Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution

Like many people interested in the concept of sustainability (and many more who aren’t), I still tend to hold on to the belief that living and working in tune with natural rhythms, no matter how laudable a goal, mean making sacrifices. And not just any sacrifices, but those of monastic caliber. If I’m going to live sustainably, comfort and luxury just won’t figure into the equation… right? I have to plan on “freezing in the dark.” The only comfort I can count on is that of knowing I’m doing the right thing for future generations and the planet…

No wonder sustainability’s such a hard sell!

The portrayal of sustainability as a synonym for “discomfort” and “impoverishment,” though, is a myth according to Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. In their landmark study Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, the authors present not only the theoretical basis for doing business in more earth and people-friendly ways, but also provide a multitude of examples that demonstrate how sustainable business practices employed by real companies are creating comfort, jobs and wealth for shareholders, employees and the larger community. Hawken and the Lovinses demonstrate that adopting the principles of “natural capitalism” isn’t so much about the “whats” (as is “What do I have to give up?) as it is about the “hows” and “whys” of producing goods and services. Foremost amongst these are “Why do we accept so much waste in both process and product?” and “How can we use natural cycles of creation, destruction and re-creation as more apt metaphors for our thinking about production and use?” The answers to these questions require a rethinking of corporate priorities, particularly in recognizing that natural resources are finite and becoming more scarce very quickly.

A prime example of such corporate rethinking outlined in this book is the story of Interface Corporation and its chairman Ray Anderson’s move towards sustainability in the carpet business. In engaging in this process, Interface has not only adapted obvious eco-friendly methods such as reuse and recycling into its production, but more importantly has completely rethought its purpose. Now, in addition to selling carpet (which generally ends up in a landfill), Interface also leases “floor-covering surfaces,” a move which allows it to reduce both wastes and costs, and to improve its bottom line.

Natural Capitalism is bursting with examples of companies like Interface that have adopted more sustainable metaphors into their thinking and found ways to maintain or increase profitability while greatly reducing their waste and exploitation of natural resources. Hawken, Lovins and Lovins succeed in this manner not simply by providing information about the theories that underlie sustainability or their successful implementation, but by constructing a new context for understanding the interrelationships between nature and human productivity. Sustainable business does not mean a bottom line that “freezes in the dark”; rather, it opens up myriad opportunities for profitability, productivity and creativity.

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Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of English and a freelance writer based in St. Louis, MO. His areas of interest include sustainable business practices, environmental issues and marketing/public relations for businesses committed to a “triple bottom line.” He can be reached at