6 ways Permaculture can help to create truly sustainable business

Picture a sustainable business and we often picture renewable energy, recycling, reusing materials, and compostable packaging.

Look up ‘sustainable’, however, in the dictionary and the meaning is ‘to be able to continue over time’.

For a lot of companies, whether motivated by ethics or profits, there is a strong desire to become more ‘sustainable’. However, the barrier to preventing a lot of organisations making this change, comes not from a lack of motivation, but that becoming sustainable, isn’t sustainable for them.

How can we overcome the barriers of change to make switching to being sustainable a more realistic goal for every business?

We copy the most sustainable system we have.


In the areas that we have started to mimic nature we have found unrivalled success. Biomimicry and Permaculture are both based on designing solutions to human problems using natures patterns and strategies. Between them they have lead to leaps in technological advancement and the way we grow food and design landscapes.

Why stop there?

How can we use these same ideas of learning from the natural world to guide our decision making around true sustainability?

Below are 6 ways the Permaculture principles can be a guide to becoming sustainable in a manageable way:

1. Observe and interact

Take time to understand the full picture.

If you want to plant a fruit tree but just place it in the first place you see, chances are it won’t grow well.

Whereas, take time to understand your land, observe the sun, shade, rain etc and you will have a much better idea of where that tree will grow well.

It can be very tempting to jump into projects straight away to see immediate progress. But, if we take the same approach, create time for away days, planning or brainstorming meetings we can get a clear understanding of our circumstances and what might be the best changes to make.

2.Start Small and Slow

Most things in nature change slowly. The forest is forever adapting to changing climates and conditions.

Changing our business should be no different.

If we want to change the landscape of a forest, clear cutting and removing all the trees is not an effective approach.

In business it is no different, if we attempt to change offices, packaging, suppliers, and switch to renewable energy all at once, it will cause a great deal of stress on staff and resources.

A much more sustainable approach would be to focus on one thing to change at a time and build from there.

In the day to day the business looks the same. But over time, like the forest, everything can change.

What is the easiest thing your business could change to make it more sustainable?

3.Integrate Rather than Segregate

Every element in an ecosystem works towards the survival of the whole.

Each plant in an ecosystem fills multiple roles. Whether it be providing habitat/food/shade/nutrients for another, everything contributes to a much bigger picture.

It is all integrated.

This could involve changing the way you have meetings to be more inclusive of different team members.

The way your office is laid out.

Encouraging team building activities to bring staff together

Looking at bringing in an income from your waste or byproducts.

Promoting a cycling to work scheme to reduce emissions and at the same time boost the health of your staff.

Looking at ways to cross sell. If certain customers only buy one of your products, how can you share the rest of your business with them to have them use you for more of their needs?

Nature integrates. An integrated business is a more sustainable one.

4.Obtain a Yield

There is a stigma about sustainability that it shouldn’t be for profit or gain. There is some negativity around Patagonia, for example, that they make a lot of money from their ethical approach. Sustainability sells.

The reality, however, is that changing to become sustainable isn’t the easy option.

If you do make changes, promote it, share the story. Look for ways you can gain from the changes you are making.

If you can increase your revenues from changing to a more environmental approach it will make your business more sustainable long term. It will also encourage staff, and shareholders to get behind the changes, making the whole project much more achievable.

Replicate nature and try to make you’re efforts worthwhile.


Nature is diverse.

Often our businesses are not.

Diversity comes in many forms.

The people who make up our team. The products we sell. The flexibility of working hours. The markets we operate in.

Encouraging diversity in these areas has multiple benefits.

It brings in a range of ideas and view points. Allows us to target a wide range of customers. Benefits the wellbeing of the team and allows us to select from a wider range of talent. Protects us from changes in the market and demand for our product/services.

Encourage diversity.

6. produce no Waste

This one is quite obvious.

Nothing in nature creates waste except for humans.

Our businesses are often the worst offenders.

Turning your business into a zero waste one is a clear big win for sustainability and replicating nature. But, it isn’t easy and can be a big challenge to take on even for the most ethically minded business.

