This is an article I wrote for the Permaculture Activist in 2008 – not sure how much I agree with it these days, but thought I’d post it as an example of me flag-waving for Permaculture. It’s really only now that I’m actually putting my money where my mouth is by using the Permaculture Diploma to show how it can be done. Watch this space…
Can Permaculture be the answer to the current lack of sustainability in the business community? Absolutely. We find ourselves in a world in crisis due to rampant over-grazing by insatiable corporate cows, eating up the remains left over after a century of industrial revolutions. I’ve lost count of how many Earths would be needed to sustain our levels of consumption and projected growth. We all know the story by now.
Permaculture was born in response to the emerging energy descent. It was taken up and spread by die-hard greenies that knew a good thing when they saw it, but has been primarily used by poorer peoples in third world countries to help secure their future, mainly in regards to food. While the western world was living it up in the 80s and 90s, with no end of cheap oil in sight, Permaculture was left in the UK to gardens covered in scraps of carpet and old car tyres. With the seemingly unstoppable collision of “the Triple Whammy”- Peak Oil, Climate Change and the Global Economic Downturn – the crunch is on, bringing Permaculture back as 100% relevant.
For a few years now companies world-wide have started adopting systems thinking design theories that streamline their operations and make them ultra efficient, producing maximum output from minimum input. Permaculture’s use in business has been passed over due to its cultish brand, its gems hidden under the dirty finger nails of radical treehuggers. Looking at how corporations like BP, Shell and other global players operate, you’d be surprised at the degree of holism in their strategic planning. This is one of the reasons of their phenomenal success. Yet the business world is missing one vital ingredient that should be a part of every decision – the ethical dimension.
Permaculture’s moral foundation is the guiding light by which we can traverse the modern maze, and the axis that all questions can be measured from. The three, all encompassing, permaculture ethics, Earth Care, People Care and Fairshares, as John Wilson points out in a recent issue of Permaculture Magazine, are not only the Permaculture family’s ethics, but also the values of a much bigger movement that is spreading around the globe – part of the new millennial culture, and also of all the world faiths. We are plugged into something that is fundamentally very human and very powerful. In this lies the potential for it to have mass appeal.
The anti-money stance of so much of the alternative/green movement in the west has definitely contributed to there being a lack of visible examples of ethical businesses and corporations showing that another way is possible. Money equals energy and no more. I can count the famous large firms here in the UK that have strong ethical policies on one hand. Yet we all use money and deal directly or indirectly with businesses, whether local or multi-national, every day – the time has well passed for pretending we’re not involved. It is wrong to position business away from people’s private behaviour. The main thrust for writing this article is to stimulate debate and bring back the ostracised world of business into our sphere of influence.
Permaculture is an adaptable, creative, intelligent, and above all ethical systems design tool, and is ready made for use in every area of business. So what makes a business a Permaculture business and not just one with ethical concerns, like the Fairtrade brands? Conscious design. We can be part of the solution by consciously applying Permaculture principles to our current business (as part of strategic planning or choosing to profit share) , when we set up a new enterprise (such as the example of Vallis Veg given below), to the firm’s policies in which we work (when complying to new government environmental directives and going further), when we meet with the board of management (and discuss ethics and the future direction of the company), at a shareholder’s meeting (like the recent revolt at an ExxonMobil meeting calling for investment in alternative technologies), and of course in the businesses we patronise (in supporting local and ethical brands) . This integration into our relationship with the business world can be done loudly and demonstratively, covert and under the carpet, or my own personal favourite, very matter of fact- “this is what we’re doing, look around you, it’s really normal now”.
Naturally a prime directive. Something I trust the readers of the Activist know a lot about. One point worth mentioning though, is if possible when sourcing goods, follow the supply chain back to where it originates. This is really the only way of knowing the product’s full history – unfortunately not often an easy process. Luckily, there are now many brands and labels such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the like, that are doing all the hard work for us. Permaculture design enables us to look at the bigger picture, which is invaluable in dealing with complex issues that have seemingly intractable problems, such as rural poverty in the west, modern agricultural land use, and urban planning for healthy communities.
This dovetails well into the idea of respect. What is often left out of the equation is the owner having self-respect, and not working themselves all day and all night into an early grave. Factoring this in can have a knock on effect through-out the business, reducing stress and creating a nicer environment to work in for everyone. Naturally, respect is very important when dealing with staff and cutomers too. Yet outdated concepts such as ‘The customer is always right’, which create an ‘us and them’ situation producing a servile and patronising quality to simple over-the-counter interactions, deserve to be thrown on the compost heap. Hopefully, something more human and real will take its place. We can also ask for respect from our clients and suppliers. People Care could also take the form of educating our wider community. Once again, following the supply chain when sourcing goods to find out how the workers who actually made your product have been treated is optimal, although usually quite difficult.
Spreading your surplus could mean profit sharing, donating to charity, selling at a fair price (or on a sliding scale), or even just donating your space, time or expertise to those that need it. Here too, the consumer has a certain degree of responsibility – always chiselling away for the cheapest option can undermine businesses that have higher standards, making them compromise in order to get custom and make a reasonable living. Here in the UK’s capital, more and more businesses are choosing to pay the London Living Wage (LLW), which is 20% higher than the minimum wage ( to keep people above the poverty line), and 20% higher again (because London is just so ridiculously expensive). This movement is gaining momentum as people are waking up to the fact that the massive immigrant ‘underclass’ that keeps the city running is also very poor, and that’s just not ok.
