Spirituality, Work & Sustainability

We spend most of our adult lives preparing for, seeking out and ‘doing’ work.  Work has become the primary way in which individuals attain the material benefits and economic rewards that enable them to live successfully in contemporary capitalist society, but also a sense of meaningfulness in their existence.  The existential and ethical aspects of the work  we do (or would like to do) has far reaching implications for the individual in the workplace, as Weber so clearly demonstrated, but understanding their aspects can also tell us much about organisations, business and society in general.

Many theorists of religion have pointed out how society’s relationship with faith has undergone a number of fundamental changes which have far reaching implications for how we think about themsleves and work.  My research aims to contribute additional understandings about how macro-level changes impact individuals, organisations and society to add to current debates and discussions about the spirituality of workplace behaviour.

Such contributions, I believe, are necessary because although there has been much discussion of Weber’s theory of the Protestant Ethic and it’s impact on the development of a capitalistic spirit (and subsequent economic growth), we are just beginning to understand how the variety of different of work-related ethics which are beginning to manifest.  My aim in my work is not to summarise, challenge or update, but to contribute to the development of new theories and research approaches which more accurately reflect how the work, organisation and spirituality relationship is actually practiced in contemporary life.

A chapter which I have co-written with two colleagues at Exeter Univeristy (Scott Taylor and Emma Bell) which will be published in a collection in early 2012 focuses on how the work ethic, which was instrumental in influencing the form of spiritual identity required to drive the development of the contemporary capitalistic order, was somewhat incongrous with the ideals of sustainability.  Towards the end of The Protestant Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism Weber writes:

‘The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.  For when asceticism was carried out in monastic calles into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous of the modern economic order.  This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt’  (p. 123).

As we approach the peak in relation to the natural resources available to us on this planet, many businesses have (at various speeds) changed the way they do business or developed new approaches to how they do their work. 

The current iteration of neo-liberal, financialized capitalism is undergoing a crisis which we all, in our hearts,  know is not sustainable, and needs to be replaced by something better.  This requires new understandings of the self-hood required to make corporate sustainability happen, which means that the ‘big’ questions that have occupied management and organisational theorists and scholars are changing.

Companies such as TOMS, Howies and Patagonia  suggest models for how capitalisic enterprise will look in the future.  Responsible, ethical and engaged with their local communities as well as addressing the global problems of climate change, poverty, the exploitation of women and children, etc., as the business models of the past go into crisis, are we seeing the emergence of a new platform which can help us understand the changing spirit of capitalism?

  • Pingback: What does spirituality have to do with sustainable economic development? | Business Matters

  • Pingback: What does spirituality have to do with economic development? | Business Matters

  • John Cullen

    I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head about how it is easy to see how the sustainability battle can be lost through cynicism at the outset. In the ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ we see a green energy VC who claims that renewables are now what biotech was 15 years. I think the way around this is to see more credible examples of a genuine sustainable work ethic who can demonstrate just how sustainable the sustainability ethic is! Here’s a great example of the type of people who are driving the new agenda – http://www.dolectures.com/lectures/what-are-the-questions-that-drive-us/

  • Peter Robbins

    John – very stimulating topic. Just a question, when you cite the firms who embody the ‘right’ values – do you think this is genuine or is it merely a marketing, positioning gimmick? Companies like BodyShop, Toms of Maine and Ben and Jerry’s who start out with high moral ideals (and, we are indebted to them for doing it) – inevitably end up selling out to global corporations. Is there a future in this for firms – can it lead to sustainable competitive advantage?