been totally ignored (note the root word ‘ignorance’).

The values inculcation that has accompanied the North Western hemisphere’s footprint on Southern Africa has left many of its people culturally schizophrenic.  Some of these conflicts between African and North Western culture that manifest in a business context are, for example:

  • Social harmony and cohesion versus individual performance and reward;
  • Participative decision making versus bureaucratic managerial authority; and
  • Creative expression and motivation versus rationality and quantitative argumentation.

Underlying these dynamics is a value concept fundamental to African culture that has been largely overlooked by outsiders and hardly explicitly acknowledged by Africans themselves until recently.  This is the concept of ubuntu, or African Humanism.  In South African culture, it is often associated with the proverb:  Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu, which literally means, “A person becomes human through other people.”

South African manager Reuel Khoza describes ubuntu as the philosophy of “I am because you are, you are because we are.”  It is a concept, he says, “which brings to the fore images of supportiveness, cooperation, and solidarity, that is, communalism.”  Zimbabwean businessman …

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Visser, W. (1997) Afrocentric Business in Southern Africa. World Business Academy Perspectives, Volume 11 No. 3, September.

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Ethical Investment

Ethical Investment:

Money With Values

Article by Wayne Visser

Ethical investment – also called social investment, socially responsible investment and green investment – is an international trend which refers broadly to the conscious use of investments to achieve social, ethical and environmental performance objectives, over and above the usual financial returns. The relevance of the ethical investment movement lies in its potential to deliver good financial returns while also helping to deliver on the countries social objectives, like empowerment, good labour practices, and environmentally sustainable development for instance.

Apartheid as a Catalyst

The phenomenon can be traced back to the beginnings of the corporate social responsibility movement in the United States in the 1930s, although it only really became visible in the 1970s. At this time, church and university groups set up the first funds, such as the Pax World Fund, to avoid investment which supported the Vietnam War and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Since the political transformation of South Africa is widely regarded as one of the great motivators and success stories of ethical investment, this background is worth recalling.

Many would argue that it all began in 1970. South Africa had just been ejected from the United Nations for its apartheid policies, and Reverend Leon Sullivan proposed that this be reinforced by the adoption of a set of minimum standards by US companies with South African operations. These standards, formalised as the Sullivan Principles in 1977, included clauses on non-segregation of facilities on racial grounds, affirmative action for blacks, and social upliftment for underprivileged employees. Various civil rights, labour and religious groups took it upon themselves to monitor and report on companies’ adherence to these principles.

In 1982, Connecticut became the first US legislature to require all its investments to be screened against the Sullivan Principles, setting the precedent for similar action by other bodies. Then, as the South African regime toughened its stance on apartheid, complete disinvestment began. As a result of increasing stakeholder pressure and led by Citibank and Chase Manhattan Bank, 135 US industrial companies pulled out of the country between 1985 and 1987. Over the same period, the level of US Funds screened for South African links rose from less than $100 million to nearly $400 million.

Similar ethical investment forces were at work in the UK over the same time. Lobby organisations like Christian Concern for South Africa, End Loans to South Africa, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, put tremendous pressure on the major UK banks (Midlands, Standard Chartered and Barclays) to withdraw from South Africa. There were also campaigns against users of South African gold and suppliers of oil to South Africa (especially Royal Dutch Shell). These were given added weight by the emergence of screened ethical unit trust and investment funds with avoidance criteria for oppressive regimes chiefly targeting South Africa. By 1985, South Africa was forced to default on its foreign loans, and in 1986 the US passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, with the European Community following suite shortly after to consolidate international financial sanctions.

Types of Ethical Investment

There are basically two types of ethical investment: shareholder activism and screened investments …

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Visser, W. (1997) Ethical Investment: Money With Values. Money Values online column.

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Community Economics

Community Economics:

Local Empowerment

Article by Wayne Visser

There are a growing number of critics who claim a direct link between the advancement of industrial development based on neo-classical economics thinking and the erosion of communities. This erosion has in turn exacerbated numerous other social problems and created negative effects such as economic dependence, community disempowerment, cultural breakdown, social diseases and environmental destruction.

The call by a growing number of new economists is for a more community-centred economics. This includes various concepts, such as person-in-community, self-reliance, counter-development and eco-communitarianism. On a more practical level, the establishment and support of community businesses and other organisations, as well as of local currencies or exchange systems needs to be encouraged.

