2017 Volume 20 Issue 3

Ecologically Conscious Leadership

Ecologically Conscious Leadership

Spiritual Convictions that Achieve Sustainability

Mainstream business practices often produce negative impacts on nature, future generations, and society as a whole. Spiritual convictions may help business leaders to develop ecological consciousness required for achieving sustainability in business functioning. This article presents cases of ecologically conscious business leadership from the USA, Europe, and India that produced unique sustainability innovations, and discusses the role of ecological consciousness in creating business organizations that serve the flourishing of life (human and non-human alike).

Today’s business leadership stems from having a self-centered perspective. Mainstream business leaders typically understand their organizations in separation from the larger environment and tend to pursue goals which are defined in a narrow sense. They are disembedded from the environmental and social context in which their organizations function and consider the natural environment and human persons to be mere means for accomplishing their organizations’ purposes and goals.[1] Self-centered functioning of mainstream businesses may lead to decisions and policies that produce ecological harm and the deprivation of human communities.

Sustainability and Spirituality

There are a number of definitions and theories of sustainability in business context including the “natural capitalism”[2] and the “triple bottom line” concepts.[3] I suggest a simple but straightforward definition according to which an organization is sustainable if it creates socio-ecological well-being while maintaining its financial and economic viability.

It is not enough that an organization does not cause harm to nature or society. Sustainability requires that organizations make positive contributions to natural ecosystems, social communities, and future generations. This is possible if organizations function in ways that do not reduce and destroy but enhance the life-conditions for human and non-human beings.[4]

Ecological consciousness is central in leadership progressing toward sustainability. Such a consciousness can be described as a “system of values that is not based on conventional norms, precepts, commandments, and fear of punishment, but our knowledge and understanding of the universal order. We realize that we are integral part of creation and that by hurting others we would be hurting ourselves.”[5] At the core of ecological consciousness is love and compassion, deep reverence for life, empathy with all sentient beings, and unity with the source of creation.

To improve the sustainability and ethicality of one’s decisions and actions, leaders should enhance the development of their self toward wholeness, that is achieving an inclusive and peaceful state of consciousness. According to empirical evidence collected by psychologists and medical scientists, spiritual experiences may help people in transcending their narrowly defined self-conception, and enable them to exercise genuine empathy with others and taking an all-compassing perspective.[6]

Stanislaw Grof documented and analyzed thousands of spiritual experiences all over the world. Despite the different cultural traditions, the spiritual experiences involve “authentic experimental identification with other people, animals, plants and various other aspects of nature and cosmos.…We typically undergo profound changes in our understanding of existence and of the nature of reality. We directly experience the divine, sacred, or numinous dimensions of existence in a compelling way.”[7]

Three Ecologically Conscious Leaders

Henri David Thoreau, Albert Schweitzer, and M. K. Gandhi represent spiritually ecological consciousness leadership models in the most compelling ways. A summary of their life philosophies is worthy to recall here.

American philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was known as a leading transcendentalist. His famous book Walden is a reflection on his experience with simple living in a natural environment. Thoreau did not want to reject civilization altogether and deify wild nature. He was searching for a middle way, preferring “partially cultivated country” which integrates nature and culture.

Walden[8] emphasizes the importance and meaningfulness of solitude, contemplation, and living close to nature. Thoreau propagated self-reliance, simplicity, and spiritual progress. For him self-reliance was economic and social independence and a self-supportive mode of functioning based on the ideal of simplicity. He was relentlessly seeking to simplify his lifestyle by minimizing consumer activity, and relying on his own work. He was skeptical about the outward improvement of life and its beneficial effect on inner peace and contentment of humans. Instead he thought that there is a need for spiritual awakening and to realize that man is part of nature.

German theologian Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) served as a medical doctor who spent most of his life as a missionary in Africa. For his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

Schweitzer’s central idea was that the decay of Western civilization is due to the fact that it had abandoned its ethical foundation, the affirmation of life. He believed that a “true philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: ‘I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live.’”[9]

The “will-to-live” appears both as an evolutionary necessity and a spiritual phenomenon. Life and love are interrelated and rooted in a deep spiritual relationship to the universe. Ethics proceeds from the need to respect the wish of other beings to live and flourish. Reverence for life implies that individuals should live in the service of other people and of non-human living creatures. Reverence for the human and non-human life becomes the “highest principle and the defining purpose of humanity.”

