I have learned my most important lessons about business in the forest.
My first lesson came 37 years ago, days after I graduated from the University of British Columbia. I was asleep. This was unfortunate, because I was driving through the Canadian Rockies at the time, headed toward a cliff. After waking up two days later in the hospital, with my jaws wired shut, I had plenty of time to reflect upon this incident.
Since then, I have come to believe that the global business community is driving quickly toward a cliff, with its eyes closed, and will soon suffer a similar fate. If we opened our eyes, we would see that 600 million of the earth’s inhabitants in Europe, Japan, and the United States enjoy the material benefits of industrialism and that 2.5 billion more from China, India, and the former Soviet republics will join us. After them, the final 3 billion deserve the same. Yet to accomplish that goal today, we would need the resources of three planets. But we have only one. Thus our businesses need to begin creating affluence without effluence.
I am often told the needs of business and environment conflict-that the highest mission of a corporation is to maximize profits. But in the long term, there is no incompatibility. For example, a large market will arise for photovoltaic solar cells, especially in the developing world. Mitsubishi’s work on such devices serves the company but also the global environment. Ultimately, profit is just money-a medium of exchange. You always trade it for something else. We don’t run our business to earn profits. We earn profits to run our business.
And imagine how creative, how productive, how ecologically benign our businesses could be if we ran them according to the design principles of the rainforest. With thin soil, few nutrients, and almost no resources, rainforests could never qualify for a loan. Yet rainforests are more productive than any business in the world, home to millions of species of plants and animals, so perfectly mixed that they sustain one another and evolve into ever more complex forms. These environments excel by adapting to what they don’t have.
Emulating the rainforest means following basic principles of ecology:
1. Get feedback. In the rainforest, feedback leads to Darwinian evolution of a complex array of diverse organisms.
Individual humans have excellent feedback systems-our eyes, our ears, our minds. But in our companies and communities, our collective feedback systems are not so well developed. My priority at Mitsubishi Electric is to create the world’s best corporate feedback system so that we know the costs and benefits of every product-including the social and environmental needs we can help fulfill-better than any other electronics company. In business, feedback indicates the potential for market demand. If consumers favor products and companies that avoid doing harm to the environment, then an alert company will profit by making such products. For example, Mitsubishi developed one of the first refrigerators that did not use chlorofluorocarbons-the chemical responsible for eating away the ozone layer-and is now a leader in that market.