Updated: Feb 23
With our sights set on planetary healing, we know systemic change doesn’t just happen through the pursuit of sustainable environmental care. It also requires a critical look at equitable and holistic human models of well-being. While sustainability might be seen as the need to combine human, environmental and economic development, a deeper approach may shift our focal point away from the economic piece- not to leave it behind entirely, but to center the conversation around “biodiversity, cultural diversity and human well-being” (Kagan, 2010). To do this would mean honoring holistic personal care, support unique ways of seeing and being, as well as place relationship development over all else in approaches to running businesses and organizations.
This idea drives our whole company model, centered around relationships over profit. Although monetary transactions are an important factor in successful and ethical business development, standing up to injustice and holding others accountable is more important than being complacent or palatable. As any small business owner knows, it’s an onerous balance between offering affordable prices, fair wages and staying true to sustainable values in midst of outdated policies and practices found in these many intersecting industries. Most considering sustainable trends forgo a critical understanding of what this means, and the many changes necessary on a personal and collective scale for radical change to occur.
All of this starts with a shift in how we treat ourselves and others. Someone can build their whole life working toward sustainable justice, but anyone who leaves human values at the door in any part of their life “is no true revolutionary at all, but the complete opposite: a pillar of the system” (Eisenstein, 2013, p. 44). This is all to say that honoring the whole human is a primary starting point for healing business practices, even if it does go against behaviors we’ve adopted surrounding capitalistic professionalism.
Traits such as keeping your personal life at home or biting your tongue when a client is abusive fragments personal well-being. As Parker J. Palmer teaches in A Hidden Wholeness, “The divided life is pathological, so it always gives rise to symptoms- and if we acknowledge the symptoms, we may be able to treat the disease” (2004, 45). Developing a company and community culture that welcomes each individual in their wholeness is an invitation for collective transformation that each one of us can take part in cultivating.
The company culture is just a starting place for this work. Even when this culture is in agreement, there is still a matter of navigating the societal expectations which fall outside of a holistic value system. It is especially troublesome when clients approach our working relationship as a means to an end, rather than the beginning of something more sincere. Shifting the paradigm requires ushering those within our society to slow down, to take heed of their actions, and to develop a greater awareness of how their decisions and mentalities impact those around them. Accountability of this nature isn't always comfortable, and is certainly not expected from a place of business. But why not? How have we gotten this far without industry standards prioritizing human lives, and why have so few people done anything to change this narrative? That is at the heart of why we need more companies to begin making this transition.
It may not seem a profitable move to adopt values inclusive of client accountability. At least at face value, imagine the amount of customers you might lose if you asked them to show up as their whole selves! You might also imagine with me for a moment a culture where service isn’t driven by a dollar value, but by the sincerity and integrity by which someone lives their life. It sounds nice, doesn’t it?
There is a certain level of respect and openness to these transactions that not all community members are capable of maintaining. Authenticity, genuineness and transparency guide our expectations within interactions, which are skills sets not everyone has had the opportunity nor pressure to develop. This leads to the occasional client who treats us as less than human, manipulating the situation in their favor for the mere outcome of greater savings. With unchecked themes of hierarchy and domination over others, it’s up to us as businesses and community members to intervene to steer our future into a more equitable and inclusive direction (Wheatley and Freize, 2006).
There’s the old phrase of “the customer’s always right.” Many of us have grown up with this notion and are all too familiar with sacrificing our own well-being in order to please entitled and injurious clients. Rather than seeing those within the workforce as valuable human beings, historically damaging patriarchal and colonial mindsets have created capitalistic monsters who are set on quick, cheap and impersonal transactions. Ravenous for service that feels like serfdom, the client seethes and manipulates for their own personal gain at the expense of those around them. Of course, this is a worst case scenario, and we’re happy to report that it’s very rare to stumble upon this type of exchange (although we did indeed run into one of these situations recently).
When we encounter this type of community member, we call into question: what might we do to foster restorative community development? How do we live our values so integrally in the midst of client conflict to invite restorative justice into the equation? Additionally, once it becomes apparent the client is refusing to participate in honest and truthful exploration of events, feelings and perceptions, what does it look like to return to loving presence despite feelings of hurt, in order to release our struggle and desire for absolute resolution? If we’re willing to embark on the exploration of it, there are immense rewards to be gained.
In Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block says that to shift culture “from retribution to restoration” we will need to adjust to “language that moves in the following directions: from problems to possibility; from fear and fault to gifts, generosity, and abundance; from law and oversight to social fabric and chosen accountability; from corporation and systems to associational life; and from leaders to citizens” (2008, p. 47). How powerful is it that we as participants in business culture can actively and consciously choose to move through the world differently. That is, if we are thoughtful enough to develop personal and professional spaces to support this vital work.
To return to Parker J. Palmer’s call for wholeness, what we’re striving for is to live integrated lives. We can aim to be the same person at work as who we are behind closed doors- both spaces can be designed to foster our best selves. It is our humanistic duty to “achieve a complex integration that spans the contradictions between inner and outer reality, that supports both personal integrity and the common good” (2004, pg. 21). While this is not an easy task, it’s some of the most important work we’ll accomplish in our lifetime.
The above was written by Urban Village Designs owner and lead designer, Drake Carnahan.
Block, Peter. (2008). Community: The Structure of Belonging. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Eisenstein, C. (2013). A More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. North Atlantic Books.
Kagan, S. (2010). Cultures of sustainability and the aesthetics of the pattern that connects. Futures, 42, 1094–1101.
Palmer, Parker J. (2004). A Hidden Wholeness. Jossey-Bass.
Wheatley, M. and Frieze. (2006). Using emergence to take social innovations to scale. Retrieved from https://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/emergence.html