Economists, CEOs and even a former president of the United States have praised his books, calling his magnum opus, Natural Capitalism (Little, Brown and Co., 1999), the bible for the next industrial revolution. Not bad for an unabashed environmentalist and humanist who since age 20 has dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment.
Paul Hawken's latest book is Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (Viking Press, 2007). The book describes how the environmental and social justice movements have converged into the largest and fastest social movement in history, comprising more than 1 million organizations throughout every country in the world.
In addition to being an author, Hawken heads the Natural Capital Institute, a research group located in Sausalito, Calif. NCI conducts research in diverse areas including socially responsible investing, global civil society, environmental funding and water. He has also founded or co-founded a number of companies, including Smith & Hawken, the garden and catalog retailer.
Hawken, 61, will serve as the keynote speaker at the 2007 Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore. He found the time from a recent book promotion tour to answer a few questions from The Natural Foods Merchandiser via e-mail about his latest book, the surge of environmentalism in this country and his opinions on the naturals industry.
Q. What prompted you to write your latest book, and how does it connect to your earlier works? It seems like it was something that must have been brewing back when Natural Capitalism was published, with obvious references to the many movements under way in the last chapter, "Once Upon a Planet."
A. You are the first person to comment on the link between the last chapter of Natural Capitalism and Blessed Unrest. In fact, I didn't even notice the connection until a few months ago, but it seems that I subconsciously telegraph my next book in the last chapter of my previous, but was not aware of doing it until now. Presumably, my next book is the "Restoration," the last chapter of Blessed.
The source of the book is observation. In the early 1990s, I was giving as many as 100 speeches or talks a year, and after every event, people would come up to talk further and give me their card. They were from civil society organizations around the world, and I would take them home, read the names of the organizations and put the cards away. At that time, I lived on a houseboat in Sausalito and kept the cards in a drawer. When the drawer was full, I placed them in a bag in my closet, and when the bag was full, I asked myself a simple question: How many organizations are there in the world working on environmental and social justice issues? I was seeing something that was more difficult to see unless one traveled from place to place: an explosion of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that were addressing the salient issues … organizations that were largely unknown. What I sensed was a movement that was becoming humanity's immune response to political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation, something unlike anything we have ever seen in terms of scale, breadth and diversity.
Q. Speaking of Natural Capitalism, 1999, when the book was published, doesn't seem like such a long time ago. Yet many of the things you talked about are really gaining momentum now. Is the economic sustainability movement—the shift to natural capitalism—moving forward as fast as you thought? Why do you think that is?
A. Generally speaking, my books have a long tail. They seem to be too early and hit their stride in later years. Natural Capitalism is selling very well now because businesses all over the world are changing their practices and strategies. The rate of change occurring in corporate boardrooms now is quite extraordinary. I believe that what was once considered a fringe activity—the practice of sustainability on a commercial level—is becoming mainstream concern. [My book] The Ecology of Commerce (HarperCollins, 1993) was treated as a pariah book by the entire business press, and was not reviewed once by a business publication. It is now being rewritten so that HarperCollins can republish it under their "Business Classics" line. That is ironic because after Rupert Murdoch purchased HarperCollins, no one would even return my call [because] they were so busy cranking out books by right-wingers.
Q. While reading Natural Capitalism, I was really struck by the sheer waste we produce. How do you think we are doing today in terms of reducing that footprint and inefficiency?
A. I wish I could say things are better, but, honestly, we are doing worse. I think each of us rationalizes our consumption, justifying what we use, without knowing the cumulative impact. We get a new cell phone, and when it is obsolete throw it away, but we can't see the 475,000 other phones discarded every day, day after day. We buy pure and specialized bottled water but don't see the 2 million bottles discarded every five minutes. What is worrisome is that our habits here have spread virally to the rest of the world. There are changes that business can make to radically reduce waste, but in the end, each of us has to reflect deeply on our own impact, and that will change business.
Q. The only criticism I've come across about your latest book is that you're really "preaching to the choir." How do you get the message out to those unlikely to pick up your book about the growth of environmental and socially responsible activism?