However, if we can use nature as a guide we can make this a much more sustainable goal:

  1. Observe. Take time to understand how much waste you produce and where it goes.

  2. Start Small. Create SMART and small realistic goals to make one small improvement to you waste.

  3. Integrate. Get the whole team on board. Don’t just leave it to one person to take responsibility.

  4. Obtain a Yield. Celebrate your success. Create rewards for the team if you hit your target. Share what you are doing to your audience.

  5. Diversify. Once you build momentum, tackle another project. Keep the momentum going!

Lots of companies already use these approaches to great success, and perhaps there is a reason why they work so efficiently.

Nature knows best.

We are all seeds

The world is divided. Left v Right. Up v Down.

The good news is that all this can be resolved. All we have to do is convince the other people to think like we do.

And here in lies the problem. We see our differences as individual choices.

“Those people are racist/hippies/communists/(insert group you disagree with here)

We blame individuals rather than society.

I’ve been very fascinated by the work of Gabor Maté for the last few years. Apart from winning the lottery on having one of the coolest names, he is a leading expert on addictions and childhood development and trauma. Gabor’s work specifically looks at the effect our childhoods and trauma has on our later development. His theory is that the trauma a person is exposed to as a child causes them to seek ways to process and deal with that in later life. In the bigger picture this manifests in the form of addictions and crime, but can also be much more subtle in the way we interact with others, our self esteem, and decisions we make in life. Having worked with at-risk youth for a number of years, who often had high levels of trauma, I have found his theories to be extremely accurate.

Looking at the world through Gabor’s eyes changed my interpretation of addicts and criminals dramatically. The general view in society is that these are bad people who make bad decisions. His approach allows us not to ask “what’s wrong with this person?” but instead ask “what happened to this person?”

It is an empathetic way of looking at the world that is wholly refreshing. I would encourage you to check out his website here, read any of his books or for a quick fix listen to this podcast with him and Russel Brand. I also plan to write more about Gabor at a later date.

I’ve been looking at his work recently through the permaculture and natural living lens. If our past can affect our likelihood to become a criminal, can it not also affect other aspects of our lives? Can it not in fact affect all aspects of our lives?

If we expand the Gabor theory, every aspect of our lives is arguably a direct correlation to that which has happened before. We are simply a product of our experiences and environment.

People who grow up surrounded by right wing views are much more likely to have right views.

People who grow up surrounded by left wing views are much more likely to have left views.

Instead of seeing people as different to us, instead we can look at what their environment has created.

Instead of asking “what’s wrong with this person?” we should be asking “what environment did this person grow up in?”

This can be quite a freeing way of looking at the world. It removes the feeling of anger towards people who hold opposing views and beliefs from ourselves.

The reason we are who we are is a culmination of all the experiences that predated this moment in time. The decisions we make today are somewhat inevitable. The words that I’m writing now are a direct correlation to all of the experiences that have happened prior to this moment in my life.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to change our path. It means we can observe and interact with our environment and understand why our views, values etc might be the way they are. This might allow us to understand other peoples view points and be open to hearing them and understanding why they think that way. It also means that once we understand what our environment was like, we can design ways to modify and change it.

In much the same way as Gabor Maté works with people to understand their addictions and change their behaviour, we can do the same.

If we want to make change we need to change the environment and the individual will follow.

If you have ever grown food you will understand the importance of creating the right environment for your seeds. Too much water and they may mould, too little and they dry out, not enough light and they grow too spindly.

But, if you create the right environment; healthy soil, enough light, shade and water, ideal temperatures, then those plants will thrive.

We are all seeds.

A story about feet

”Ouch…. Shit…. Grrr…”


“Screw this I’m putting my shoes back on”

This was my intro to barefoot walking. It was painful.

“Come on feet. This is what you were designed for. Do your thing!”

I had recently read Born To Run a book about the Tarahumara Tribe in Mexico who run long distances in the mountains barefoot or with simple sandals on. I was a text book reaction to that… text book. This book lit a spark in my mind. It made a lot of sense. Why do we wear shoes? What did people do before some clever clogs (wait…is that where that saying comes from?!) invented shoes?

I figured I would simply cast aside my shoes and be at one with nature.

And obviously. It didn’t go well.

Years of buttering up my feet into soft, moisturised, wrapped up and protected little wimps, meant my feet were ill prepared for the job. They were naive to the harsh realities of terra very firma. My feet had devolved. I had become reliant on shoes.

