Origin and Destination: Culture Matters

There is an essential element missing from the dialogue on sustainability in business. Most enterprises consider the full spectrum of sustainability as environmental, social and financial. Organizations of all types are reviewing and revamping supply chains--their sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and outsourcing processes.

However, based on assumptions of how we see the world, these processes also have a hidden cultural cost. We seldom stop to consider our own cultural biases and how our interactions with the world tend to clone our values onto others, often pushing-out native customs. If diversity is important to ecologies and makes markets, systems, and societies more resilient, then there should be little doubt that cultures, too, should be diverse, in order to represent all our collective learning and perspectives. Unfortunately, indigenous cultures are often being depleted, like other natural resources, when well meaning organizations engage native communities in order to "lift" them to their own standards.

So, if we truly want to be sustainable, why stop at environmental, social, and financial sustainability? Why not take the next step and not only look at inputs and outputs of materials, resources, and capital but also, culturally relevant impacts and business models?

I'm not suggesting at all that we should tolerate human rights abuses and limits to personal freedom just because they're culturally or historically-based. But, we can't be too comfortable with ourselves and our own culture if we feel the need to remake everyone else in our image.

Nearly five years ago, my own company, Lulan Artisans was born of a business model that, like most successful companies, understands its customers and employees. But then consciously we also celebrate the uniqueness of the local cultures where our products originate. Our approach goes beyond working conditions and fair wages. It includes using local processes and natural materials that have worked for centuries and honoring the expertise that gives these societies a competitive advantage. First, we listen and watch carefully to better understand the local customs of our artisans. Next, we include the artisans in structuring the business model so they know how things work and understand their own importance in context. Through this process, they begin to understand international market forces at work as well, so any adjustments they choose to make support their culture as well as the company's competitiveness.

These artisans feel pride when they see the value of their unique work and traditions that says so much about who they are. At the same time, they discover a way to fit into the global marketplace, without renouncing their cultural identities, and create stable businesses and lives for their future.

This is not only inclusive but also has a huge impact on productivity and resiliency for whole communities in the developing world. These artisans are not merely employees for a foreign way of life. This helps integrate them into the global fabric of the human experience in a way that ultimately benefits all of us.

This is the future of business. Everyone has a role to play to advance themselves, their families and their communities and they needn't discard their cultural traditions along the way.

In fact, these cultural stories and interactions benefit us in many ways. People constantly search for meaning in their lives and the things they buy support these quests. As we rise out of the mire of decades of unsustainable consumption, we find that those things that connect us to others and ourselves in relevant ways are the most fulfilling. Artisans around the world create meaningful products that preserve their culture, contrast (and, therefore, highlight) our own, promote secure jobs, educate their children and create stable communities, which, in turn, add meaning to their lives and ours--establishing a full circle of cultural connection and sustainability. We could ask "who is helping whom, here?" We have much to learn from the people we enable that clearly, it does come full circle.

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