The benefits of this community approach are wealth creation, empowerment, social cohesion, ethical conduct, sustainability and fulfilment of human needs.  These are all the subjects to be briefly introduced in this chapter. Many of the concepts and ideas will be dealt with in more detail in other chapters. The theme, however, is a thread that runs throughout the book, namely that we need a new economics with a human face and planetary perspective.

The Effects of Industrial Development on Community

The Specialisation Trap

One of the fundamental principles of neo-classical economics is the division of labour through specialisation. For many communities or countries, however, specialisation can lead to dependence. Developing countries, for example, have found themselves reaping a bitter harvest for decades due to declining prices and terms of trade in primary goods. Often, these patterns of specialisation have been reinforced by conditions imposed by the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. This leaves countless communities, as new economist Guy Dauncey (1986) puts it, “at the mercy of the international trade winds, which can destroy a mono-crop economy overnight.”

Absentee Executives

Another aspect of economics dependency is the tendency in industrial development for economic power to become concentrated in the hands of large, usually transnational, corporations. The result is that the destiny of local economies becomes subject to the whims of managers making decisions in distant boardrooms, or shareholders chasing the highest returns on their computer screens, neither of whom have any appreciation for the impacts of their decisions on real communities. Offices are transferred, retail outlets moved or factories shut down with little concern for how this affects the economic viability of the local communities in which these activities operate.

Community Disempowerment

Closely related to economic dependence is the loss of any sense of self-determination in communities, a situation exacerbated by international trade agreements and roller-coaster financial markets. This in turn changes people’s behaviour, with increasing levels of passivity, apathy and people abdicating personal responsibility – a phenomenon which community development activist Helena Norberg-Hodge (1991) observed in the remote area of Ladakh. New economist Paul Ekins (1986) calls this “learned helplessness” and ascribes it to the trend in industrialised countries of replacing neighbourhood communities with “communities if interest”.

Cultural Imperialism

Another claimed effect of industrial development is the reduction of cultural diversity and creation of a monoculture.  Individuals experience a loss of identity, as they feel pressured to conform to …

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Visser, W. (1997) Community Economics: Local Empowerment. Money Values online column.

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Beyond Growth

Beyond Growth:

Measures of Progress

Article by Wayne Visser

The Concept of Indicators

The world we live in is exceedingly complex. We use indicators to simplify things. Indicators work in the same way as a map. They are meant to be a guide, a representation of reality, which help us to understand the lie of the land. The scale of the map and what it is trying to measure will determine how accurately and completely it approximates reality.

It is the same with indicators. Some indicators are high level, global estimates; others are detailed, local measures. Some focus on economic activity; others on social welfare. They help us to understand ‘where we’re at’ and how things have changed over time. Checked against our objectives, indicators tell us whether things are good or bad, better or worse.

So far, so good. Except that sometimes we get lazy. In the midst of our information overload, we are tempted to oversimplify. We settle for using in a 1:50 000 scale map, when we really need a 1: 5 000. Or we use a two-dimensional route map, when a three dimensional contour map is called for. This is the main problem with economic indicators today.

Limitations of GDP

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the classic example. GDP is a simple and useful measure of economic activity: the sum of all the goods and services produced and sold in a country in a given year. Yet ever since its invention, politicians, multilateral agencies and economists have used GDP as a proxy measure for progress, welfare and quality of life.

This was never the intention. GDP’s creator Simon Kuznets said in 1934: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”

The main weakness of using GDP as a measure of progress is that it measures the quantity, but not the quality, of economic growth. Hence, if there is a war or an environmental catastrophe or a growth in the drugs trade, more goods and services are sold, but society is not better off as a result. To simplify, it makes no distinction between the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ in the economy.

Another fundamental flaw with GDP is that it ignores vast areas of economic activity, simply because it is not included in the formal economy. This includes the ‘invisible’ work performed by households, parents, communities, charities, religious institutions, non-governmental organisations and the informal sector. The economic value of these ‘free’ activities is substantial.

The third limitation of GDP is that it hides inefficiencies and double counting. If a bakery in Cape Town bakes bread and trucks it up to Johannesburg to sell, and a Johannesburg bakery sends identical bread to Cape Town for sale, GDP counts the economic effort spent on both. But is this efficient? Are we better off than if each had sold the bread locally?

