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Environment

Can businesses learn from forests?

What secrets to success can forest ecosystems offer companies? German economic philosophers lead managers through a Munich woodland and explain what they can learn from fungi and dead trees.

Around 20 managers stand in the middle of a forest and stare at a decaying, moss-covered tree trunk. There's barely a sound, save for the quiet rustle of leaves underfoot and the birds singing overhead.

The men and women are clearly enjoying the peaceful moment. But they're not here to commune with nature. They want to know how their businesses can survive growing competition, globalization and avoid contributing to the depletion of natural resources.

And the managers — most from regional middle-sized companies — hope to find the answers among the decades-old trees in Munich, southern Germany.

The forest walk is part of a seminar by economics philosopher Friedrich Glauner and forest expert Rainer Kant. They're using trees as economics teachers.

Read more: Our addiction to growth is harming the climate

Consumption, competition and collapse

In the morning before the forest expedition, the seminar participants sit together in a traditional Bavarian restaurant. Over giant doughy pretzels and coffee, they learn about the new economic model — and the end of the world.

Photo:Group walks through forest (Source: Katharina Wecker)

Philosopher Glauner from the University of Tübingen says a new economic concept is badly needed because 'the collapse is near'

Philosopher Glauner from the University of Tübingen says a new economic concept is badly needed because "the collapse is near." People are collectively running into the abyss like lemmings, he warns.

"While it makes sense on an individual, rational level to chase the maximization of profit, this has a destructive effect on our society," he says. "It leads to overexploitation of natural resources and growing inequality. In the past, these were the two main reasons why societies collapsed," Glauner continues. The managers around the heavy wooden tables shift in their seats. It's an apocalyptic message to swallow with their early morning coffee.

Read more: What's lurking in the German forest?

Read more: Ireland's forests: Watching a vanished world return

While some look critical, others nod. They come from wildly different industries, ranging from natural cosmetics to 3D printing to galvanization (applying protective zinc coating to iron or steel). But they are united by their search for a more sustainable business model.

"We work with small-scale farmers and natural resources from around the world," says natural cosmetics company employee Gabriele Pölt. "I would like to find out how we can improve our processes — not only for nature, but also for our people."

The philosopher proposes a new state of mind. As opposed to simply chasing profits, he says companies should understand they are part of a bigger picture and as such, should focus on the creation of products and services from which customers, staff and all those in a given supply chain stand to benefit.

Trade relations among fungi and trees

Photo: Kant - middle - expects snakes on the ground (Source: Katharina Wecker)

Forest expert Kant (in the middle) provides practical examples of his colleague Glauner’s philosophical theories

Back in the forest, in a small clearing surrounded by spruce, fir and birch trees, Kant provides practical concrete examples of Glauner's abstract theory.

Capitalism lives from competition, he says. But in nature, cooperation and communication is more important. It's not a new idea — already around Darwin's time, rival theories of evolution hypothesized that cooperation is more important than competition.

Kant points to the ground: Mycorrhiza, for instance, is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a tree.

The fungus grows like a spider's web around the roots of a tree, supplying it with water and nutrients from the soil. In return, the tree captures energy from the sun for itself and the fungus.

It's all about give and take. But if one partner isn't doing its part, they can enter into tough negotiations.

"One tree might work together with several mycorrhiza, and if one fungus doesn't supply enough water and nutrients, the tree gives less sugar to the fungus and encourages it to increase the supply," said Kant, who works for the sustainable management network BAUM (in German, the acronym translates into the word "tree").

Read more: For some Austrians, summer holidays means climate activism

Read more: Info-film: What is a forest and what is it for?

The tree is careful not to kill the fungus by reducing food supplies too drastically because it wants to maintain the mutually beneficial relationship. "They lead to balanced trade relationships," Kant concludes.

Companies can also learn from this. Employees, customers and suppliers are part of a firm's ecosystem, explains Glauner. They shouldn't be considered as mere cost factors, but as vital members of a symbiotic relationship where all parts add value and benefits at the same time.

Deadwood and decay

Photo: Kant shows which animals and organisms live in deadwood (Source: Katharina Wecker)

Diversity makes forests resilient, says Kant. But it's also important on a micro-level

In another part of the woods, the managers stand in a small clearing surrounded by spruce trees — and only spruces. Around 47 percent of German forests are managed ecosystems where only spruces or pine trees grow, says Kant.

This makes them vulnerable to diseases and infections. In more biodiverse forests, however, beeches and firs surrounding a spruce under siege can prevent a disease from spreading. 

Such diversity makes forests resilient, says Kant. But it's also important at a micro-level.

Pointing to a piece of dead wood on the ground, the forest expert says it takes 50 to 80 years for a dead tree to completely decay. In that time, the woody matter plays host to millions of organisms, gradually releasing water and nutrition back into the environment.

"Every little thing plays an important role. In nature, growth has no value in itself. There is stagnation and destruction, phases of recovery and rest," Kant said.

Companies should also allow themselves to rest and focus on what they do best, Glauner chips in. It's a piece of advice that resonates with the managers, particularly Josef Obeser.

He worked at a company that grew from 50 to 2,500 employees within 10 years.

"We wanted everything. But when the profits went down, the company was sold. We should have probably stopped at 500 employees, and focused on what we did best," Obeser said. 

Healthy environments

Photo: A general view of the forest (Source: Katharina Wecker)

'I am a beech standing in full blossom,' says one participant at the end of the forest walk

By the end of the walk, the managers appear to be on board with Kant and Glauner's philosophy — despite the apocalyptic warnings over breakfast.

"I am a beech standing in full blossom," says one participant, inspired enough to provide an analogy. "I only keep as much energy as I need to grow, and instead of storing the surplus, I distribute it to the others around me, so they can grow as well and we can be a strong, united system."

Nonetheless, all are acutely aware that the environment in which they work — the global economy — follows different rules.

Profits and growth are typically the primary goals. The question remains: How can big companies convince shareholders to develop systems that benefit everyone involved, as opposed to simply turning a profit?

Though Glauner believes his model might be best-suited to small or family-run businesses where owners play a direct role in how things are run, he says there's something in it for every company. To that end, he plans further workshops in Germany later this year, where he will continue to spread the message.

"If we can change the way we do business, I'm convinced we can avoid the collapse."

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