The desire to create a more humane business often coincides with the desire to be a force for good in the world. This reflects the higher purpose we feel emerging inside us as a result of greater self-awareness. Such increased self-awareness eventually expands to include the surrounding community and the world as a whole—and this has a positive influence on the company culture.
Awakening leaders and their businesses—including many giants in the business world—are increasingly finding ways to express gratitude for and show compassion toward both the communities and ecology that support their company’s existence. For instance, many businesses that were built on accumulating wealth are now discovering how fulfilling it is to contribute in tangible ways to the wellbeing of others.
Rose Marcario at Patagonia is on board with this. “One of the things we do is give one percent every year of our sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Although these are usually smaller grants in the $10,000 to $20,000 range, a lot of them go to the causes we care about, which revolve around energy, water conservation, and wildlife preservation. We want to protect both the land and the diversity of species, so we support folk who are dealing with toxins in their water and issues of waste. We also fund a program that enables our employees to work with any environmental organization for a few weeks a year. All they need to do is come back and report on their trip for the rest of the group. We let people go work on issues that are important to them. For example, when the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred, we had employees teamed with an NGO. We paid their salaries while they performed the work. We also match our employees’ contributions to environmental organizations 100%, as well as hosting events in our stores to support local environmental organizations.”
China’s Alibaba.com recently passed both eBay and Amazon as the world’s largest e-commerce company. It’s heartening to discover that major Chinese companies are changing the way they do business. For instance, concern for the earth has prompted Alibaba to earmark 0.3% of their annual revenue for environmental “awareness, conservation, and remedial actions.”
Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba Group, strongly encourages employees “to develop and be active in environment-friendly programs.” In an effort to foster a more democratic working environment, Ma has employees elect representatives “who determine how the company spends its annual philanthropy budget.” Measures such as these have a major impact on motivation and commitment.
Although Ma remains chairman of Alibaba Group, he recently stepped down as Chief Executive to focus on making the world a better place, especially when it comes to the environment. In a written piece, he explains, “Our water has become undrinkable, our food inedible, our milk poisonous, and worst of all the air in our cities is so polluted that we often cannot see the sun. Twenty years ago, people in China were focusing on economic survival. Now, people have better living conditions and big dreams for the future. But these dreams will be hollow if we cannot see the sun.”
PMC’s W. Brett Wilson is a believer in community service. “We take our entire office to Mexico every two years to build homes,” he says. “Every year we volunteer at one of the churches to feed the hungry.”
Community service is also a core value at Zappos, where employees are encouraged to volunteer their time for a variety of causes and are paid for the hours they volunteer.
Microsoft, Timberland, and Eli Lilly & Company are other examples of the growing business trend of providing paid time off to employees who volunteer locally and abroad.
Google’s emphasis on employee self-awareness includes their connection to the world around them. Since 2008, Google employees around the world take a week in June to give back to communities everywhere. In 2013, more than 8,500 Googlers from 75+ offices participated in 500 projects. The projects Google employees participated in that year include leading a workshop on media literacy in Bhutan, spearheading a bone marrow drive in California, helping children with cognitive disabilities in India, cooking meals for families with children undergoing cancer treatment in London, England, and walking the streets of New York City gathering information to improve the AXS Map platform that maps wheelchair accessibility.
More and more companies don’t need to be convinced of the benefits of helping their community and the planet. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh now consults with other businesses on the effects of charity work on employee satisfaction and engagement. Not only does volunteer work aid in learning new skills and personal growth, but his consultancy website asserts that “paying employees to do charity work in the local community can increase their job satisfaction.” An additional benefit is that it’s “an effective way of increasing employee engagement in the workplace,” which is “a very important factor in an organization’s success.”
Craig and Marc Kielburger created social enterprise Me to We as a funding vehicle for their charity Free the Children. The latter’s educational and development programs have impacted millions of children in over 45 countries. Not only are the Kielburgers committed to freeing children from poverty and exploitation, but they also seek to rid children of the notion that young people have no power to make a difference in the world. Me to We gives half its profits to Free The Children, while using the other half to expand its own social mission, which includes making people more socially and environmentally conscious as consumers, developing community leaders, and creating exploitation-free jobs for the creators of the books and artisanal products they sell.