GDP also fails to pick up inequity or ethical considerations. It tells us nothing about the conditions under which the goods and services were produced, who are buying them or how the revenues are  …

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Visser, W. (1997) Beyond Growth: Measures of Progress. Money Values online column.

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A New Framework for Thinking About Business

Article by Wayne Visser

The Phoenix of Business

For me, the image of the phoenix from Native American Indian mythology rising up from the ashes of its dead body symbolises our potential to transform the dying metaphor of business as a ‘rational machine’ into a new metaphor:  business as a ‘living whole’.

This idea arose out of one of my business lectures at university some years ago in which Peters and Waterman’s famed bestseller, In Search of Excellence (1982), was under discussion.  As it happened, I was concurrently reading Jan Smuts’ scientific and philosophic treatise, Holism and Evolution (1926) and was struck by the conceptual parallels between the ‘rational mode’ of business which Peters and Waterman were criticising and the restrictive ‘mechanism’ which Smuts attributed to the scientific community of the 1920s.  Since Smuts regarded his theory of holism as the “necessary antidote to the analytical methods which prevailed”, I began to wonder about its remedial potential for the ailing business theory of the present day.

This article is the fruit of my contemplation along those lines – namely, how holism might be applied as a new framework for thinking about business.

Mechanism in Science in the 1920s

Smuts’ starting point in the 1920s was his conviction that the prevailing view of science was both outdated and limiting.  He was referring, of course, to the commonly-held believe that the universe was “a system or combination whose action can be mathematically calculated from those of its component parts”.  In more simple terms, it was Newton’s concept of the clockwork universe where, “when isolated elements or factors of the complex situation have been separately studied, they are recombined in order to reconstitute the original situation”.

Smuts’ main criticism of this reductionistic view of reality, which he called ‘mechanism’, centred on its failure to recognise the countless synergies which exist in the world around and within us, as well as its inability to account for the process of creative evolution.  In his own words, it was “a fixed dogma, that there could be no more in the effect than there was in the cause; hence creativity and real progress became impossible … In its analytical pursuit of the part”, therefore, “science had missed the whole, and thus tended to reduce the world to dead aggregations rather than to the real living wholes which make up nature.”

Smuts’ belief was that “in studying and interpreting Nature, we need to be faithful to our experience of her”, and that, “our experience is largely fluid and plastic, with little that is rigid and much that is indefinite about it”.  His recommendation was that “we should as far as possible withstand the temptation to pour this plastic experience into the moulds of our hard and narrow preconceived notions.”

Rationalism in Business in the 1980s

This diagnosis by Smuts of the malaise infecting science of the 1920s bears striking resemblance, we find, to the critique by Peters and Waterman of the ‘rationalist view’ which was dominating business thinking in the 1980s.  In a sense, this is not surprising, given that both stem from what …

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Visser, W. (1995) Holism: A New Framework for Thinking about Business. New Perspectives, No. 7.

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New Paradigms in Business

There is a growing body of literature on what could be loosely described as explorations in ‘new paradigm’ thinking.

Included in this is an implicit belief about the nature of transformation.  It is that revolutionary change is more often the result of new ways of thinking about things (i.e. changes in perception) than new ways of doing things.

This article attempts to apply this thinking to business, i.e. to explore more deeply the emerging new paradigm in business.  What are the new perspectives which are beginning to challenge the old way of thinking about and doing business?  And is there a common thread or theme which runs through the heart of these new insights?

So what are these basic assumptions about business which have come on trial of late?  There are many but this article will focus on only three of the most important, namely profit, competition and rationality.  Discussion of each will be prefaced by a belief statement from the old paradigm and concluded with a suggested new paradigm belief statement.


The old paradigm belief statement is:  The ultimate and sole function, goal and responsibility of business is to make a financial profit.

Although this belief has been tempered by a growing awareness of social responsibility since the 1960s, the mindset of the vast majority of business leaders still places exclusive profit making firmly at the apex of the business pyramid.  Everything else is regarded as peripheral to this core process.

This emphasis on short-term individual gain all too often results in the long-term wellbeing of employees, the community, society and the environment being sacrificed as pawns in a ruthless game of corporate chess.

This approach – with its tacit assumption that people are primarily motivated by conquest and material acquisition – has been a major limiting factor in managers’ ability to tap the human potential of their organisations in any significant way.

