Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The [Unsustainable] Corporation: "The Death of Birth"

I'm almost finished watching "The Corporation," but I'm going to write anyway about the life-changing experience I've endured in the first hour and forty minutes of my viewing. According to the film's website, the documentary "explores the nature and spectacular rise of the dominant institution of our time." I encourage you, Dear Readers of Our Blog, to watch this documentary as it has been heralded as the most successful Canadian documentary ever.

While the documentary focuses mostly on the evolution of the corporation in America, modern corporate greed, and the effects of advertising, there is an appropriate digression into the area of sustainability that is discussed by CEOs like Ray Anderson, professors and experts like Noam Chomsky, and people who work within the corporate environment like Carlton Brown, a broker who tells the audience how it really is (for serious, this guy is honest).

Regarding sustainability, Ray Anderson's testimonial is, by far, the most moving. As CEO and Founder of Interface Inc., a carpet company that is dedicated to a vision as a result of Ray's epiphany, the "spear in the chest" experience he received after reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. Ray's honesty is refreshing and touching as he explains the emotional turmoil he experienced after reading Hawken's book:

For 21 years, I never gave a thought to what we were taking from the Earth or doing to the Earth in the making of our products. And then in the summer of 1994, we began to hear questions from our customers we had never heard before: 'What's your Company doing for the Environment?' And we didn't have answers. The real answer was not very much. And it really disturbed many of our people, not me so much as them...I didn't have an environmental position.... And sort of the propitious moment, this book landed on my desk. It was Paul Hawkins' book, The Ecology of Commerce and I began to read The Ecology of Commerce, really desperate for inspiration, and very quickly into that book I found the phrase, "The Death of Birth." It was E.O. Wilson's expression for species extinction, "The Death of Birth," and it was a point of a spear into my chest, and I read on, and the spear went deeper, and it became an epiphanal experience, a total change of mindset for myself and a change of paradigm. Can any product be made sustainably? Well, not any and every product. Can you make landmines sustainably? Well, I don't think so. There's a more fundamental question than that about landmines. Some products ought not to be made at all. Unless we can make carpets sustainably, you know, perhaps we don't have a place in a sustainable world, but neither does anybody else, making products unsustainably. One day early in this journey it dawned on me that the way I'd been running Interface is the way of the plunderer; plundering something that's not mine, something that belongs to every creature on earth. And I said to myself, "my goodness, the day must come when this is illegal, when plundering is not allowed. It must come." So, I said to myself, "my goodness, some day people like me will end up in jail."
What if every company had a Founder or CEO with this mentality? Currently Interface wants to be the first company to produce zero negative-effect on the environment, a goal they would like to achieve by 2020 (that's only eight years from now, people). The company website is littered with sustainability initiatives, missions, visions, and dedications to Ray's memory (he passed away this last August) and his thoughts about sustainability.

Many students I talk to here at UIC don't even know what the Office of Sustainability is or does. The students enrolled at UIC, right now, are the next line of workers about to enter the job market (whether they are getting a Bachelor's, Master's, or PhD); we need to educate ourselves concerning the sustainability initiatives on campus such as this office, the Green Fee (which I have blogged about previously), and the efforts to audit our waste to figure out what we can do to change the way we dispose of our trash and recyclables. As the next line of workers, we have a responsibility to the environment to challenge our employers (in the most productive way possible) and change the way things are from the inside out.

Hopefully, other companies like Interface will recognize that the bottom line is not the only essential thing in a business. Imagine the day when you can ask an employer about what steps they are taking to support Green initiatives before you can accept employment. I know it would make my job-hunting much easier if employers were required to report their sustainability initiatives and missions to job websites.

We are almost there, and I have hope that there are more CEOs like Ray Anderson out there, ready and motivated to help sustain our planet. If not, I am up to the challenge.  Who's hiring?

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