Social enterprises like Me to We emphasize people and planet over profit.
As cofounder Craig Kielburger told us, “We measure the bottom line, not by dollars earned, but by the number of lives we change and the positive social and environmental impacts we make.”
Me to We walk their talk when helping humans and the environment by keeping in mind that their efforts must empower people without overburdening the environment. “We realized that the very act of running the social enterprise could be socially conscious,” Kielburger explains. “In other words, it’s not just about the profits generated, but how we went about generating those profits.” He adds that from carbon offsetting all of their international volunteer trips, shipping, and domestic travel, to printing on recycled paper and avoiding all pesticides in the production of their products, Me to We is committed to leaving “a light footprint on the earth.”
To date, Me to We has helped plant more than 667,000 trees to offset their international travels and to reforest places like Kenya, where they build schools and rebuild communities. As part of this community building, Me to We provides full-time employment to 800 African artisans affectionately known as the “Masai Mamas.” Their crafts, and many other Me to We products, are all ethically manufactured.
Dr. Hande’s SELCO Solar also focuses on lowering environmental impact, while simultaneously helping to empower the poor. SELCO’s goal isn’t to maximize profit above all else, but to be a financially and socially sustainable company that cares for the long-term wellbeing of its employees and clients. SELCO was born of a desire to help the poorest in society achieve self-sufficiency in an environmentally conscious manner.
From the outset, the company was confident a business model that empowered customers could be viable. In fact, SELCO was conceived to dispel three myths associated with sustainable technology and the rural sector as a target customer base: the belief that poor people can’t afford sustainable technologies, that poor people can’t maintain sustainable technologies, and that social ventures can’t be run as commercial entities. SELCO employs nearly 300 people across five Indian states and ha “sold, serviced, and financed over 150,000 solar systems.”
Many of the business experts and leaders we interviewed are fully aware that our current economic model is unsustainable. Suggesting we need to change the underlying financial structure of society, Rose Marcario put her finger on the core issue: “This really comes from my experience of working in it and doing it myself for many years, but the idea that you’re going to invest money and get a twentyfold return in five years isn’t a healthy model. It doesn’t create jobs, and neither does it build lasting companies that make good products and stand behind them. Instead, it feeds greed.” She adds that “if you look at what happened in 2006 to 2008, with the financial crisis and the total destruction of the markets, it was all based on just plain greed.”
W. Brett Wilson of PMC agrees. “Go back to 2007, 2008. People said there was a credit crisis. I saw it as a crisis of morality. It was a morality based on greed.” Why did the crisis occur? “It wasn’t because people were paying too much for their homes. It was because the infrastructure was set up to allow that. When people believe they are above accountability, above reporting, that’s a crisis of morality.”
The resulting poverty and social instability from this crisis is eating away at the foundations of society and the environment that sustain us. Thus companies engaging in the kind of behavior that led to this crisis are placing their own financial sustainability at risk.
It’s in everyone’s interest to end the kind of corporate greed that does nothing to rid our species of poverty. As Dr. Hande explains, “Repeated studies around the world show that maps of conflict zones and those of energy and economic poverty overlap.” He adds, “The social sustainability that we speak of—the basic ecosystem fabric required for all businesses to flourish—is threatened by the very existence of poverty.”
If any part of us still wants to believe that “business is business,” we might want to think long and hard about what our company is currently contributing to—and what it potentially could be as a powerful and much-needed force for change.
©2015 by Catherine R. Bell. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of Namasté Publishing,
The Awakened Company
by Catherine R Bell.
Catherine Bell holds a degree from Western University and an M.B.A. from Queen's University, is certified in the Riso-Hudson Enneagram and the Nine Domains, has taken the ICD not-for-profit course, and has more than a decade of international executive search experience in industries including renewables, oil and gas, power, infrastructure, high technology, and private equity. Renowned for her ability to build high performance teams, Catherine speaks frequently on leadership and careers to both business schools and companies. She has also been involved in a number of not-for-profit boards. For more info, visit http://awakenedcompany.com/