The call now being sounded therefore is for what US futurist Willis Harman would call a new “central project” in business.  This transformed focus could include service to society as the key goal of business. Enhanced quality of life could be its guiding principle and a strong set of ethics and values its foundation.  Further, the search for meaning and creativity in the work place as well as holistic personal and collective learning could become the key measures of performance within an organisation.

This image may not be as far-fetched as many would suppose.  UK business commentator Francis Kinsman for example, cites evidence from an SRI International study which suggests that a growing proportion of British society (currently more than a third) is becoming ‘inner directed’ in nature.

These are people whose behaviour is typically driven by non-materialistic factors and whose emphasis is more on the esoteric and qualitative than the material and quantitative.

An outstanding example of an inner directed personality would be Anita Roddick, who also happens to be one of the most remarkable business leaders to have experimented with a new ‘central project’. She is founder and director of The Body Shop, a global cosmetics business with more than 600 shops trading in 18 different languages in 37 countries around the world.

As Roddick talks about beliefs and business philosophy it becomes clear that a non-materialistic approach to business does not preclude success. “The status quo says that the business of business is to make profits. We have always challenged that. For us the business of business is to keep the company alive and breathlessly excited, to protect the work force, to be a force for good in our society and then, after all that, to think of the speculators (shareholders).”

So the heart of the message is not that profits be abandoned as a measure of business success, only that they cease to be the ultimate focus and assumed motive.

After all, we need to breathe to live but breathing is not the grand purpose of our existence. Just so, profits need to become the means rather than the end of commercial activity.

The new paradigm belief statement therefore is: Service to society and the earth is the core purpose, goal and responsibility of business.


Old paradigm belief statement: Competition is the law of the market and promotes effective and efficient business performance.

This belief, commonly paraphrased as ‘survival of the fittest’, has long been upheld as the bastion of modern business. The assumption is that, not only does competition drive people and organisations to perform at their best, but that the collective effect of this competitive behaviour is one that is in the best interest of society at large. Mounting evidence, however, points to this assumption being partial on both counts.

Firstly, extensive work by Alfie Kohn suggests that, both in an educational and a business context, competitive behaviour undermines individual and group performance, whereas cooperation enhances it. Kohn also makes the point that competition in nature is extremely limited and always takes place within the larger context of cooperation.

Similarly, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and respected consultant and author, believes that cooperation, not competition, is becoming the survival imperative in the market place of tomorrow.

She talks about the old adversarial model and the ways in which she sees the new paradigm of cooperation beginning to manifest itself:

“Today the strategic challenge of doing more with less leads companies to look outward as well as inward for solutions to the competitiveness dilemma …. Lean, agile, post-entrepreneurial companies can stretch in three ways. They pool their resources with others, ally to exploit an opportunity or link systems in a partnership. In short, they can become better ‘PAL’s’ with other organisations – from venture collaborators to suppliers, service contractors, customers and even unions. The adversarial mode with its paranoid world view centres on images of domination and fear of being dominated. It stands in start contrast to the cooperation mode better suited to the challenge of the global (corporate) Olympics.”

This theme of interdependence and connectedness is actually the basis for a powerful alternative theory which can be applied not only to economics but to business as well. Pioneer in this field is MIT’s Peter Senge who describes the emerging discipline of ‘systems thinking’ and its merits as follows:

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelatedness rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’ … And systems thinking is a sensibility – for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character. Today, systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity …. All around us are examples of ‘systemic breakdowns’ – problems that have no simple local cause … Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the ‘structures’ that underlie complex situations and for discerning high from low leverage change. That is, by seeing wholes we learn how to foster health. To do so, systems thinking offers a language that begins by restructuring the way we think.”

All of these insights, therefore, seem to point towards a new business paradigm involving greater cooperation. John Dalla Costa who, after first studying for the Catholic priesthood, later went on to become president and chief executive of one of Canada’s most successful advertising agencies, describes this as “the model of reciprocity – giving back to nature, to our people and to our society as much as we in business extract from them.”

New business paradigm belief: Cooperation and reciprocity are the guiding principles by which business can create synergies within the greater living system.


Old paradigm belief statement: Business is essentially a rational undertaking and should rely exclusively on the faculties of reason and analysis to support all of its processes.

This belief is a direct ‘hangover’ from the mechanistic Newtonian era with its assumptions about objectivity and the rigid scientific method of proof.

After all, it was the reductionistic spirit of this period which led Frederick Taylor to his concept of ‘scientific management’ and Max Weber’s to his of ‘bureaucratic organisation’.

