What puzzles you about sustainability?

If you already understand how to create a thriving, just, and sustainable world then this article is probably not for you but if you find the whole Sustainability thing puzzling we’re going to explore what inequality, child poverty and deforestation of the Amazon have to do with your business.

Let’s start with the Amazon deforestation.  I’d like to start here because earlier this year I traveled deep into the Amazon forest in Ecuador to meet with the Achuar people whose homes, livelihoods, traditional culture are being destroyed. They asked me to ”help them stay in their homelands and to preserve the remaining forests that serve the good of all of Ecuador and the world” (I go into more detail about my trip to Eucador in the article “Measuring Success“).

So what do we know?

  • We know that deforestation of the Amazon is happening.   (Almost 15% of its total area since 1970)*1
  • We know that the oil companies are the biggest cause of deforestation threat  in Ecuador
  • We know this is one of the reasons the carbon in the atmosphere is being absorbed more and more by the oceans and causing them to become too acidic for the plankton to survive.
  • We know that the ocean system is reliant on plankton, and fish are the major source of protein for 1 out of every 6 people on the planet

So it is essential that the Amazon as the earth’s largest carbon sink does not get further deforested.

Why is deforestation happening?

  • To create farm land for cattle, for crops including soy beans as a renewable source of oil
  • For oil exploration
  • Because of oil pollution (In Ecuador, oil production by Texaco and Chevron over the 1980’s and 1990’s saturated local waterways with billions of gallons of toxic sludge, leading an Ecuadorean court to rule that Chevron owes $18-billion in damages).
  • Because of our patterns of consumption in the west and when there is rapid change in affluence.

Earthwatch Institute estimates that if China’s 1.3 billion people were to consume at the same rate as Americans, global production of steel, paper and cars would have to double, oil output would need to rise by 20m barrels a day and miners would have to dig an extra 5bn tons of coal. If it followed the US appetite, China would chew its way through 80% of current meat production and two-thirds of the global grain harvest. “China is telescoping history,” says Lester Brown, president of Earthwatch. “It forces us to focus on what happens when huge numbers of low-income people rise rapidly in affluence. Chinese consumption shows the need to reconstruct the world economy.”‘

How is this relevant to business in NZ today?

How dependent on oil is my business?
Your business and your life is dependent on oil.

e.g. for transport, shipping, local food production (the machinery used in growing and processing), export, all plastics, steel, electricity to produce goods we use, producing the tools we use every day etc.

Although it is self evident it needs to be said that an economy based on oil, and going for growth and ever increasing profits requires finding new sources of oil. It’s not that there isn’t any more oil – it’s just that where some of it is located is in the Amazon and it is easier and cheaper to dig down 6 kms than to extract it from sand or 20 kms under the sea.

There appears to be an assumption that we have the right to have what we want no matter what it costs.

Some of the costs of oil extraction are:
Deforestation, desecration of Alberta Sands and other homelands of Indigenous peoples, oil spills and loss of wildlife, carbon into the atmosphere to name just a few.

The Achuar ‘s response to the news that Talisman is pulling out of the Amazon on 14 Sept 2012  “We have fought long and hard against Talisman’s drilling in our territory because of the negative environmental and social impacts we have seen from oil drilling around the world,” said Peas Peas Ayui, President of the National Achuar Federation of Peru (FENAP), in a recent press release by Amazon Watch. “Now that Talisman is leaving we can focus on achieving our own vision for development and leave a healthy territory for future generations.”  Source: mongabay.com (October 27, 2006). Amazon deforestation rate plunges 41 percent.

“We have proof that pollution already exists, damage to nature and to indigenous people in the communities where petroleum activities are developed. For 37 years in the Achuar brother communities of the Corrientes River, petroleum has not brought any development to them; on the contrary they are sick and poverty stricken.”
Cesar Zuniga Butuna President National Achuar Federation of Peru.

  • In 1985 65 of oil from the Gulf of Mexico came from Wells more than 300 metres deep. In 2009 the % was 80% including deep water horizon’s well 1500 metres of water then 4 kms below the sea floor.
  • Alberta sands oil requires 2 tonnes of earth to be strip mind, 7 barrels of water heated to steam to produce 1 barrel of oil. I barrel of energy = 3 barrels of oil.
  • 30 years ago 1 barrel of oil = 100 barrels of energy.

