Reading the book 'The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability - Designing for Abundance' by Michael Braungart and William McDonough has encouraged me to contribute to the debate on sustainability and the role of business in meaningful change. I was impressed and inspired by the author's ideas about seeing natural resources in a continuum. L. H. Lovins describes their strategy as follows, „[...] it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not only efficient but also essentially waste free.“ (1)
There is much talk these days about the failure of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Warsaw and the painfully slow progress made in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. In a recent piece in the German magazine 'Spiegel', Harald Welzer goes so far as to say that the environmental movement has utterly failed in effecting climate policy. Referring to climate conferences he says “[...] none of these have ever lead to real change, let alone to a reversal of the trend.” (2) Reporting on the results of a major conference in the U.K., Adam Corner writes, “a fundamentally different economic system is required, if we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change, based on nurturing well being rather than stoking corporate profit.” (3)
In his recent “Evangelii Gaudium”, Pope Francis directly aims at capitalism as “the new tyranny” and urges global leaders to fight against the “idolatry of money” rampant in our society.
The Upcycle and Cradle to Cradle
Braungart and McDonough have a very pragmatic and understandable approach towards a sustainable future. Is it enough, however, to bring about the deep-seated transformation of our economic system which so many are calling for?
The authors lay out a strategy for truly sustainable, waste-free, energy-neutral production processes. While the ideas are inspirational and many companies have adopted their plan, I question how successful their strategy can be in helping transform our economy into a force working for the common good.
The environmental movement has adopted the mantra of scarcity and the notion that human activity is, in the end, detrimental to the health of the planet. Their answer to the climate crisis is to encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint. If we would just emit less into the air and dump less into the rivers and oceans, everything would be OK.
Certainly there is truth in this. Humans are creating terrible damage by polluting too much.
Is that the whole truth, however? Does it not feed in to a psychology of guilt? Does it not have a laming effect on us? Braungart and McDonough criticize the idea of “doing less bad”. By reducing our car emissions we add a little less poison into the atmosphere and we can feel a little less guilty about ruining the environment for generations to come.
Braungart and McDonough encourage us to turn around our thinking. What if we stop talking about “doing less bad” and start thinking about “doing more good”. Are we really parasites or can we be productive and healing members of a complex biosphere?
Let’s just look at ants for a minute as the authors do in their book. Have you ever heard anyone say ants are causing the climate crisis? Do you think ants produce too much carbon dioxide? I know my mother used to curse ants when they plagued her kitchen. But otherwise they have a pretty good reputation among the general public. They help decomposition in the forest. They don’t produce harmful waste and they help clean things up.
But did you know that the biomass of all ants on the planet is equal to that of around 40 billion people (some estimates go much higher). That’s a heck of a lot! Does our planet suffer from an overpopulation of ants? I don’t think so.
Ants live, breed, eat and work in perfect harmony with their environment. They don’t produce waste that harms the environment. In fact, they are beneficial to it.
We humans could do that too. Our footprint could actually be a net positive. Why not? If ants can do it, surely we can too. Ants are pretty smart little guys but we are actually a lot smarter.
We have known for a long time that we have the resources, the technology and the brain power to save the planet. By getting serious about energy saving and utilizing renewables we could have enough clean energy for 7.5 billion people. What's holding us back? Is their some fatal flaw built into our economic system that is keeping us from a sustainable and just future? I maintain that there is, but it is also important to reexamine our attitudes about our own behavior. As long as we humans think we’re a menace then not much is going to get better.
“Upcycle” details a new concept in how products can be produced and materials utilized. In short, it says products should be designed so that the materials used can be fully reused. Materials could be reused in such a fashion that their innate value is maintained. The authors helped the chair manufacturer Steelcase Inc. design and build a chair which can be completely deconstructed after use and the material can be easily reused in other products. The production process produces no waste and the water supply is left untouched.
They have developed the Cradle to Cradle certificate which companies can acquire after having been evaluated and audited. The strict environmental indicators require that substances used are actively defined as safe, the production process does not pollute the water systems and that no waste is produced.
The certification process is certainly a step in the right direction and can be an invaluable source for positive change. I am not convinced, however, that this strategy will be successful in winning over a large number of companies and transforming our society so that we can really start ridding the world of poverty, solving the climate crisis and creating a more just and democratic society.
The authors count on market forces to move companies towards sustainable design and production. They argue that it makes economic sense, that companies can improve their bottom line by joining the Cradle to Cradle certification process. They use the metaphor of the butterfly to argue how the change will come. As the story goes, the flapping wing of a butterfly at one spot on Earth can, in some measurable way, effect the weather halfway across the globe. When a company gets a Cradle to Cradle certification for a product, they argue, it will not only have tangible effects on other products within the company. It will also encourage other companies to adopt such practices.
They further argue that it is much more valuable if businesses discover an intrinsic motivation to develop environmentally-sound products. Regulation is much less effective. They argue that it’s much more powerful if business leaders are convinced in the efficacy of something than if they are forced by laws and ordinances to change their behavior. If a business discovers, for example, that it is more profitable to use less carcinogens in the production process, change will come about very quickly. If government regulations make the use of these same chemicals illegal, it will take much longer and be much more cumbersome.
They go on to argue that we should stop assuming the worse in people. We often think that business leaders are simply disinterested in environmental protection. We can, however, assume that most producers are interested in production methods that don’t poison the environment. Profits may come first but we can assume that most businesses would like to be environmentally friendly if they could. It would be cynical to say that business leaders just don’t care.
While this may be true I don't think it's a very promising strategy simply to hope or assume that business leaders will eventually see the light and move towards sustainability. Moreover, is profit a motive that is really going to change our economy for the better over the long term?
In the book, Walmart and the US Postal Service (USPS) are mentioned as examples of positive change in corporate America. Walmart plans to move to 100% renewable energy for all of its business activities. The USPS took part in the cradle to cradle certification process and transformed much of its activities to pollution-free, energy saving methods.
These two examples illustrate the weakness of the strategy. Walmart is being lauded for moving towards renewables. At the same time they are producing clothes in factories with disastrous safety standards. Walmart was one of the producers at the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh which collapsed in April 2013, killing over 1000 workers.
The USPS has clearly moved toward sustainable business practices by reducing pollutants and energy use. At the same time, however, they have been heavily criticized by labor leaders for laying off 150,000 workers since 2011.
This illustrates the need for an all-inclusive, transparent and measurable approach towards sustainability in the business world. In his analysis of the failures of the environmental and protest movements, Harald Welzer from Spiegel names the Economy for the Common Good as a serious and promising alternative strategy for system change. He goes on to say, “This means we need a method of searching for new strategies that can't be coopted by the sleek, but unfortunately destructive, principle of capitalism. Imagine, for example, what might happen if a large number of businesses make the improvement of the common good - instead of an increase in their profits - the goal of their commercial efforts. (4)
(1) Lovins, L. Hunter, „Rethinking production“, State of the World 2008, (2008), pp. 38–40.
(2) Harald Welzer, „Climate Summit Trap: Capitalism's March toward Global Collapse“, Spiegel Online, Dec. 6, 2013 (http://www.spiegel.de/...).
(3) Adam Corner, „Every little helps' is a dangerous mantra for climate change“, Guardian [UK], Dec. 13, 2013 (http://www.theguardian.com/...).
(4) Harald Welzer, „Climate Summit Trap: Capitalism's March toward Global Collapse“.