Mindful Business: Reflecting on The Ecology of Commerce

By Katharine Bierce   

Drafted April 13, 2013 – published July 29, 2018

Have you ever read a book that changes your perspective on the world?

Here’s a reflection inspired by The Ecology of Commerceby Paul Hawken.

The book describes the harm that industry is doing to the world.  It’s depressing, but the author is not just a naysayer.

In a nutshell, he contends that the way to solve all the world’s environmental (and perhaps social) problems is not CSR.  It’s not joining the ‘green team’ with Con Edison or recycling your office paper or carpooling.  That helps. But it’s not enough. 

Changing the world from a linear system (in which inputs become outputs that become waste that goes into pollution that leaks everywhere) into a cyclical system, like nature, requires a change in consciousness.

Not surprisingly, you might notice that a lot of people who care about sustainability also meditate. In meditation, you don’t stop thinking. You don’t force yourself to think about nothing.  The word “meditation” is simply the act of placing your mind on something.  Usually, it’s a stream of consciousness, one thought after another, jumping around all over the place.  In the practice of meditation, by placing the focus repeatedly on the breath, one becomes aware of the mind’s natural habits.  As I learned a few years ago at the Shambhala Meditation Center in NY, in Tibetan, the word for meditation is “gom” – which means “becoming familiar with.”  

If you want to change yourself to become a more compassionate human being, try meditation. Just 10 minutes a day  (or even 10 minutes three times a week) makes a huge difference. You might notice that you stop reacting to things and start responding more consciously to the world around you. Maybe you notice some habits about your thinking patterns that you didn’t see before.  

If we want to change the world, we need to start by changing our consciousness.  To acknowledge the suffering around us, to acknowledge our habitual patterns of thought and action, and to not subject ourselves to the fallacy that past performance indicates future financial or environmental returns.

We need to start understanding the “restorative economy” based on “industrial ecology.”  This means thinking about business like a natural system, for example, a forest.  For designers and engineers and businesspeople and civil servants of all kinds to think about some big questions.

What would it look like for wastes to become fuel for another department, company, or industry, like the Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park in Denmark?

How can citizens nudge government to set up restorative policies? Such as:

  • Requiring consumables to be biodegradable (pesticide treated food doesn’t count)
  • Requiring manufacturers to take back everything they produce which is not biodegradable (like phones, cars, and refrigerators)?
  • Requiring “unsaleables” (toxins that don’t biodegrade) to be disposed of at the manufacturer’s cost

The perspective shift is required is not beyond our ability.  It merely requires the courage to see things as they are, acknowledge the truth of what is happening, and imagine how to emulate natural processes in business processes…to secure a sustainable, livable future for all.  As Hazel Henderson says, “The only thing humans need to scale up right now is our level of planetary consciousness and awareness.”

Along these lines, I interviewed Hazel Henderson and Anders Ferguson, who are leaders in creating triple bottom line value through mindful business practices.  I asked them about for-profit companies or market based NGO leaders whose missions align both with mindfulness AND serving the poor, and how suggestions for how managers can deliver their mission through meditative focus.

Along with Envision Solarand NatCore, Hazel Henderson particularly recommended Biomimicry 3.8 as a leader in reinventing business processes to align to natural processes.  (Full disclosure: Henderson has financial interests in these companies).

Biomimicry 3.8 teaches industrial production methods that work within nature’s cycles.  Taking inspiration from 3.8 billion years of evolution by nature, they offer biomimicry courses as a two-year Master’s program as well as a 6 month program corporate executives.  Henderson describes:

“Biomimicry 3.8 has scientists that go into all kinds of companies, advise on what to stop producing, and here are some products that you can re-engineer to be sustainable. Then they go to the company’s production line, and show you can do this, this, this, to change your production methods to fit within life’s principle.”

Henderson summarized how business can follow fundamental natural principles: “Nature doesn’t use heat or combustion.  Nature changes things at room temperature in non-toxic solvents like water.”  Also, did you know that in manufacturing clothing, you can dye fabrics with CO2 rather than water?  She pointed out that having manufacturers take back everything that’s not biodegradable and making everything biodegradable is just the start. 

