Articles of Innovation: Biomimicry as a Cure

By adopting a basic set of nature-informed rules as common practice, business owners can thrive to an even greater degree within the existing economic paradigm.

While dyscalculia (in laymen’s terms, difficulty with math) often gets between me and the correct number, I have immense respect and appreciation for the concreteness of accounting—truly, even more so because of my own ineptitude.

Economics, on the other hand, can be a point of contention with me.  It is a social science, a cultural creation, a human construct that is afforded the most fixed authority as if we, its creators, could not simply change its rules to fit our needs at any time. It has always struck me as highly unnatural.

The first red flag for me was raised when I went to my college macroeconomics professor for additional help, as I was earning a dangerously low C in the course.  I explained what I understood and where I thought my gaps were, and all the while, a knowing glimmer grew in his eye.  He said something very close to, “You’re thinking way too hard about this.  The concepts we’re working with aren’t points to be argued or even arrived at logically; they are rules to follow.  Memorize them like definitions and math equations, and you’ll be fine.”

I am a Capricorn, an 8 in the Enneagram system, and an ENFP.  If this means nothing to you, know that my life holds little meaning without the opportunity to apply logic to prove my point. And my memory is crap for things like formulae, so it was all unwelcome news.

It was also rather deflating to learn that the framework on which most of the world’s financial systems rely is more dogmatic than representative of what is actually happening for people and their communities.  The system was largely developed 250 years ago by a man (with a name so generic it makes John Doe feel like a wild and crazy guy) in the U.K. with a very singular world view.  It just so happened that his culture colonized many of the most densely-populated corners of the world at the time, evangelizing their societal structure as they went, regardless of how it aligned (or didn’t align) with preexisting values.  The foundational principles of economics taught and abided by today are very much based on Adam Smith’s original propositions.  At least, that is the case for the internationally dominant strain of economics.

One of the best-loved economic reads among sustainable development professionals is called #Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.#  In it, one of Europe’s top mainstream economists turned renegade, E.F. Schumacher, dismantles the notion that conventional economics is self-evident or even founded in reality.  Schumacher acknowledges the root of humankind’s struggle to provide for all people in a way that minimizes suffering is a result of our societal separation from nature: the resource on which all human activity ultimately relies.

Economics measures the end goal of production or output as an indicator of a healthy system; whereas, in nature, well-being is demonstrated by the presence of diversity as well as the physical health of organisms and communities.  Output for the sake of output means very little in a natural ecosystem.  In fact, it could be said that nature has no true “outputs,” as every system feeds another, literally.

At this point, you may be thinking that I’ve confused economics with finance, which is seemingly more relevant to business, especially for those of us with small businesses in Western North Carolina.  But I feel it’s important to establish context in any discussion, and economic policy (based on economic research, based on the aforementioned erroneous precepts) at varying levels of government is the canvas on which we business owners paint our financial endeavors.  Economics also serves to inform much of the culture around business practice.  For instance, we might say, “I would like to raise the price of that product/service, but I’m afraid the market won’t support that.”  This is a real decision made on a judgement derived from statistical analysis of purchasing habits.  Economics has very real implications in the daily goings on of many companies.

With the metaphorical canvas in mind, I invite you to harken back to our friend Adam Werbach, whose book #Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto# was mentioned in my previous column (Articles of Innovation: Sustainability 101).  Werbach maintains that the remedy to Schumacher’s fears regarding humanity’s perceived divorce from the natural world is to build our businesses with nature as our muse.

Taking his cues from biology, he lays out the following “Rules of Sustainability” for businesses:

  1. Diversify across generations.
  2. Adapt and specialize to the changing environment.
  3. Celebrate transparency.
  4. Plan and execute systemically compartmentally.
  5. Form groups and protect the young.
  6. Integrate metrics.
  7. Improve with each cycle.
  8. Rightsize regularly, rather than downsize occasionally. 
  9. Foster longevity, not immediate gratification.
  10. Waste nothing, recycle everything, borrow little.

Leaving the onerous discussion of macroeconomic theory reform for another day and author, I will argue that one can not only function, but thrive, within the existing economic paradigm while also trading conventional rules for those above.  This is especially the case in communities like Asheville, where these traits are valued by a vocal portion of the customer base and tourism draws additional like-minded customers with the sole purpose of taking part in our unique culture.

I will stay within my wheelhouse and figuratively take us down the road to Weaverville, NC for a look at Echoview Fiber Mill as an example of biomimicry in business.  The Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified fiber mill — the only of its kind in the United States — was born from the need for a local processing facility for the mill’s predecessor, Echoview Farm, and surrounding farms’ wool and alpaca fiber production.

The mill is a hive of sorts that pollinates businesses near and far with locally produced raw materials from its own farm and others.  Their transparent practices allow customers to source inputs (and a collection of finished products) with a fully-tracked supply chain.  The community they have formed supports young handmade businesses through educational resources as well as opportunities to carry their products in the boutique within the mill.  Among the organization’s ranks, you will find textile professionals new to the industry and seasoned veterans working alongside each other.

Everything about the company seems to foster longevity, from its regionally appropriate scale to its agility in responding to local industry needs and market demands.  The holistic approach to sustainable business practices executed by Echoview Fiber Mill provide a wealth of indicators that they are far from detached from nature and its rules.  Your homework is to reread the above descriptions and count the myriad ways in which Echoview Fiber Mill aligns with Werbach’s guidelines.

Science and technology allow us to accomplish increasingly more within our natural habitat, but we cannot forget the context (Earth and its ecosystems) in which we function, the rules beyond our cultural development by which we must play.

Now, I’m not under the impression that this column is going to ignite a world-wide economic revolution, but I do hope it makes clear my call for a paradigm shift on the ground level.  It’s already happening, but there’s a dire need for diversity in this growing ecosystem, so here’s my call to action: #Lean in!#





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