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green@work : Magazine : Read On : Jan/Feb 2002

Read On
The Fruits of Sustainability

Alan Heeks ponders the issue of worker sustainability.

by Richard Walthers
After many years of organic gardening experimentation, I discovered my own fast process for producing compost this past summer. So I was curious when, during a conversation about design and sustainability issues and what the future might hold, Lyn Falk of Retailworks handed me a book and it flipped open to a chapter entitled “Composting Waste.” The book she had given me was the recently published The Natural Advantage: An Organic Way to Grow Your Business by Alan Heeks. In it the author presents what promises to be the most important issue corporations will face in the decade ahead: employee satisfaction, retention and productivity.

At the very beginning of the book, Heeks asks, “Does your work renew you or wear you out?” The book’s main focus is about work and the individual worker and creating inherent sustainability via a path of self development based on natural cycles. He is quick to point out that natural does not mean easy. As he states, “The move toward sustainability is not one frightening giant leap; it’s more a matter of progressing cyclically. With each repetition of the cycle you move closer to true sustainability.”

Heeks is a consultant and entrepreneur who made a bit of money when he helped successfully launch Caradon, a building materials supplier, in the late 1980s. As a result, he founded an educational charity, the Wessex Foundation. Heeks envisioned an organic farm where people could learn the natural principles of sustainability. In 1990 Heeks and the foundation bought the 130-acre Magdalen Farm in southwest England. Since then it has been transformed from a depleted conventional farm into a productive organic farm and residential education center.

Heeks suggests that since business is very adept at using models as guides for all sorts of activities, it’s time to look behind the scenes in order to find the basic operating principles developed and refined over billions of years that govern all life. The principles of sustainability that control a farm, an ecosystem or the whole Earth are universal, whether they are applied to individuals, work teams or entire organizations. To date, most efforts to apply these natural principles have been focused on the design of buildings, spaces and, more recently, preliminary efforts have been initiated toward product design. Only a few of the most enlightened companies have attempted to alter their core structure to accommodate sustainability.

The uniqueness of Heeks’ approach is his concentration on the individual’s work habits and utilizing these principles to lessen stress, to improve productivity and to deal with change creatively, all while renewing the individual in the process. He comments on the fact that more and more companies are talking about sustainability, but how elusive it is to implement or attain. In 1997, seven years after he had begun to transform Magdalen Farm, Heeks learned of The Natural Step (Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert’s approach to achieving sustainability based on a set of science based principles and cycles). He realized how the process of organic growing on the farm embodied a powerful example for human sustainability at work and developed seven principles based on the natural cycles that govern the structure and procedures of natural organic farming.

The first three principles examine the process of establishing the best conditions to promote natural growth. This, of course, includes the composting chapter I alluded to earlier. Just as composting uses the output of a previous growth cycle as the input for the next stage, Heeks shows how to turn the discarded energy, conflicted feelings and negativity that sometimes plague workers into constructive energy when the individual is at the center of the process. The next two principles instruct how to use sustainable inputs to achieve sustainable outputs. Finally, the last two principles explore how the fruits of sustainability flow out of the organic process.

I would recommend this book whether you are trying to make your own work flower or your business flourish. The Natural Advantage was written as a workbook, but the author suggests you read through it once before attempting the numerous exercises, assessments and reviews that appear throughout the text. It is written with conviction and belief in a clean, clear style that make Heek’s working principles very accessible. It is also filled with examples from Heek’s consulting work that adds another level of validity when the principles are demonstrated with real-life situations. The groundwork that Heeks bases his process on is quite sound and capable of supporting a diverse set of applications; rarely do the analogies break down.

The author writes, “Most organizations are still very far from acknowledging or developing human sustainability; their prevailing culture and practices do not sit easily with natural cycles. Typically, the word cycle would only be used to describe the planning or budgeting procedure.” Improving the quality of our working lives and making both the conditions and productivity of work more sustainable will be key to achieving success as well as attaining true sustainability in the next decade.

Just as viewpoints about sustainability that were once considered eccentric a decade ago are now reaching the mainstream, the issue of worker sustainability will be on the action agenda of any forward-thinking company in the years ahead. The green cell is considered the basic building block of life because it can turn sunlight into food, and the self-sustaining individual will be seen as the basic building block of sustainability within corporations. Heeks asks why we, as a culture, continue to treat ourselves like machines when we should be using natural methods for self-rejuvenation. It is apparent that this will change in the near future now that The Natural Advantage has opened the debate about this important topic.


Richard Walthers (rwalthers@prairiefish.com) is founder of PRAIRIE fish; a Chicago IL-based consulting firm dedicated to design and sustainability issues.

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