Sustainable Business The Maori Way

Sustainable Business - Maori New ZealandTalking (and writing) so much about our Western approach to business and sustainability – and the shortcomings in both – it can be refreshing to take a step back and reflect on how people with other worldviews tackle the same issues.

Take the Maori, for instance, considered to be New Zealand’s first settlers. Crippled by colonization for a long time, Maori businesses and enterprise have been highly successful in the last two decades and will play a significant and growing role in New Zealand’s long-term prosperity and sustainable development, according to a recent Landcare report on the capacity for sustainable development in New Zealand.

The Lincoln based research organization dedicates a whole chapter to Maori and sustainable businesses, which “today take many modern forms, from whanau (family) based trusts and corporations, to runanga (councils) to limited liability companies and privately owned business and enterprise. The large majority of those businesses have a distinct Maori dimension, reflected in their governance, strategic planning and networks and style of entrepreneurship.”

Sustainable Business – Maori View

So what are those Maori-specific values and how do they help to create and nurture sustainable businesses?

Manaaki Whenua, Manaaki Tangata, Haere Whakamua
(Care for the land, care for the people, go forward – wakatu)

To start with, Maori businesses distinguish themselves from others by their focus on Maori advancement and development, how Maori values are adopted in governance and leadership, but also the role business plays within the many Maori tribes, communities and families.

Quoting from the report, there are essentially six guiding principles that most Maori enterprises adhere to in terms of business ethics:

  1. Tuhono – agreement and alignment with Maori aspirations, involving consultations with other Maori
  2. Purotu – transparency. Requires Maori businesses to assume responsibility not only to funders but to the wider community
  3. Whakaritenga – beyond the profit motive, there are culturally based motives (such as heritage), but also social and political motives, all of which need to be balanced
  4. Paiheretia – the need for good management of a range of diverse goals even when they contain an element of conflict. The single overreaching goal and the single measure of the accounting ‘bottom line’ are rejected.
  5. Puawaitanga – the best possible return for shareholders and beneficiaries must consider the wider social, cultural and economic perspective by endorsing the use of multiple measures
  6. Kotahitanga – Maori are to foster a spirit of cooperation rather than competition, considering the benefits of economies of scale through alliances and joint ventures, leading to greater product range, better employment etc.

All good, you may say, but how does it work out in practice? Clearly, attempts to strictly follow those principles will pose a considerable challenge to operating a business within the ‘mainstream’ economy. Take governance, for instance. “Many tribal organizations grapple with separating the management of their investment and revenue from the management for distributing income for a wider collective good.

There might be a lack of impartiality where board members and managers are also shareholders…”, Garth Harmsworth, the author of the report points out. Another danger for many Maori businesses might be to try meet too many goals at once (cultural, social, environmental, financial), sometimes leading to a neglect of financial viability, which in turn functions as the enabler for much of the other.

Ultimately, a successful (sustainable) governance approach – Maori or otherwise – will both reflect the organization’s core values and purpose and balance commercial with social, cultural and environmental interests. From a governance perspective, objectivity, accountability, professionalism and manageability are the backbones on which to create a successful and lasting enterprise – still a considerable challenge for some, and a long-seized opportunity for others in the Maori business world, the report concludes.


Whether a business is sustainable on the long-term first and foremost depends on its use of resources. Living on a planet with finite natural resources, environmental sustainability is perhaps the most crucial of the sustainability challenges – a concept and task that Maori know as kaitiakitanga – guardianship. From a (simplified) Western accounting perspective, kaitiakitanga includes, among other, practices related to carbon mitigation, recycling and resource management, energy and water conservation, but also to safeguard and protect cultural values and sites. A more official (i.e. academic) description goes as follows:

Kaitiakitanga – the protection and preservation of the gifts of our ancestors for future generations, most commonly defined as guardianship, but is also regarded in a wider sense as care and management of all resources – an expression of the responsibility of iwi and hapū to protect and care for taonga for future generations. Many also see it as an expression of rangatiratanga – ‘rangatiratanga is the authority for kaitiakitanga to be exercised’ (Merata Kawharu, Kaitiakitanga: A Māori Anthropological Perspective of the Māori Socio-environmental Ethic of Resource Management, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 110, No. 4, 2000). See also M. Marsden and T. A. Henare, Kaitiakitanga – A Definitive Introduction to the Holistic World View of the Māori, November 1992.

It almost seems as if – in a time where Western businesses slowly but steadily move ‘back to the roots’ of reconnecting with nature and people – Maori businesses have started their trajectory on the very opposite side, now readily embracing the opportunities inherent in a more managerial and accountable way of doing business. The ideal – sustainable – enterprise might be somewhere in the middle. As different as the worldviews might be (consider, for example, that for Maori, New Zealand’s northernmost point, Cape Reinga, lies at the very south of the map), there is no doubt that Western companies would do well to adopt the holistic focus that most Maori businesses take if they were to strive and flourish in a – hopefully – more sustainable economic future.

Read the Landcare chapter on Maori business and sustainability

More about Landcare research and the Maori people. Featured image showing silver fern, by babasteve, creative commons

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3 thoughts on “Sustainable Business The Maori Way

  1. This approach to doing business would have prevented the riots of disaffected youth in England. There is so much wrong with the market driven winner take all approach to business that as you say has to bed dragged to the table of community accountability. It is the community that has to absorb failure.I’ll look at your other link now

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