A. Ray Anderson, the founder of [carpet manufacturer] Interface, once said that, "Yes, I am preaching to the choir, but the choir sure is getting big." [Blessed] is now on its [eighth] week on the New York Times bestseller list, and I am pretty sure I don't know all the people [who] have bought it. I recently received an e-mail from a woman in Minneapolis who said the book was the subject of the Sunday homily at her Catholic church, and that the cover was projected onto the screen at the altar during the sermon. She didn't say if they had a choir.
I think you are right in one sense. My thesis is that there is an unnamed movement in the world that is addressing social justice and the environment. Unbeknownst to itself and the media, it has become the largest social movement in human history. The book is describing that movement, which easily consists of [100 million] to 200 million people. So let's call that the choir. The organizations and individuals that comprise this movement directly affect the daily activities of another 3 billion people, not a group one can easily categorize or pigeonhole.
I feel that you get the message out to people by being true to your principles, by living a meaningful life and by walking your talk. People prefer to change themselves than have others try to do it, and usually do so because of example rather than coercion or fear. One by one, people are waking up to the fact that we live on a smaller planet that has real constraints, and that if our children's children are going to have a decent life, we have to change ours now. Many a CEO and businessperson changed their career and company reading my previous books, but I never directed my books to any particular audience. When the publicist at Viking Press first asked me who my audience was for the latest book, I said what I always say: "I have no idea."
Q. There are many books, programs and such now on many of the same themes you've been writing and speaking about for years. How do you see this? A fad? A trend? A real awakening?
A. It is a real awakening, but it is a real awakening American style, which means it has all the trappings of a fad. Magazines, retailers and entrepreneurs are going to town exploiting this change in awareness, and although that is to be expect?ed, it is the froth on the surface of the water, not the ocean underneath. There is a sea change in awareness occurring. Politicians are the last to understand it, business picks up on it a bit sooner, and then there is the media, which generally cannot cover a story unless they tart it up and make it sound and feel trendy. The media has disparaged and ridiculed the environmental movement for decades—the granola movement, the Prius set, treehuggers—and are now falling all over themselves to put Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover of the magazines. That is why it appears like a fad; it is not people who are fickle but the media. However, this is the real deal.
Q. I believe I read that you founded several natural foods companies in the '60s and '70s at the time when that industry was really born. How has the industry changed for the better and the worse?
A. When the natural foods industry first emerged, there was a tacit understanding that it wasn't just about what was sold in the store, but the whole supply chain including localization. We were trying to create food webs and networks, not chains and conglomerates. In order for food to be "natural," commodities cannot be flown in from Chile or shipped in from China. Nor can you have a 30,000-acre farm in California that grow[s] "organic" carrots for the rest of the country. I think it was better understood that this was not just about how food appeared at the retail level; it was about rebuilding the viability of small farms and rural communities, about building a network of provenders, not a chain of look-alike stores. It was not about the concentration of purchasing power, but about the diversification of our food system. The destructive food system we were replacing came about because of concentrations of power and money, and when power is too concentrated, it always becomes pathological. The industry today is certainly far better than it was in the '60s, no question about that. It was embryonic then. However, I cannot say it is better than it was in the '80s.
Q. From your experience with the naturals industry, how does it stack up according to the principles you espouse in Natural Capitalism and Blessed Unrest?
A. It is very difficult to generalize because there are so many companies, and the companies run the gamut from divisions of multinational corporations to small, family-run bakeries and manufacturers. In general, I would say that the industry would do well to address the following issues: climate, carbon emissions, packaging waste, localization, supply-chain labor practices, and a few more I could name. Consumers and perhaps the media have given the industry a free pass because the product is nutritious, organic and not toxic. In so doing, other issues have not been addressed. Additionally, there has been a weakening of organic standards promoted by the larger companies within the industry who are relatively new players. If I went back into business today, I would want to start a new standard called biological agriculture to distinguish food from that which is grown under the now more dilute organic standards.
Q. What's not happening in the naturals industry—or industry, in general—that needs to start happening in terms of what you talk about in your work?
A. I think the industry needs to have a clear position about global issues, particular[ly] greenhouse gases. I do not see or read everything, but I cannot remember the natural foods industry enunciating a climate policy, or at the very least pointing out that rapid climate change will devastate agriculture, food security and the industry itself. I also believe that any substantive carbon policy has to touch upon shipping, sourcing, packaging and waste.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 28, 30-31