M. K. Gandhi (1869-1948) was the leader of the independence movement in India against the British Empire. He employed the philosophy of nonviolence and civil disobedience in his fight for the independence of India.

Gandhi valued nature because it was the creation of God and not because of its usefulness to man. Nature must remain as pristine as possible as it is part of a common omnipresent and omnipotent Absolute Soul. Gandhi insisted on the limitations of wants so that the impact of human life on nature would be minimized.[10]

Gandhi emphasized the importance of living close to the land. His aim was not only political freedom but also freedom from poverty, inequality, caster, and fear. The ultimate goal of human life is attainment of Moksha, i.e. liberation from all ills. According to Gandhi it is the universal Self that has to be realized.[11]

Gandhi followed the philosophy of advaita (non-duality) which states that the world is one, there is no division between subject and object but there is a unity between man and nature. He recognized a basic right to live and blossom for all, the self-realization of all. Greed can never be satisfied but nature produces enough for us if we take just what is enough for us. All living beings have equal right to exist on this planet.[12]

Thoreau, Schweitzer and Gandhi were spiritually rooted leaders. They promoted non-killing, simplicity, self-reliance, and non-violent activism. All of them believed in the essential unity of man and nature, God and the cosmos.

Ecologically Conscious Leadership in Business

The author of this article analyzed selected cases of ecologically conscious leadership from the USA, Europe, and India to show the practice of sustainability in different fields of business. These are Patagonia, Triodos Bank, and Organic India. The cases illustrate how ecologically conscious leaders organize and manage business activities in ecological, pro-social, and future respecting ways.

Patagonia, Inc.

Yvon Chouinard founded pioneering ecological clothing company Patagonia. He is a devoted environmentalist and believes that business is an excellent place to practice Buddhism. The company is committed to sustainable “natural growth” by selling their products to people who really need them.

Patagonia makes considerable efforts to reduce, neutralize, or even reverse the root causes of climate change. The company is committed to (1) reducing the environmental impact of its operations and its supply chain, (2) supporting grassroots activism by paying an Earth Tax, (3) using the company’s voice to advocate for systemic change, (4) empowering customers by making quality products that can be repaired, (5) supporting regenerative practices in ranching and agriculture, and (6) envisioning a new approach to business.[13]

Commitment No. 1 involves measuring Patagonia’s carbon footprint. In 2015 the estimated emissions of Patagonia’s global operations were 3,617 metric tons of CO2. Patagonia has developed an employee transportation “Drive Less” program, which provides monetary incentives to employees to ride a bike, carpool, or take public transportation. The Chemical and Environmental Impacts Program is a supply chain initiative by Patagonia to manage chemicals in a more careful way. The program covers all areas of environmental systems including waste, water use, and energy use.

Commitments No. 2 and 3 involve supporting grassroots activists by paying an Earth tax. This funding started in 1985, when Patagonia gave 1 percent of its sales revenue to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. In 2015 the amount given to grassroots environmental groups was 70 million dollars. Patagonia’s employees can work up to 320 hours for environmental groups while receiving full pay from Patagonia.

Commitment No. 4 involves making products that are durable and using raw material that cause less environmental harm than their counterparts. One motto is “Repair is a radical act.” “Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything.” Commitment No. 5 involves the environmental program “worn wear.” The message is “invest in quality and repair when things break, and celebrate the clothing that travels with us through life.” Patagonia has the largest garment repair center in the USA.