In my interest in learning from the natural world and permaculture this stood out. Every time I looked at my shoes I felt like I was cheating. No other animal on the planet wears shoes. I started to get paranoid around animals. I could swear they were sniggering at me and my shoes when I wasn’t looking. Those smug barefooted bastards!

Take a look at a shoe. You’re most probably wearing one now. Really look at it.

Whats with the pointed front? My feet are not pointed.

Why does it have a heel? My heel isn’t raised.

Why does it have lots of cushioning? My feet aren’t cushioned.

Our shoes are devolving our feet, and bodies. We are letting the shoes do the work for us. Which sounds great. Except it makes our bodies lazy.

I love to trail run. Going for runs in the mountains or forests is one of my favourite ways to move, and get fresh air. I had always worn fairly conventional running shoes. Everything was going great.

Until it wasn’t.

I started to get injured. Feet and knee ligament injuries. I went to see podiatrists and physios. They told me “you need to get orthotics.” Which seemed to be going even further in the wrong direction, away from the natural world. I decided to look to nature for a solution.

Which brings me to “Ouch…Shit…Grr”

As is human nature. We like instant fixes. I saw pictures of people running around barefoot and wanted in. I assumed I would be able to adapt to this straight away. And obviously I couldn’t.

One of the key lesson of Permaculture is to go slow, so I slowed down.

I brought some barefoot style shoes instead. I started with Luna sandals.

My friends asked why I was dressed like a Roman.

I ignored them. Head held high at my new evolving feet.

Then my calves started complaining.

My calves had had it easy up until now. The shoes had been doing all the work for them. They were used to the cushty, part time life. They were suddenly thrown into a full time job and weren’t all that happy about it.

So I slowed down even more.

I went back to normal shoes a few times a week and my calves got used to their new routine.

Eventually, they seemed to enjoy it. They started to resent my old shoes. They got stronger. My recurring injuries started to disappear and my feet started to change shape. They got wider!

All this from changing my shoes.

I’ve since brought more “barefoot” shoes. Altra. Vivo. Vibram Five Fingers. There’s a surprisingly amount of choice out there. I’ve also slowly got my feet used to being truly bare. Around the garden and house, on short hikes, slowly building this up. If I thought my calves had become lazy, the soles of my feet have basically been doing sweet FA since I was 1.

But, slowly they have started to toughen.

They’ve a long way to go but it feels rewarding to be less reliant on my shoes, feel my body get stronger, do what it is designed to do and be a little more connected to the natural world.

I get less paranoid around animals too.

Hierarchy of Sustainability

“I want to show you the reality of the plastic situation, you live in a bubble in Vancouver…”

This was a line in a recent email I received from Mr Doble at the International School of Manilla. The school was inviting me to come and talk to their students about sustainability, permaculture and reducing plastic waste. I was honoured to be asked and intrigued by this last part of the email. I accepted.

I nervously placed the helmet over my head, quickly scanning the motorbike for, I don’t know what, it looked solid. I looked at my Luna sandals, shorts and t-shirt and questioned whether a cotton jumper would offer any better protection in an accident. I was already sweating having not exerted myself in any way, screw it, on I climbed.

I was about to be taken on a tour of Manilla’s plastic waste on Mr Doble’s (James) motorbike. I’d only been in the country five minutes, it was certainly different to Vancouver, the noise, the traffic, the plastic I had already seen, the bubble was well and truly burst.

As we weaved in and out of the cars, buses, trucks, mopeds, people, I managed to pry open my eyes enough to see the reality of the situation. First stop was the Pasig River.

I peered over the bridge and was left stunned. Plastic was everywhere. The banks were covered, there was a constant flow of plastic flowing downstream. We were stood only a half a kilometre from the ocean and it was heart breaking to see how much plastic was flowing directly into the ocean, all day every day. Canada has its own plastic problems but this was on another level.

View of the plastic continually flowing into the ocean down the Pasig River.

View of the plastic continually flowing into the ocean down the Pasig River.

James looked disappointed,

“I knew this would happen.”

“Whats that?”

“The one time I want to show someone the plastic and they’ve actually cleaned it up”

It did not look very cleaned up to me.

James assured me that this was looking good. A quick google search showed me the reality of what it usually looks like.

