The natural alignment between sustainable business and Māori business

By Fiona Stephenson

According to recent estimates, Māori businesses now account for an economic asset base of more than NZ$42.6 billion. This is largely made up of small and medium-sized enterprises in New Zealand. 

Māori business refers to Māori owned and operated businesses, but it’s the approach to business steeped in ancient roots that sets it apart from the mainstream. It’s Māori ways of thinking and doing, and the ability to reconnect with our common heritage as descendants of Papatūānuku, mother earth.

Likewise, sustainable business is about the ability to meet needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Profit includes more than the financial bottom line; it considers preservation of the environment, the wellbeing of employees, stakeholders and wider community.  

For Māori businesses, these considerations are paramount because they are embedded in the Māori cultural mind-set.   Take for example, the famous Māori proverb:

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.  

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.  

Through a Māori lens people are not separate from the environment – they are a natural part of it, hence the term tangata whenua, people of the land.  The two are intrinsically connected and interdependent. 

Within this cultural and sustainability framework, the proverb takes on new meaning. The wellbeing of the land and the wellbeing of people are the same.  Profit then, is a symbiotic harmony between the wellbeing of people, the preservation of environmental resources, and material wealth. 

What guides and influences this behaviour in business is tikanga.  

Tikanga are shared values, rules and ethics embedded within the culture; at its most basic level tikanga can be described as the ‘Māori way of doing’.  SBN member Toimata Foundation has tikanga as a part of its core business values.  These are:

  • Whanaungatanga – this refers to the interconnectedness of all living things, including the physical, spiritual and emotional connection between humans, plants, animals and the wider environment.
  • Manaakitanga an integral element of being Māori, to ensure people are cared for and nourished throughout their learning, their work and their lives.

Tikanga are imbued with sustainable practices and there are vast and varied ways they can be expressed in business. 

Much of SBN’s work is about making NZ an exemplar Circular Economy nation; however Māori also have a Circular Economy concept – this is called Para Kore. Like the Circular Economy, it is a concept which builds economic, natural, and social capital. Currently Para Kore is a model which supports marae in reducing waste.  Currently, Auckland Council and Ngāti Whātua Iwi have partnered to implement the programme for marae across Auckland.

Within this natural alignment between Maori business and sustainable business lies a golden opportunity to forge future pathways. In acknowledging Māori ways of doing business, it is possible to map a sustainable future which is unique to New Zealand.  Sustainable practices were here all along, embedded within our indigenous culture.