Commitment No. 6 involves an internal investment fund to help “like-minded responsible start-up companies bring about positive benefit to the environment.” The purpose is to inspire and use business to help solve the environmental crisis.[14]

Triodos Bank

Peter Blom, CEO & Chairman of the Board of the Triodos Bank, is a pioneer in sustainable and ethical banking. He joined Triodos in 1980, the year the bank first opened for business in the Netherlands. Having been working at Triodos since the start, he was appointed Managing Director in 1989, and has been CEO since 1997.[15]

The Tridos Bank was founded as an anthroposophical initiative. The bank’s statutes were committed to anthroposophical principles until 1999, but in later years, the bank has broadened its appeal. Triodos is operating in the Netherlands but also have branches in Belgium, Germany, United Kingdom, and Spain. Its mission is to make money to serve positive social, environmental, and cultural change. The bank helps in creating a society that assures the quality of life of all, enables individuals and organizations to use their money in ethical ways benefiting the environment and human communities. It aims to promote sustainable development by providing its customers with responsible financial products and services. Triodos only lends to organizations and invests in projects that benefit both people and the natural environment.[16]

As the name of the bank relates to “Triodos” (meaning “three way”), the business model is based on three pillars, namely planet, people, and profit. It means that Triodos screen every investment in using environmental, social, and financial criteria simultaneously.

Triodos has developed a benchmark for financial transparency and aims to raise the financial literacy of its customers and partners. The bank lends to organizations such as charities, social businesses, community projects, and environmental initiatives. Investing in the environment is done through organic farming, organic food, and environmental technology projects. The areas of social business include trade, manufacturing, services, catering, and business enterprise centers. Culture and welfare is encouraged through lending to clients working in providing healthcare and education, as well as to those working in the arts and on social projects.[17]

Organic India

Organic India is a producer of organic agricultural products. The company was founded in 1997 in Lucknow, India, by Bharat Mitra. It is currently operating on about 50,000 acres of certified organic land and is the largest and most widely-spread certified organic cultivation system in India.[18] The company produces a wide range of agricultural products, all of them are 100% organic. Originally, the main products were tea and medicinal herbs. Nowadays, this assortment has been extended to other products including spices, honey, and ginger. In addition, Organic India has created a venture for selling fresh organic vegetables.

The vision of Organic India is as follows: “To be a vehicle of consciousness in the global market by creating a holistic sustainable business modality, which inspires, promotes and supports well-being and respect for all beings and for Mother Nature.”[19]

For Organic India, organic agriculture is considered as a tool to promote sustainable development for all beings. In order to reach its main objective, Organic India has developed its mission: “To be a trustworthy and innovative global leader in providing genuine organic products and solutions for conscious, healthy living.”[20]

The basis of Organic India’s business is “tulsi” (also called “holy basil”), an herb that is known for its health-promoting effect. It is an herb important in Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient traditional holistic health system of India. The Ayurvedic approach respects all creation and considers the whole universe as one divine unity.

In addition to tulsi, Organic India engages in growing organic spices, seeds, beans, and grains. These are produced without any chemical fertilizer or pesticide and completely avoid genetically modified organisms. Organic India has acquired third-party certifications, such as USDA Organic, EU Organic Farming, and Indian National Standards for Organic Production.

The company’s employment ethics is based on fairness, respect, dignity, and encouragement. Organic India aims to provide farmers with sustainable livelihood. It works with thousands of farmers, directly supporting and training them in organic agricultural practices. The company pays the farmers a premium over the market price and helps them to meet the requirements of USDA and other certification systems.

Organic India is a clear example of progressive entrepreneurship that challenges the business models of modern agribusiness. The company takes a holistic approach to promoting the long-term well-being of farmers and is especially sensitive towards meeting the needs of female employees.


Table 1 summarizes the main characteristics of the reported ecologically conscious leadership cases.

Table 1: Characteristics of Ecologically Conscious Organizations

PatagoniaTriodos BankOrganic India
place of operationUSA/GlobalThe Netherlands/ EuropeIndia/Global
missioncreating positive change in consumer behavior and business functioninguse money to serve positive social, environmental, and cultural changeto promote holistic sustainable development
core valuesauthenticity, transparency, progressivenesspeople, planet, and profitsfriendly for the environment, for society, and for the consumer.
business modelproviding natural sportswear and outdoor productssustainable and ethical bankingsupports the marginal farmers to produce the highest quality organic food and health products
stakeholder engagementrecycling center for the customers, helping pro-environmental behavior of the employeesconnects conscious savers and investors with entrepreneurs and companies dedicated to sustainabilitygiving support and livelihood for marginalized farmers and their communities