We have established that there is a connection between deforestation of the Ecuadorian Amazon and our businesses through our dependence on oil and we have some choices about our response.

It is not my intention here to explore what some of those choices are – there will be lots of ideas about that in the Telesummit I’m putting together for early in 2013.  Please email me if you would like to be on a special database to know about these Telesummit calls.

There also seems to be an assumption that I have the right not to know the consequences of my choices.  Or thinking that says “ I can’t make a difference so what’s the point?”  If I achieve one thing with this article or the Telesummit I would be thrilled for you to take another look at those two assumptions.  But let’s move on to look at what other assumptions our business is based on that we can explore.

Are there other assumptions our business is based on??

For example:

  • The purpose of business is to make money
  • People that own the business deserve to have more than those that work in them
  • Profit is an inherently good thing
  • An economy needs to keep growing
  • A business has a right to make profit no matter what the costs

“Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.” ~E.F. Schumacher …Small is Beautiful 1973

What are some of the implications of our assumed right to make a profit no matter what the cost?

  • People trade their lives for money
  • It’s ok to have a minimum wage that is not enough to live on
  • Minimum wage = family poverty and child poverty
  • It’s OK to buy imported products just because they are cheaper no matter who made them, where and at what cost to people and the environment

This drive to make maximum profit causes businesses to buy at the lowest price which causes suppliers to drive down costs in order to compete.  Forcing down the costs has driven some of our best businesses to move overseas – even  favourable examples like Icebreaker among others.

I know I’m simplifying here, but really it is this simple and if we complicate it we get into denial and justification.

Some of these costs are people whose wages are kept as low as possible – many at minimum wage.  One person can live on $500 pw but not a family.  Less than $500pw = family poverty and child poverty.  Or parents working two jobs leading to family breakdown and social deprivation.

Some of these costs are raw materials brought from overseas where we don’t pay the full price of the raw material.

My friend Alyssia tells the story of the rack of clothes at $10.00 made in China when $10 wouldn’t even begin to pay the real price of growing, harvesting, producing, shipping, dying, printing, fabrication, sewing and more shipping of the cotton let alone the wages of the NZ’er who is trying to run a business and pay someone to sell the article.  And what wages were paid to the workers in China?

And that’s something made from just one raw material, think about a phone or laptop.  Think about the multiple special minerals, the mines, truck journeys, assembly plants, shipping, middle men and distributors etc.  How does a phone at $49.00 go anywhere near covering these costs?  And where do these special minerals come from?  Places like the Amazon.

So how does this relate or matter to our businesses here is NZ?

If the purpose of my business is to make money for me, my family etc I justify decisions that continue to exploit and deplete the natural resources of the planet, to exploit people especially the ones I don’t have to meet face-to-face.

Thoughts?   I’d love to know your thoughts (please send me your comments in the form at the bottom of this article).

It seems we have built our business based on rights – our rights to do and have what we want irrespective of the consequences for others or indeed the planet.

It seems that our system of business has forgotten about its responsibilities.  If we don’t want to deplete and exploit resources and other people it seems we must make some different choices.

We could choose to think about our responsibilities – to the planet, to our children who will have to deal with the mess we have created.  If we did that we might make different decisions about products and suppliers and staff wages and conditions and possibly the bigger purpose of our business.

We’ve got a new definition of a sustainable business inspired by nature and humanity

A sustainable business is

I’d like to share new “3 R’s” for the future of Business, inspired by and in harmony with nature:

  1. Radical – redesigning for resilience, new ways of operating and innovation beyond ‘zero’ into ‘net positive’ (beyond the take/make/waste paradigm)
  2. Re-connecting & reconciling our human relationship with life/nature and our own authentic human nature
  3. Rekindling wisdom – working with the grain of nature, symbiosis, synchronicity, permaculture, indigenous wisdom, where businesses and societies thrive beyond ‘sustaining’

Learnt and adapted from the Nature of Business – redesigning for Resilience by Giles Hutchins


mongabay.com (October 27, 2006). Amazon deforestation rate plunges 41 percent
Contact Bridget at Creating What MattersSubscribe to monthly tips for a healthy, sustainable business that matters


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