Biomimicry and teaching business the 'secrets of life'

Ray Anderson often asked a rhetorical question: does business exist to make a profit, or does business make a profit to exist? With this line of questioning, Ray called upon us to understand that while making a profit is the lifeblood of a company's survival, it shouldn't be the only reason for a company to exist.

With his talent for translating lofty vision into everyday reality, Ray would ask: what you would rather get out of bed to do each day: make carpet, or make history?

Making history by making carpet is a unifying sentiment for the people of Interface. How, exactly, are we making history? By proving the business model for sustainability, while taking on Ray's challenge to eliminate our negative environmental footprint.

Ray believed there must be a better way for business to thrive on our planet, without the assumed ecological and social impacts that our current industrial take-make-waste system creates. With such ambitious goals, where do we look for inspiration in redesigning a system as pervasive and complex as business?

As an avid student of biomimicry, I believe nature offers inspiration for exactly these types of system-level design challenges, not only product innovation. Recalling Ray's question about the purpose of business, is there something to learn by reflecting on the "purpose" of all the other forms of life in the natural world?

Based on our understanding of biology, we may surmise that the purpose of life is to pass along DNA through reproduction. That response stems from our mechanistic, Cartesian view of the natural world. A systems view, however, yields a different answer -- an answer that reveals a hidden secret of life.

To understand this secret, consider what our planet was like four and a half billion years ago, and contrast that to how it is today. Our primordial planet had no ozone layer to protect against solar radiation, little atmospheric oxygen, and, of course, no life.

Roughly 3.8 billion years ago, life mysteriously appeared and persisted. Over billions of years, life has shaped its surroundings to be more conducive for even more forms of life: photosynthesis converted carbon dioxide into oxygen and sunlight into chemical energy, opening doors for aerobic organisms (like us!); microbes transformed rock substrates into soil providing fertile ground for plants; food webs balanced predators and prey yielding environmental niches for diversity to flourish.

In essence, life has survived and thrived for billions of years through adaptation and evolution, and by each species continually shaping the surrounding environment with a net benefit to the biosphere. Wielding an ecological, systems view of the natural world, we see that the secret of life's 3.8 billion year success story is -- as Janine Benyus so eloquently states -- life creates conditions conducive to life.

Creating conditions conducive to life could very well be considered life's "purpose," and this secret of life is one that we have forgotten in our industrial system design. We can't currently claim that business creates conditions conducive to all life -- but imagine if we could.

At a systems level, life is more than simply sustainable; it's regenerative. Which brings to bear the question: should we be striving for merely sustainable business, or should we aspire for business to be regenerative?