Photo from Greenpeace.org of what the river usually looks like.

Photo from Greenpeace.org of what the river usually looks like.

I spent a lot of time while in the Philippines comparing the plastic situation there to that in Canada. It’s a very complicated issue. We are all responsible and must all play a part in finding a solution. Governments, companies, shops, consumers, waste disposal, we all must be involved in this.

There seems to me a big difference between Canada and the Philippines, or any developed and developing countries around plastic consumption. On the surface (not just of the river) it seems like they produce more waste, but the reality is that on a per person basis, people in developing countries like the Philippines create less waste.

The other main observation is that the more problems, the more struggles you have on a day to day basis, the less you are likely to have capacity to change your behaviour to help the environment. If you are barely making enough money to pay rent, feed your family, etc. you are unlikely to be adding #zerowaste to your instagram account.

When I visited poorer parts of the Philippines I noticed more single use plastic discarded on the floor. The same is true in Canada. This is partly due to less infrastructure in these areas to clean it up, but it also seems consistent with this theory.

When I was paying attention at University, I remembered learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Maslow identified that there is a hierarchy of needs that people need to achieve to be fulfilled. We must achieve the needs in the lower part of the hierarchy to achieve the ones higher up. This model has been appearing in my mind a lot since the trip. I think this is a good way of understanding our relation to sustainability, and our ability to take action to address the problem.

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Is it not easier for those with certain needs already taken care of to change their behaviour to be more sustainable?

Below is my version of this Hierarchy to explain what I’m rambling about:

My version of the Hierarchy of Needs

My version of the Hierarchy of Needs

I want to be clear. I am not saying sustainability is for the privileged. Far from it. I met a lot of people in the Philippines who started some amazing sustainability projects, some had lots of money, some had very little.

What I am trying to say is that it is much more of a challenge to make changes in our lives to reduce plastic, eat locally, vote with your money if you are already struggling to meet the very basic needs. So if like me, you are lucky enough to not have to worry about money, food, security, friendships etc. then is it not our responsibility to be doing something?

Doesn't have to be much, but we’re at the point where it does need to be something.

31 Nights Out


I was recently contacted to do an interview about an Instagram post I shared. In the post I'd explained how for the last 3 years I had slept outside for at least 31 nights of each year.

For the last 3 years I've slept outside for at least 31 nights of each year. 1/12 of the year out in nature. To some this will seem extreme and to others this will seem a small amount. But out of everything I've been doing recently sleeping outside is still the single best way I've found to increase my connection to nature, remove distractions, and gain clarity. If you're looking for the same and don't sleep outside that often set yourself a target this year and go for it. You won't regret it. Kudos to @semi_rad for giving me the idea of counting.

I can't take the glory of this idea unfortunately, I became aware of it after this blog post caught my attention.  The idea really resonated with me, could I spend at least 1/12th of each year sleeping outside?

The challenge, initially, started as a one off. But, it's grown into something more. It's become a bit of a philosophy for me. A way of keeping track of whether I'm prioritising one of the things I see as important in life. Connecting with nature and spending time outside.

If you have a full time job, it can be hard to make time for nature these days. Most people don't work in nature, don't live in it, don't collect their food from it, don't exercise in it. We can go a long time without truly being in a natural environment. Which... doesn't seem very natural.

What if we can escape every once in a while and sleep outside, away from wifi, away from responsibilities, away from all the things that need to get done, and just live life a little more naturally?

It's not about doing the biggest, first, scariest, hardest, it's about sleeping outside. It's about establishing a little more connection to the natural world than we do in our modern, everyday lives. Sure, it would be easy to reach 31 days if we quite our jobs and travelled. But, that's not what this is about. It's about maintaining a connection while maintaining a "normal" life. Reminding ourselves that we are always part of nature. That spending time in the wild places feels natural because it is.

We could all benefit from spending more time outside. So, I'd like to reignite the initial 31 nights out challenge. If 31 seems a daunting challenge then pick a more realistic number, 3 nights out is a great achievement if last year it was 0 nights out. If it seems too easy, pick a higher number...

31 nights out
31 nights out
camping outside
camping outside
campfire microadventure
campfire microadventure

How many nights can YOU sleep outside this year?

Thanks to Brendan at www.semi-rad.com for the inspiration