Two concepts of sustainability that are older than you think

Whoever discusses sustainability and social responsibility these days does not necessarily know how old these two terms are.

For all those who would like to know more – please read on:

1. Sustainability and its origin in German forestry

Assuming that sustainability is something relatively new and modern is a fallacy. In fact sustainability is quite old. And before turning into high-profile CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), she first appeared in a modest German forester’s cloak.

Yes, that’s right. Sustainability was invented in Germany – in Saxony, to be precise.

Hans Carl Von Carlowitz Poster featuring the photograph Hans Carl Von Carlowitz by Smetek
Image: Hans Carl von Carlowitz, Pop-Art portrait by Smetek:

In 1713, the Saxon regional mines inspector Hans Carl von Carlowitz wrote a treatise claiming that only as much wood may be felled as can grow back through afforestation. The idea sounds simple, but at the time was groundbreaking.

Wood was an important resource for house building at that time, but it was equally needed for shipbuilding and as a fuel for cooking and heating. This eventually resulted in the problem of deforestation and desertification – a threat with serious economic implications for the mining of ore on which Saxony heavily depended. Carlowitz recognized this fact and dedicated his treatise to the Saxon King Augustus the Strong – knowing that only the nobility had the power and the money to change things in his country.

“It is astonishing that the wealthiest people use most of their wealth to build large houses, palaces, castles, and other buildings; while it would be far more auspicious to cultivate their land and seeking to improve it, which may well be far more useful to them and to their offspring and to the common welfare. ”

Hans Carl von Carlowitz, quote from  “Sylvicultura oeconomica”

His treatise was well received and eventually led to sustainable reforestation in Saxony. The birth of not only sustainable forestry, but sustainability itself.

2. Social responsibility or “the honorable merchant”

Social responsibility as we know it today actually originated in the mediaeval environment of Hamburg’s Hanseatic merchants.

Image: Petrus Christus “The Goldsmith”, 1449

Back in the day, many merchants went to see their clients by foot and it was very difficult to build trustful relationships with new clients. It was necessary for them to differentiate from tricksters. Some merchants assembled and decided to establish the “merchant’s law of good faith”. This regulated legal and commercial aspects, but was at the same time deeply embedded in the culture of the Middle Ages: the honorable merchant indeed represented the “honor”, which in turn stood for the highest good of a mediaeval society. The principles were supposed to help fulfill the behaviors required by the urban community. The birth of “compliance”, if you wish.

The seemingly old-fashioned virtues of honesty, reliability and integrity are still relevant today. Moreover, they are more important than ever!

The Honorable Merchant as a Person:
Commitment to values
– The honorable merchant is cosmopolitan and liberal-oriented.
– The honorable merchant stands by his word, his handshake applies.
– The honorable merchant cultivates commercial judgment.

The Honorable Merchant in his business:
Create conditions for responsible action
– The honorable merchant acts as a role model by his actions.
– The honorable merchant creates the conditions for responsible action.
– The honorable merchant sets his entrepreneurial activity on a long-term and sustainable basis.

The honorable merchant as part of both economy and society:
Understanding and shaping the framework for honorable actions
– The honorable merchant adheres to the principle of good faith.
– The honorable merchant recognizes and takes responsibility for the economic and social order.
– The honorable merchant also represents these values in international business.

The over 500 year old  association of honorable merchants in Hamburg  adheres to the above-mentioned principles to this day.

As can be seen from these elaborations, ancient ideas are not necessarily dusty and doomed to oblivion, but are still valid and applicable today.

If you can think of more great ancient ideas and thoughts that we should revisit in today’s turbulent and uncertain times – feel free to post in the comment section below.

Have a great weekend!


Zur deutschen Fassung

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