A critique of these managerial approaches was delivered by the now famed Peters and Waterman duo in In Search of Excellence:

“Professionalism in management is regularly equated with hard-headed rationality … The problem with the rationalist view of organizing people (however) is that people are not very rational. To fit Taylor’s old model, or today’s organizational charts, man is simple designed wrong (or, of course, vice versa, according to our argument here). In fact, if our understanding of the current state of psychology is even close to correct, man is the ultimate study in conflict and paradox.”

The successful performance of split-brain surgery in recent years seems to confirm this view as well as lend some insight. Doctors found that, not only can the two hemispheres of our brain operate independent of one another, but that they also seem to control essentially opposite functions.

While the left-brain is associated with rational and intellectual engagements, the right-brain is oriented more towards intuitive and creative processes.

This theme of duality and balance is one which the ancient Chinese understood well as is represented by their Tai Chi symbol which depicts the opposites within a greater whole. Contained within the circular symbol, the one extreme (yin) represents the feminine, passive, cooperative and flexible while the other (yang) symbolises the masculine, active, competitive and rigid.

The possible implication of these ideas for business in the new paradigm is that, while in the past left-brain type thinking and actions have been emphasized and rewarded, there is great value to be gained from encouraging the counter balance of a more right-brain orientation.

This may include greater respect for the role of intuition in decision making, a restructuring of the work place to encourage creativity among employees, more emphasis on cooperation as opposed to the competitive attitudes of the past, more flexibility in organisational design and a review of existing patriarchal systems and practices within business.

New paradigm belief statement: Business is a human institution and should strive to be more holistic, reflecting a balance between symbolically masculine and feminine qualities.


This article has described some of the assumptions being questioned and themes emerging on the journey towards a transformed view of business. They are by no means sacred truths cast in stone but rather evolving concepts of an ongoing experiment.

Anita Roddick captures the essence when she says: “What are we trying to do is to create a new business paradigm simply showing that business can have a human face and a social conscience.”

What is most heartening about this exploration is that much of the ‘African tradition’ (if those in business could but understand and appreciate it more) is already grounded in these emerging ‘new’ ideas.

A respected South African author and Nampak director, Lovemore Mbigi, says: “This is the essence and spirit of an African village and its moral base of ubuntu … (it is) the African communal spirit of grassroots democracy based on respect and human dignity.”

Ubuntu therefore – also more generally referred to as ‘African humanism’ and encapsulated in the Xhosa proverb: “a person is a person through other people” – may well be Africa’s unique interpretation of and contribution to the search for a new paradigm in business. May we journey with pride and hope.

Citation and download

Visser, W. (1994) New Paradigms in Business: The Power of Perception. HRM, October.

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Community Business

Although it is heartening to note the growing worldwide interest in building sustainable communities for the future, it is at the same time disconcerting that so many of these community visions provide no place for the potential role of business within their working structure.

Community Visions

Instead, a rather predicable and in my opinion limited model seems to have been widely adopted.  Its main characteristics are:  food-growing self sufficiency (e.g. permaculture); environmental conservation (e.g. renewable energy); volunteer work (e.g. kibbutz-type arrangements); education services (e.g. conferences and work-shops); accommodation services (e.g. retreats and get-away weekends); and the sale of locally-made arts and crafts.

This largely self-enclosed, subsistence type of approach, with its distinct lack of any facilitation of business initiatives other than the most basic kinds, seems to me to fall substantially short of anything which may be considered a large-scale, viable lifestyle alternative for the future.  This is because business, in one guise or another, forms a completely natural, necessary and valuable part and expression of any developed society.  (This is not, take note, the same as saying that business as it is currently organised and practised is ideal, or that it should not be modified to better serve the needs of both individuals and society as a whole).

What shapes and forms might business take if it were to be integrated into the community vision, with its implicit goal of creating a more sustainable, co-operative, meaning-filled future society?

Before doing so, however, it would be just as well to look at why business has been largely excluded from this vision in the first place.  Part of the reason has to do with some ‘community seekers’ simply failing to appreciate fully the basic functions which business serves in a society.  But I would suggest that there is a more covert and accurate explanation which goes something like this:

Many of the things associated with modern-day business are precisely those things which community seekers are trying so hard to get away from:  greed, dishonesty, stress, lack of meaning in their work, competition, money problems, power struggles, win-lose situations, and generally unwholesome living, to mention but a few.  Hence, they remain fearful and suspicious of business and also sceptical about its desirability in any new system of living.

