• provides something of value, that we all need
• is in harmony with natural systems
• offers a tangible learning environment
• is locally based, encouraging the co-operation of good neighbours
• contributes to the good health of society and surrounding ecosystems
Just like his preacher father, Dave Smith, is forthrightly evangelical in proposing that the template for such workplaces is already with us, mirrored in small farm, organic agriculture. He espouses, if more work environments could take a cabbage leaf from the book of organic farming, we'd be happier and more fulfilled. "Where we see things in business we don't like, we can be part of the solution, by choosing how and where we work,.... It is a choice." A choice that Dave Smith made many years ago and continues today. Back in the distant past he co-founded the iconic garden hardware company, Smith and Hawken*. After leaving the company, he went on to work in various capacities for a whole raft of eco and socially based businesses. Many of which will be familiar to Treehugger readers, like Real Goods, Organic Bouquet and Organics To Go.
The title and structure of the book might lend the impression that this is yet another tome set to join those already over-burdened 'business management' shelves of bookshops. But To Be Of Use is not so much a how-to book, being more the story of a journey, in search of a better way. Almost an autobiographical road trip through the parched deserts and luxuriant valleys of one's working life.
It is a quiet book, but that does not diminish its importance. Taking up the thoughts of great thinkers and doers like Gandhi and EF Schumacher Dave applies them to a modern context. And if ever there was time that requires us to be responsible, not only with the contents of our wallets, but also with our 40 hours a week, it is upon us. Dave Smith is saying with his heart. "We still have a chance to get it right if we start now." He goes on to evoke Doris Haddock, who in her ninety-third birthday speech had this to say: "Aren't we privileged to live in a time when everything is at stake, and when our efforts make a difference in the eternal contest between the forces of shadow and light, between togetherness and division? Between justice and exploitation?"
Everything is at stake and Dave want us not only to buy with our conscience, but to work with it too. Quoting a community organiser, "You've got one life. You've got say, sixty-five years. How on earth can blow forty five of that doing something you hate?" he exalts us to use our time purposely. Because, who wants to end up like the guy Dave once saw in the cartoon of gravestone, with the epitaph "He watched sports". Dave Smith's own epiphany came around the time of the Vietnam war, when he was invited to a Quaker Friend's Meeting. He writes, "I was moved and forever changed. [...] They believe in a life of simplicity, service, and love and letting their lives speak for who they are."
Such attributes would shape his future work, and thus this book. Dave delves honestly into his own career background (of Smith And Hawken, he writes ".. the quality of our tools, was legendary. But internally we sucked"), going on to demonstrate how Quaker values, like those of a Buddhist's 'right livelihood', can be implemented in a workplace, bringing meaning to worker's lives. And I think he does this to great effect. To be sure, this is not a perfect book, at times it meanders about and repeats itself. But it is undeniably a work of passion. Heartfelt and often intensely personal, it certainly leaves an impression. The quirks make it less slick, yet decidedly more human, and that seems so much in keeping with the message Dave Smith wishes to impart.
Dave Smith has hand planted his book with the detail of inspiring examples, that show being profitable doesn't have to mean strip-mining the souls of the people who actually do the work. Semco Incorporated, in Brazil, is but one positive alternative model offered. Here employees choose their own salaries, managers and hours. The company has no mission statement or written policies, yet grew from $35 million to $212 million in six years. Or the Mondragon cooperatives of Spain, where individual workers own and control the companies they work in. Companies doing everything from running supermarkets to making bicycles, while generating billions of dollars in sales.
Through a bounty of such case studies, Dave Smith enthuses the reader to cultivate, rather than dominate people, allowing them to bud and grow. If you, or your employees, are missing depth and meaning in your/their work-life, this book might just sow the seeds for a revolution. Afterall, from little things, big things grow.
To Be Of Use by Dave Smith
* (Oh, in case you were wondering, yes, the other partner was Paul Hawken. Who would later write books, like The Ecology of Commerce, books that would inspire much greening of business, including Treehugger itself. Lets hope Dave's book has a similar effect on the humanising of business.)