Yesterday was May 1st, and today is a public holiday in many countries around the world, including the UK. Long before the Haymarket Affair brought Chicago to the world’s attention, but perhaps not quite as long as Finns and other Scandinavians welcoming longer days with copious amounts of beer, there was a Welshman creating history in Central Scotland. The year was 1800.

The small village of New Lanark, located on the only waterfall of the River Clyde, provided an ideal location for cotton mills, part of the key textile manufacturing industry of the time. Lanark, the neighbouring large town, was the previous stopping point for economist Adam Smith on his frequent journeys from Glasgow, where he taught at the University, to Edinburgh, where he met Scottish Enlightenment friends for dinner and discussion.

The work of Robert Owen and the case of the New Lanark Mills was to impact greatly on the accelerating Industrial Revolution that was fundamentally changing the shape of the world at that time, a world moving rapidly along the lines detailed by Smith in The Wealth of Nations, published just 10 years before the construction of the mills in 1776.

Owen transformed the lives of the 2,000 people who lived in the mills, including 500 children, at the same time as delivering commercial success. Although the cotton mills at New Lanark were not the worst in terms of worker conditions at that time, he improved them through a series of social and welfare programs, including special attention to the education and care of children, the means by which workers purchased goods with their money earned, and even the role of incentives in the workplace to improve performance.

New Lanark became celebrated throughout Europe, and many leading royals, statesmen, and reformers visited the mills. In contrast with the normal working conditions of the day, they found a clean and healthy environment with a happy workforce that did not compromise a prosperous business. Owen’s philosophy was contrary to contemporary thinking of the time, but he was able to demonstrate that it was not necessary for an industrial enterprise to treat its workers badly to be profitable. The excellent housing and amenities, including the first infant school in Britain—and the accounts showing the profitability of the business—provided the tangible evidence to visitors and shareholders alike.

The industrial revolution had spawned a “sun up to sun down” culture of work, with many children foregoing their education to satisfy the demand for resource. Owen first implemented a 10-hour day at the New Lanark Mills and would later advocate an 8-hour workday as part of a balanced daily life that would include

“8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest.”

One of the first businesses in the United States to implement an 8-hour day was the Ford Motor Company. In 1914, it not only cut the standard workday to eight hours, but it also doubled its workers’ pay in the process. To the shock of many at the time, this resulted in a significant increase in productivity, and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years of implementation. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter 8-hour workday as a standard for their employees.

I was born a little further west on the River Clyde from the New Lanark Mills (today a conservation village and world heritage site) in a town called Motherwell. For me, the case has inspired our work in Barcelona on the Triple Lens of Sustainability – where we link sustainability at the individual, organizational, and societal levels.

A modern-day champion of a broader view of sustainability is Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant. I conducted one of my Doctoral case studies in Unilever, at Port Sunlight’s European packaging design center, in 2001, and the village of Port Sunlight followed the example of the New Lanark Mills.

William Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers, which merged in 1930 with the Dutch company Margarine Unie to form Unilever, built his success on the manufacture of soap. He began construction of the village in 1888 to house the workers of his rapidly growing soap factory and personally supervised the planning of the village, building 800 unique, high-standard of living houses for a population of 3,500.

There was an art gallery, hospital, concert hall, schools, open-air swimming pool, and a church. As with Owen in New Lanark, Lever introduced welfare schemes and provided for the education and entertainment of his workforce, encouraging recreation and organizations that promoted art, literature, science, or music. He claimed Port Sunlight was an exercise in profit sharing and invested the profits in the village instead of sharing them directly. Although Lever did court controversy at times regarding the supply of palm oil for his soap, he still built a tradition of sustainability at the individual, enterprise, and society levels.

Today’s CEO, Paul Polman, has attempted to build on those traditions with a new approach to big business. He believes that

“capitalism needs to evolve, and that requires different types of leaders from what we’ve had before.”

That new leadership, according to Polman, needs to recognize the social role of the world enterprise and be able to focus on the long-term, be purpose driven, think systematically, and work more transparently and effectively in partnerships.

Robert Owen was a visionary in understanding the key role that work played in wider life: that business was changing in line with society, but that it shouldn’t compromise life, which is the very fabric of society. Yet we live in a much different, and more rapidly changing, society today. How many hours do you work a day? What is work anyway, and where does it take place? When was the last time we followed, in that order, hours of ‘labour, recreation and rest’? A new type of sustainable leadership is required, and the responsibility for that lies with us all.