And, considered from the other side, most business people are too busy pursuing success in the old-fashioned profit-seeking way to be aware of, or concerned about, community initiatives.  Others, who may be more aware, are yet to be convinced that there can be any viable alternatives to existing ways of organising and conducting business.  So they either opt out of business completely, or remain within its traditional structures while introducing some positive changes inside the existing context.

But what about a full transformation of business?  A new community business concept?  If this were to materialise, what might the ‘new face’ (and body) of business look like?

Partial answers to these questions can be found among stories of experiments in community business which already exist.  Let’s look at two such stories, although there are many more to tell.


The first is an experiment taking place in Mondragon, a small town in the mountainous region of north-eastern Spain.  Here, based on the teachings and initiatives of a Roman Catholic priest who taught the application of the gospel to business and the economy, one electric stove manufacturer with five employees established in 1955 has grown into a complex of companies with annual sales in excess of $2.5 billion, all of which actively pursue a philosophy of local community development.  The Mondragon Complex, with companies as diverse as a community bank (with assets of $3 billion), various technical production companies, a retail chain (with 264 outlets and annual sales of over $350 million) and an export company, is outstanding empirical proof that local, community-oriented people can launch businesses which are both large and internationally successful.

New Findhorn Directions

The other experiment is that of the emerging community business culture at the well-known Findhorn Community is northern Scotland.  This began with the establishment of New Findhorn Directions (NFD) in 1979, a legal entity designed to serve as a framework in which private enterprise initiatives could emerge without violating the charitable status of the Findhorn Foundation itself.  Subsequently, many promising business ventures have been initiated, though not all have succeeded; nor have they all chosen to function under the umbrella of NFD.  Those currently in operation include the Wood Studio, Bay Area Graphics, Findhorn Bay Apothecary, Weatherwise Solar and Alternative Data.  The unique characteristics of these companies are that they are all trying to demonstrate their broader community philosophy of ‘spiritual management’ and ‘work as love in action’.

These two examples serve to illustrate that success stories in alternative ways of doing business do exist.  The details of exactly how they are different, however, still needs more thorough exploration.

Principles of Community Business

Firstly, a different set of values underscores the community business.  For instance:  money is made to serve human development and not vice versa;  the business is a means of human and community development and not an end in itself;  work is seen as an opportunity for creativity and personal development, as well as a contribution to serving the needs of society; democratic action and consultation are encouraged;  integrity and competence in the management and conduct of business, as well as effective leadership, are considered necessary disciplines to be learned; and sensitivity to and solidarity with the local community is a prerequisite for a business operating in any particular area.

In order for these values to be translated into action, however, the community business needs to employ different structures to those traditionally used in private enterprise.  For instance, there is a difference in ownership.  Whereas conventional companies are owned by shareholders who may live anywhere, the shareholders of community businesses are people who live in the area where the company operates.  The use of profit is also different.  Whereas the traditional company tries to make a profit to return to the shareholders wherever they may live, the community company aims to use its profits to start new local businesses and to improve life in the local community.

The benefits of the community business approach are readily apparent.  Since its focus is local, business will be much more sensitive to local needs as well as local opportunities in a way that traditional companies might not be.  With the emphasis of people rather than on money-making, business will naturally be more responsive to human development in its staff and in its community than has been customary in the past.

It would be a mistake to assume that these ideas are conclusive or easy to implement.  On the contrary, growing ‘spiritual businesses’ is an open-ended and challenging experimental process, according to Francois Duquesne, past ‘focaliser’ of the Findhorn Foundation and present partner in the Alternative Data software company.

“I thought meditations on Monday mornings and being nice to customers would do it,” he says.  “Instead, I had to deal with intense personality conflicts in a system where power is equated with money.  Yet there is great excitement.  All the problems have had to do with perceptions of power.  Power to stifle and manipulate, or to create, enliven and challenge.  There is no other way of dealing with power issues except by bringing them out and working them through until there is some result.”

Integrating business into an emerging community vision may prove to be one of the most critical lessons to be learned if we are to evolve further as a collective society.  Whether or not this be the case, I endorse Duquesne’s statement:

“I am going ahead in faith, trusting that this path also has a heart.”

Citation and download

Visser, W. (1994) Community Business. Odyssey, Volume 17 No. 5, October 1993 / January 1994.

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