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Living Green: Tapping into the Hierarchy of Needs

This weekend I had the opportunity to peek into the Green Festival here in San Francisco. Years ago this public tradeshow was primarily full of folks wearing tie-die. Today the crowd is as mainstream as a crowd can look in hippy-dippy San Francisco. I saw guys in suits and soccer moms with their kids in tow–all there to learn a little bit more about the burgeoning green marketplace.

This weekend I had the opportunity to peek into the Green Festival here in San Francisco. Years ago this public tradeshow was primarily full of folks wearing tie-die. Today the crowd is as mainstream as a crowd can look in hippy-dippy San Francisco. I saw guys in suits and soccer moms with their kids in tow–all there to learn a little bit more about the burgeoning green marketplace.

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Given that I’ve got Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on the brain (the foundation for my new book, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow), I started wondering, “How does ‘living green’ address the higher needs of employees, customers, and investors?” Strangely enough, the more I considered it, the more I realized that the green movement is a perfect example of how any company can genuinely address the higher needs of their key constituents as it can have a transformative effect on people (the reality is that there are many companies today who are not “genuinely” or “authentically” doing this but they’re just providing “greenwash” to make themselves look environmentally responsible).

So let’s consider each of these three constituencies in relation to the key themes of the Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, which progresses from SURVIVAL needs (physiological/safety) at the bottom to SUCCESS needs (social/esteem) to TRANSFORMATION needs (self-actualization) at the top. The Employee pyramid’s progression is MONEY, RECOGNITION, and MEANING. So, do employees have their Meaning needs addressed when they work for a company that’s genuinely taking an environmentally sustainable approach to their business? Absolutely. Creating a Green Task Force at Joie de Vivre was a magnet for proactive problem solving, especially from many of our younger Gen X employees. For many of us, making a difference creates greater meaning in our lives than making a buck.

What about the Customer pyramid? The progression there is from MEETING EXPECTATIONS (survival) to MEETING DESIRES (what could be defined as “success” for a customer) to MEETING UNRECOGNIZED NEEDS (when a customer feels transformed by buying from the company). The initial purchasers of the Prius were definitely self-actualized customers who were having their unrecognized needs met. Four years ago, how many people could say they were helping the planet while buying a car? The core customer for the Prius used to be an eco-minded person who wanted to have a transformative effect based upon the car they chose to buy. What’s interesting is with time the largest market segment for the Prius has become the customer who is looking to save money due to the car’s fuel efficiency. And, the number one reason that people buy a Prius today? 57% of Prius owners say they bought the car because it “makes a statement about me” (this was just 34% nearly four years ago) while lowering emissions (which used to be a primary reason) has fallen to fifth place in the top seven reasons why people buy a Prius.

While many of us wonder whether some investors are truly human as opposed to just being Return On Investment robots, I do believe the Hierarchy of Needs has relevance here, too. The survival and success needs of investors have to do with being in TRANSACTIONAL and RELATIONSHIP ALIGNMENT with the entrepreneur or company in which they are investing. An investor who is looking to experience transformation from their investment is what I call a LEGACY INVESTOR, someone who sees that their role as an investor can make a difference in the world. When a legacy investor invests in a green company or in a company that is at least operating using environmentally sustainable principles, there’s no doubt that investor is feeling a little more self-actualized and proud of how they are making the world a better place.

In sum, companies that focus on transcending the bottom of the pyramid–the survival needs of employees, customers, and investors–are able to address the higher needs of these constituencies. We all have roles in the world of business, whether that role is being an employee or a customer or an investor. Whatever our role, most of us want to feel good about how we make a difference with the actions we take. Companies that are “living green” create inspired employees, evangelistic customers, and proud investors by giving them a sense that they are transforming the world in their own small way.