Henderson’s organization, Ethical Markets, and Biomimicry 3.8 partnered to produce some Principles of Biomimicry Finance.  Henderson explains:

“Corporations are all puppets to finance, and it shouldn’t be that way, but it is.  And so you have to swim upstream, which is what I did many years ago when I realized that the financial sector is the flywheel for all the social and environmental destruction on the planet.

So my mission in life has been figuring out how to engage the financial players and re-train them, because they’ve all been trained on faulty economic models that go into faulty financial models that crashed in 2008, which are likely to crash again because they’re not likely to learn any of the lessons.

The mission of Ethical Markets is to take the principles of Biomimicry Finance and take that into the financial community and licensing it.  And our approach is trademarked and licensable, because there is no way to engage financial asset managers unless you actually have a product, an intellectual product that you can sell them for a lot of money, because it’s the only thing they understand!  And Ethical Markets and Biomimicry 3.8 share in the licensing fees.

Cancer cells grow; healthy cells replicate their DNA.  So what we’ve tried to do is replicate our ethical business DNA into other companies’ cultural DNA.  The way you do this is with licensing.  And if the other company messes up your cultural DNA, you can pull the license from them.”            

Anders Ferguson co-founded an NGO in the intersection between ethics, mindfulness, leadership and business performance.  He hosted 3 dialogues with the Dalai Lama at UC Irvine, Amsterdam, and in The Hague. Launched 11 years ago in NYC, he convened 600 business leaders from around the world from 35 countries to discuss mindfulness in business. 

Ferguson notes that science was the key connection between mindfulness and better business: 

“One insightful moment that came out of that [conference] work was that for many people, they’re drawn to this field out of their interest and practices in various kinds of spiritual reality, and those are very informative in creating meditative compassionate and mindful, ethical approaches. 

However, in American business, they’re not necessarily all that useful, in terms of developing these ideas on a more systemic basis.  

Beyond the spirituality that often leads to mindfulness, the big “AHA!” moment for us was the rapidly growing research in science in integrative healthcare, quantum physics, neuroscience, and so on.  The scientific approach was one that people could talk about, from any background. …people could talk about that”

“So many practices that lead to good health, lead to good leadership,” Ferguson noted.  With science as a common language to describe the benefits of mindfulness, business leaders now have an easier time seeing the bottom line benefits to people who meditate and who are active in business operations. 

Sustainable business practices mean transformation of business operations with some “hidden and surprising” results, like lower risks, improving potential returns, and innovation.  These are direct results of building more transparent, mindful, kind, open, innovative, empowering business cultures.  

Mindful business leaders help increase organizational transparency and improve corporate governance (see HBR: http://hbr.org/2013/01/the-best-performing-ceos-in-the-world/ar/2]).  Ferguson mentioned 20 years of HBR research comparing top-ranked and bottom-ranked sustainable companies.  Companies that ranked highly on transparency, openness, and governance significantly outperformed their less-sustainable peers.  Indeed, we live in a profoundly interconnected world, where we cannot separate who we are as human beings from our economic activities.  

The lesson to business leaders is clear: If you build companies out of people who are more mindful and connected, your business will do better.  But Ferguson warns: “You can’t get those good results if you’re approaching meditation like a day on the beach…As any guru would tell any student, bring change in this world, don’t float off somewhere and think it’s all going to change without you.”

Admittedly, the world still largely operates in a siloed way, where many believe in the idea of “making money first, then giving it away.”  As Ferguson says, “It’s easier to shop at Whole Foods and buy a Prius than deal with whether your investment portfolio is full of oil and blood diamonds. Indeed, the vast majority of nonprofit foundations try to maximize financial return on their investments and have investments that are actually at odds with the program of the foundation.”

For more on mindfulness in business, see work by Dan Goleman on “Emotional Intelligence,” Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on mindfulness-based stress reduction, David Cooperiderat the Weatherhead School of Management on organizational transformation through appreciation, and the Garrison Institute Center for Contemplative Studies(all recommended by Ferguson).


I study with Tucker Peck, Ph.D, who teaches in the tradition of The Mind Illuminatedby Culadasa (John Yates, PhD). 

Katharine Bierce