This involves aligning yourself or your company with others to form beneficial relationships that mutually support each other. An example would be a doctor’s practice forming a relationship with the physiotherapist next door, a surgery for operations down the road and an undertakers around the corner if things went wrong (only joking – or am I?). A guild could also take the form of one business that has different parts within it, such as the Great Lakes Brewery in Ohio, which also runs a pub and holds community events. Many of the older pioneer Permaculture maestros have achieved this by multi-tasking – having a market garden, a tree nursery, a consultation business and, of course, teaching.
Like their owners, Permaculture businesses are often by their nature edge dwellers, though things are changing. For instance, our shining star of an example here in the UK, Permanent Publications, who produce the Permaculture Magazine, were recently awarded the Queen’s Award For Enterprise 2008 in the Sustainable Development category. Which is as good as it sounds. The editor Maddy Harland reminded me recently that business is always a compromise and that in the past ‘transitional ethics’ had to be adopted while eyes were set on the future, and that we must remember to always ask ourselves- Why are we doing this? Does this path have a heart? Is what we are doing continuing the problem or part of the solution? Maddy was also keen to stress that staff often work below commercial rates because they believe in the business, and that without this many projects just would not be economically viable, meaning they simply wouldn’t exist.
It can be a very tough game. Most people that start a business just for the love of it burn out sooner or later – truly unsustainable behaviour and not something to be encouraged. Permaculture businesses need also to be viable models of financial sustainability, not just surviving from funding hand outs or scraping along on the bottom of the barrel. Guy Trombley in Minneapolis remarked that one of his greatest challenges was having to spend so much of his time educating his customers to a certain level before they realised the worth of his service, that people often had to be taught that they needed him to restore their half-dead soils. It is true that many will not instantly grasp, for instance, that there is a 25% mark up because the product is made locally and not in China – and that this is actually a good thing. Attitudes, you may have noticed, are changing and many an old greenie has remarked to me how swift and radically the public and media’s perception has altered in the last few years.
The differences in setting up a new business and ‘retro-fitting’ an old one are quite pronounced. Vallis Veg, a local veg box scheme my friend Gladys was instrumental in setting up recently in Somerset, W. England, is founded on Permaculture Principles throughout. Before they began the project the four founders spent a long time working out their beneficial relationships (how each person’s experience combined to build a unique web of knowledge) and limiting factors (kids/time). Only then did they bring the local community together to ask what it was they wanted to eat (as a client survey). Knowledge was purposefully shared to increase resilience for emergencies (and holidays), and the work load is rotated every quarter to stop everyone getting bored. When Vallis Veg started, they consciously decided not to go organic as this meant that they would not be able to source all their veg from the immediate area, and as they are looking to achieve a self-sustaining system rather than import organically grown produce from miles away, this seemed the right choice to make. Much of their produce comes from local growers and allotment holders who have yet to embrace the Permaculture way. This decision is for me an example of how the concept of seeing the bigger picture has helped Vallis Veg find its way through the green and ethical maze, instead of blindly choosing to go organic because that’s what is expected. Its that type of short sighted thinking that has lead the world into food shortages while governments sell bio-fuel as the eco saviour to wipe our western polluting consciences clean.
When I took over the running of my family’s bed & breakfast business in central London a few years ago, I had just finished a design course with David Holmgren and dreamt of turning the company into a Permaculture paradise. It has been a long hard slog. Elements such as a 200 year old building in dire need of renovation, a chaotic energy intensive management hierarchy, a massively inefficient utility infrastructure, and a bored workforce are just some of the things I’ve had to address before I can even think about sourcing local organic bacon and eggs. It has been Permaculture that has informed my vision of the future, keeping me on track and focused on what is to be done next. Regularly stepping back from it all to see how everything is interconnected, where I can stack functions, see how fluid the zones are and what edges come and go adds many dimensions to the way I can view what is going on in the hotel and how it fits into its larger environment.
Below is each of Holmgren’s principles that have not only been a life saver to me, but also enabled me to grab the bull by the horns and help set up a network of small hotels in my immediate area. The principles deserve to be gone through slowly, one by one, by anyone in a business setting who is out to see how they can help themselves plot a course through the minefield that is ‘trying to make the right choice’: –
- Observe and Interact
- Catch and store energy
- Obtain a yield
- Apply self regulation and accept feedback
- Use and Value renewable resources and services
- Produce no waste
- Design from patterns to details
- Integrate rather than segregate
- Use small and slow solutions
- Use and value diversity
- Use the edge and value the marginal
- Creatively use and respond to change
Many large corporations have teams that focus solely on strategic thinking, which is a luxury few smaller businesses have. Time for this needs to be factored in, though, or they will always just be reacting, often in crisis management, rather than being proactive in making change and forging the way to create the society that we all really want. Looking towards the future, a post-peak oil world will depend on detailed observation and good design rather than energy-intensive solutions. Resilience, rather than a quick cash win, should be a defining feature.
It is often said that the real problems in this world are due to governments, large corporations, and their self-serving agendas. Many of us stay away from them as if they’re plagued. Informed by Permaculture, we know that ‘the problem is the solution’, which shows us our task is actually to co-opt these organizations with our own agendas, ethics and designs for the future, instead of shying away from them.
So, just to re-cap my core point-
We can be part of the solution by consciously applying Permaculture principles to our current business, when we set up a new enterprise or project, to the firm’s policies in which we already work, when we meet with the board of management, at a shareholder’s meeting, and in the businesses we patronise.