Aretha Franklin in 2007

Recycling and energy-efficient lighting don’t even begin to do it for me. They only touch on a few of the physical areas of impact our organizations have on the planet and the creatures that live on it. I’m not saying they don’t count at all, just that they don’t count for much in the great scheme of things: massaging symptoms rather than tackling causes.

What I believe it takes to be a true environmentalist in the fetid jungles of the business world is best summed up in the lyrics of the song made famous by Aretha Franklin: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me . . .” To be truly “green” means, first and foremost, cultivating a genuinely respectful attitude to the world around you and the people you deal with.

Respect for natural cycles

Our high-tech way of life has come to be based on the notion that we can impose our will on the world, ignoring the natural cycles that have governed its workings for millenia. We want what we want — and we want it NOW — whatever that costs in energy output, pollution, human effort, or loss to others.

I wonder how much could be saved, in costs and environmental and human impact, if we were more willing to show patience; if we respected the fact that ideas — like fashions, markets, and demand — behave more like living creatures than abstract, economic “forces?” They arise, grow, decline, and eventually die; only to be replaced by some fresh evolution to fill their niche.

When costs must be saved, what about first looking around for something that is close to dying (or at least long past its best) and stop administering life-support? Wouldn’t that be more sensible that doing what usually happens today: fixing on something just starting out, and which does not yet have a legion of hangers-on whose reputations were made in pushing it? That’s like killing the next generation in the hope of keeping the last one alive a little longer.

Respect for natural processes

There’s often a basic flow to a process, just as there is to the natural world itself. Take debt as a highly topical example.

At a certain point in their lives, most people become capable of handling some debt successfully. Their lifestyles and income are sufficiently stable. They can see far enough ahead to be reasonably certain of paying off loan and interest. The lender too has a good enough picture of their circumstances to be able to estimate the risk involved.

All this is well known. So why did so many lenders throw it aside? Why did they rush people into loans before they were ready to handle them successfully — or load them with more debt than they could manage?

The whole sub-prime mess began because lenders decided to ignore the natural growth of their market. It was to slow and too unexciting. Instead, they engineered new types of loan, convincing themselves they could off-load the dangers onto others and run with the cash; that risk could be “diversified” out of existence, or nullified by the irrational belief that house prices would not — could not — ever fall.

Then they cut short the process of weighing the risks by ignoring lending standards, falsifying incomes, and tempting people into the murky waters of complex mortgages by low “teaser” interest rates and assurances that the last thing you needed to buy a house was any money of your own.

Respect for all the resources of our world

The total disregard some organizations show for the physical environment and natural resources when the smell of profits wafts on the air is well documented. But what about other resources: time, energy, creativity, and intelligence?

Those resources aren’t infinite either. Demand that people work excessively long hours and you drain them of energy, creativity, and the ability to respond to events with intelligence. Crush them into obedience and you destroy their hope. Suck up all their time in the pursuit of your profits and you will end up with employees as exhausted of potential as any worked-out mine or over-exploited landscape.

Pollution can also be non-physical. If you pollute people’s minds and hearts with ignorance and lies — all in the cause of greater short-term profits — you will have much the same impact as an organization that dumps toxic waste into rivers or fills the air with poisons.

It used to be said that you could not fool all of the people all of the time. Given the heroic efforts in that direction made by “spin doctors,” the media, and politicians of every hue, I wonder if that is any longer the case.

Respect for people’s lives

Respect for life is the fundamental aspect of being “green.” When you respect the physical environment, you are also showing respect for all that lives within it. When you respect the lives of those who work for you, directly or indirectly, you are bound to respect life in its wider aspects as well.

By acting with respect towards today’s employees, suppliers, and customers, leaders would also be showing respect for a far larger constituency: the untold numbers of people whose lives are impacted in some way by their business decisions, the majority of them not yet born.

If “love your neighbor” is nine-tenths of the basis for morality, “respect those impacted by your business decisions” is just about all the teaching needed to act ethically.

You cannot respect your investors and shareholders and still manipulate or falsify your accounts. You can’t respect your customers and still cut corners on quality to drive up profits. You can’t respect your suppliers and use your buying-power to drive them into iniquitous, one-sided contracts. You can’t respect people and lie to them through misleading advertising or fleece them with sharp practices. You can’t respect your employees and simultaneously exploit, over-work, and cheat them — let alone fire them at a moment’s notice — to drive up next quarter’s profits and enrich yourself and your friends with bonuses and stock-options.

Respect-free management

Macho, hard-driving management is very short on respect for anything save money. As with the physical environment, exploitation and pollution frequently produces a short-term boom for a few, while laying the basis for a later, long-term mess for others to clear up. Like an alcohol or drug-induced “high,” coming down afterwards can be terrible — and steadily more horrific, the longer and more frequently you depend on such artificial stimulants.

Our business world has been gorging on similarly artificial stimulants of late. Now we have the hangover and the period of “cold turkey” that must always follow binges of that type. But without a deep-seated change in what society accepts, they will pick themselves up and do it all again.

Attending to “green” credentials without cultivating greater respect for our impact on others by non-physical means is superficial at best: like changing your clothes without changing your lifestyle or the attitudes that feed it. If you truly want to be “green” in your working life, first cultivate a lot more R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Photo credit: Aretha Franklin by Ryan Arrowsmith. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

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