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“Sustainability Is a Four-Letter Word”: CGP Interviews Martin Melaver

Chelsea Green’s Makenna Goodman interviewed author Martin Melaver via e-mail about his forthcoming book, Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community. They discussed the co-opting of the sustainability concept by big business, moving society from a human-centered to a nature-centered ethos, and the easy pitfalls of impatience. The interview is reprinted below.

CGP: In Living Above the Store, you talk about the need for creating businesses that seek to restore communities and environments with which they operate. Is this different than the concept of sustainability? Has the latter concept been misused, or misunderstood, as an increasingly popular ideology or specifically in the business community?

MM: I don’t think there’s any question that the concept of sustainability has been bandied about, much like the term “natural” in the food-labeling business. Legal scholars argue that the term has no philosophical rigor. Environmental historians worry that in the twinning “sustainable development,” economic considerations trump while environmental concerns trot along behind as a second-rated after-thought. The term means different things to different people and constituencies, begging the question, Sustainable for whom (nature, people, which people), over what time period?

These criticisms and concerns are true, but I don’t think they are cause for cynicism or despair. Definitions may be loose and vulnerable to manipulation, but sustainability’s very presence in the vernacular of day-to-day living is a sign of hope. We are beginning to ask the right questions, even if we are struggling for solutions.

So what is this hope about? And how does it fit into a book about sustainable practices? It is my hope that as we begin to move up the Sustainability Pyramid, we move to an ethos of ever-reduced consumption and replace an anthropocentric ethic with an eco-centric one. In other words, we move from BAUhouse–or business as usual–to NAUhouse, nature as usual. In real estate, this might mean moving from, say, developing properties with standard building practices to building with LEED standards and then eventually constructing living buildings that mimic natural strategies. And that movement calls for business ─ among the other sectors of society ─ to be ever better stewards and trustees of both our lands and our communities.

CGP: You came to this idea through your own experiences with your family’s multi-generation real estate business. How has the story of Melaver, Inc. helped to shape your views on business?

MM: The story of the evolution of our family business over 70 years has primarily taught me one thing. Sustainability is a four-letter word: SLOW. When my grandmother Annie opened a small corner grocery store in 1940, she was looking after the well-being of her husband and two children. But her business practices never interfered with her deep engagement in the community: closing the store on occasion to bring soup to an ailing neighbor, providing food on credit to those in the community who could barely scrape by.

My father, Norton, who built that corner store into a supermarket business throughout southeast Georgia, had a similar value-centric focus. Our second grocery store was opened 20 years after the first, the third ten years later. Sure there was a drive and ambition to grow the business. But, again, that business focus was moderated by his and my mother’s attention to various social justice issues of the day: racial equality, adequate health-care and education for all, adequate food and shelter.

When we sold the grocery business in 1985, our family discovered two things: 1) We had been in the real estate business all along, developing shopping centers and warehouses, and offices for our own operations; 2) We didn’t really like real estate, with its blow-and-go pace of clear-cutting our lands and homogenizing our communities. And so we resorted to the only business tactic that we knew and made sense. We stopped, reflected on whether we wanted to be in this business at all, debated for many years what a more restorative endeavor might look like, read and studied a lot, and took many baby steps toward the path we are on now—a sustainable development business focused on restoring communities and landscapes.

Every once in a while, I forget this three-generation-long lesson and find myself in a hurry to make things happen, to be the first at something, to blow by the process of shaping community in the interest of some finite endpoint, of delivering a “product”. It’s always a mistake and I always find myself backtracking, having to undo the things I’ve done in haste.

CGP: What have been the greatest challenges throughout your journey in business?

MM: There are two pretty big challenges that I am constantly facing. The first has to do with Warren Bennis’ notion that we need to un-learn most of what we have been taught to be true and find that voice from within that instinctually knows what is true. It’s taken me a long time to find that voice, to learn to weigh in on political issues of the day, to recognize that much of what I have been conditioned to believe is simply not healthy for me or society.

The second challenge, related to the first, is simply the question of ego. The concerns we have about our businesses can be likened to the concerns we have over a newborn child. Initially, all we are concerned about is the child’s health and well-being. But then we begin to overlay those basic concerns with other expectations: is she smart, athletic, will she get into a good school, will she make a good living, etc. So I try as hard as I can to focus on what really matters and not those evanescent baubles that always loom just beyond our grasp and stoke our drives, ambitions, and ego. I can’t say I do a very good job of it, but I’m trying.

CGP: What are the most important things a business owner committed to the idea of restorative practices should consider?

MM: I feel pretty strongly that if one, as a business owner, remains focused on fundamental values then that focus translates into a mission-centric business about shaping a culture that provides meaning and purpose for all within that business sphere. That’s a mouthful. But it’s pretty simple actually. It’s about walking the talk and the ripple effect that this has. If I remain focused on making my business provide an overarching sense of meaning and purpose for me, of restoring me to the person I truly am (or can be), then that ethos resonates outward to my colleagues at work, to the various folks we partner with, to the community at large, and to larger social and natural order beyond.

CGP: Are there any companies for which this model would not work?

MM: Perhaps I’m overly idealistic or naïve, but I believe this model has universal applicability–especially where one can afford a long-term perspective. And I think this model has greater attractiveness for the local business that is more in tune with both place and people. But the model itself is very replicable.

CGP: Now in 2009, in the midst of an economic recession, how can people balance the need for restorative business while also grappling with trying to keep their head above water?

MM: I think we are all hearing this question a lot ─ understandably so. I’m very worried, we all are, about basic job security and all that entails: a livelihood, shelter, health care, the list is long.

Like others, though, I believe these problems are indeed opportunities to reshape our consumptive habits. The current focus on “green-collar jobs” is appropriately tethered to reworking our infrastructure which is in turn linked to restoring communities, habitats, and ecosystems. I’m not totally naïve. We could easily go the route of emphasizing economic growth at the expense of our environment. For instance, the Congressional Budget Office recently recommended fast-tracking various development programs and waiving the traditional environmental review that such development previously required. So we have to be vigilant about refocusing our economic program in directions that marry the immediate need for jobs with the similarly immediate need for enhancing efficiencies and reducing our carbon emissions to the longer-term thinking about what really provides happiness and security for us all.

CGP: Do you expect President Obama’s new stimulus plan to have aspects that will help those interested in building restorative businesses?

MM: I think Obama’s stimulus plan contains within it numerous possibilities for a restorative economy. Like Sheldon Wolin and Robert Reich, I worry about the capacity of big-business lobbying to shanghai large portions of this stimulus plan for narrower, self-serving aims. The hidden gem in this new stimulus package is simply this: it provides a platform for stimulating our thinking and our actions and our behaviors in an entirely new direction, if we will only tune our ears and minds and hearts to that message.

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