What is common in the reported cases is that ecologically conscious business leaders employ intrinsic motivation to serve the commonwealth of life and use multidimensional ways of defining and measuring success. In their cases profit and growth are not final ends but only elements of a broader set of non-materialistic goals. Similarly, cost-benefit calculations are not the only means to make business decisions but are integrated into a more comprehensive scheme of wisdom-based management.[21]


The reported cases of ecologically conscious leadership suggest that achieving sustainability is not a materialistic affair only. Moving toward sustainability in business requires leadership recognizing a more spiritual comprehension of our place in the cosmos and activating and employing more noble instincts than pure material self-interest. Without practicing ecological consciousness in business leadership there is little chance for flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth.


[1] Zsolnai, L. (2006). “Extended Stakeholder Theory,” Society and Business Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 37-44.

[2] Hawken, P., Lowins, A., & Lowins, L.H. (1999). Natural Capitalism. Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston, New York, London: Little, Brown, and Company.

[3] Elkington, J. (1997). Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of Twenty-First Century Business. Oxford: Capstone.

[4] Brown, P. G. (2015). “Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene” in Peter G. Brown and Peter Timmerman (Eds.): Ecological Economics for the Antropocene. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 66-88.

[5] Grof, S. (1998). The Cosmic Game. Explorations of the Frontiers of Human Consciousness. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, p. 127.

[6] Zsolnai, L. (2010). “Ethics needs spirituality” in Sharda S. Nandram & Margot Esther Borden (Eds.): Spirituality and Business. Exploring Possibilities for a New Management Paradigm. Heidelberg, Dordrecht, London, New York: Springer, pp. 87-90.

[7] Grof, op. cit. p. 2 and p. 17.

[8] Thoreau, H. D. (2004). Walden. (A Fully Annotated Edition edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. (Originally published in 1854).

[9] Schweitzer, A. (1987). Civilization and Ethics. (Originally published in 1923). Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, p. 253.

[10] Kumaria, P. (2003). “Nature and Man: Gandhian Concept of Deep Ecology.” Anasakti, Vol. 2.

[11] Kumaria, op. cit.

[12] Kumaria, op. cit.

[13] http://www.patagonia.com/home/

[14] Zsolnai, L., Ims, K. & Tencati, A., (2016). Business Ethics for the Anthropocene. Paper presented at the TransAtlantic Business Ethics Conference, September 28 – October 1, 2016, University of St. Gallen.

[15] http://www.triodos.co.uk/en/about-triodos/who-we-are/organisation/our-people/

[16] http://www.eco-question.com/triodos-bank-the-world-leader-in-sustainable-banking-2#more-5922

[17] Hofstra, N., & Kloosterman, L. (2017). “Banking on Values: Tridos Bank” in Eleanor O’Higgins and Laszlo Zsolnai (Eds.): Progressive Business Models. Creating Sustainable and Pro-social Enterprise. London: Palgrave-Macmillan. pp. 29-50.

[18] http://organicindia.com/overview_news.php?id=59

[19] http://organicindia.com/overview_news.php?id=59

[20] http://organicindia.com/overview_news.php?id=59

[21] Bouckaert, L., & Zsolnai, L. (2012). “Spirituality and Business: An Interdisciplinary Overview,” Society and Economy, 34, No. 3. p. 514.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author of the article
Laszlo Zsolnai, Professor and Director, Corvinus University of Budapest
Laszlo Zsolnai, Professor and Director, Corvinus University of Budapest

Laszlo Zsolnai, is director of the Business Ethics Center at the Corvinus University of Budapest. He is president of the European SPES Institute in Leuven, Belgium and serves as co-chair of Future Earth Finance and Economics Knowledge-Action Network in Montreal, Canada. He has been guest professor or visiting scholar at University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, UC Berkeley, Georgetown University, and University of Richmond. He published 25 books and more than 300 papers. His website: http://laszlo- zsolnai.net


More articles from 2017 Volume 20 Issue 3
Related Articles