One CEO's garden ethic

April 6, 2013

Yoga pants really have nothing to do with environmental ethics. But to hear Lululemon, Apple or any number of companies appropriate terms like “ecosystem,” you might start to think all CEOs are green thumbs.

Most are not, but Sophia Siskel, CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, thinks more should be.

“Gardening has the power to heal the world’s economic and environmental problems,” she said Friday at Northwestern University, well aware of how that admittedly tall order might be received.

“Someone could say that’s flowery, flighty or naïve,” said Siskel, who got her master of business administration degree from Northwestern, but “we have to stop being embarrassed about the things we’re passionate about when they don’t have hardcore quantitative metrics.”

Not that protecting the environment comes at the expense of business, boasting more than 1 million visitors per year, the Chicago Botanic Garden saw its highest-ever attendance in 2012 — a record it had set in each of the three years prior.

Several years ago the garden made a commitment to beauty as its own end, focusing on six basic tenets Siskel learned as a gardener: patience, beauty, science, learning from each other, learning form hard work, and faith.

Those personal values can inform business decisions. “Impatience is not an asset in building a strong business or an enduring economy,” Siskel said. “Impatience breeds waste.”

Refocusing on their inherent interest in natural beauty also led to a renewal of the garden’s scientific mission. They developed a plan with NASA to train up to 60 Chicago-area teachers to use NASA’s global earth observation data in a climate change curriculum for 4th-12th graders.

The writer Michael Pollan offered up a similar “garden ethic” in his book Second Nature. He bought a farm and attempted to let it grow free, with disastrous results. But waging an all-out war on the natural world also ended in failure. Pollan arrived at a garden ethic to reconcile his respect for the integrity of nature with his needs as a member of contemporary society.

Siskel’s garden ethic shares that environmentalist sentiment, but applies it more specifically to professional and personal relationships. She pointed to the proliferation of urban gardening and green jobs programs for hard-to-employ individuals as evidence of the value of lessons learned through gardening.

“Economic calculations often ignore nature. The result can be the destruction of the very ecosystems on which our economy is based," she said. "Somehow by the time we get to be grown-ups, we forget that the future of life on earth depends on the ability of plants to sustain us.”

Chris Bentley writes about the environment. Follow him on Twitter at @Cementley.