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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“.

Originally posted to Gus Hagelberg on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 02:41 PM PST.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  When I Hear "Regulation Doesn't Work" I'm (17+ / 0-)

    hearing 40 years of economic theory that has been wrong on every point.

    There are some interesting approaches discussed here and some good ideas that certainly should be supported.

    But we've got to get real about this neoliberal regulation phobia. Under our most extreme regulatory environment, we built history's only large comfortable middle class, here and across the developed world. We went from biplanes and telephones to the Moon and the early Internet under this heavy regulatory regime. Regulation works.

    What doesn't work is morally encouraging the rich and their enterprises to behave beneficially for society. It's never worked, not in 2,000 years of Christian charity with the motivation by clergy and God, overall not in 8,000 years of civilization. We never solved the simple economic problem of mass poverty before mid 20th century heavy government regulation built a large global opportunity rich middle class in a little over one generation.

    Around the world the people are no longer powerful enough to protect their personal retirement funding from government and industry. So whatever is undertaken on the grass roots level and friendly persuasion in the public market place toward transforming to a common-good economy, the climate change crisis also needs a mission face to face with top global ownership. We've spent half a century making them the only force able to empower government and economy at the scale science is saying is needed.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 04:48:54 PM PST

    •  Agree, the diary reads like common sense until (8+ / 0-)

      run into our experience of the last 40 years, where business has dismantled, captured or otherwise co-opted regulation and the result is the power you speak of.

      Move Single Payer Forward? Join 18,000 Doctors of PNHP and 185,000 member National Nurses United

      by divineorder on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 04:55:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I also agree. This is a fascinating concept and (10+ / 0-)

      I love the fact that Steelcase (a company with a dynamic and progressive history) is pursuing this in earnest.

      The fly in the ointment is the executive business culture that has been created in the past 2-3 decades. Take one look at the Bain corporate raider mentality and you can see that trajectory isn't moving in the right direction on the meta-level.

      Without an external cost the race for corporate profit can only take us to the bottom. The cost of hurting people (low wages) and the planet (environment insults) simply has to be factored into production.

      A good example of this can be seen in Europe where recycling regulations are pushing tech manufacturers to own the entire production cycle all the way through recycling.

      "Let us not look back to the past with anger, nor towards the future with fear, but look around with awareness." James Thurber

      by annan on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 05:29:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  The Story of Stuff (8+ / 0-)

        If you haven't seen this RSA, it's worth your time.

        The Story of Stuff

        The Story of Stuff, originally released in December 2007, is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something, it’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the Stuff in your life forever.

        "Let us not look back to the past with anger, nor towards the future with fear, but look around with awareness." James Thurber

        by annan on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 05:33:04 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •   Thanks annan (0+ / 0-)

          Great link. I bookmarked it.

          Speaking of up-cycling,

          I Found this Great Fund Raising Program

          Get 2 Cents For Your School Or Charity
          For Every,
          Drink Pouch, Cookie, Frito Lay Product, Candy Bar Wrapper, Empty Colgate Oral Care Product Etc. (See Brigades) You Send To TerraCycle.

          TerraCycle Inc.

          121 New York Ave. Trenton, NJ 08638
          General Phone: 609.393.4252
          Fax: 609.393.4259
          TerraCycle Website

          (I have no interests in this company. I just think it's a good thing for schools and charities everywhere and for the City of Trenton, New Jersey).

          Brought To You By That Crazed Sociologist/Media Fanatic rebel ga Be The Change You Want To See In The World! Gandhi

          by rebel ga on Mon Jan 13, 2014 at 04:02:41 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  Neoliberal regulations phobia (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      papercut, annan, enhydra lutris, GreyHawk

      In the US context the regulations phobia does seem to be a huge issue. Perhaps, though, its better not to focus on that too much. I'm sure we agree that the big government bashing is a bunch of bull.

      There is so much that needs to be done above and beyond politics. Look at Occupy. All those active folks were able to influence the agenda.

      Setting up a new metrics for business behavior can also be done in a grassroots, democratic process. You don't need to waste time lobbying Congress or getting someone elected.

    •  As long as (5+ / 0-)

      "Profits may come first..." then we cannot have a sustainable future.  A corporation will not do anything against its own best interest and "The Common Good" means nothing to them.

      How about People and the Environment come first BEFORE profit, eh?  

      In the 1st chapter of E. F. Schumacher's book "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered" believed that natural resources like oil and coal shouldn't be treated as expendable income, when in fact they are capital assets since they are not renewable and will eventually run out/be used up.

       

      "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~ Edward Abbey

      by SaraBeth on Mon Jan 13, 2014 at 04:12:54 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  For profit (and some non profit) (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annan, enhydra lutris, GreyHawk

    corporations seek out the most profit and monopoly by definition. I suspect this can't be stopped without govt intervention.

    "So listen, oh, Don't wait." Vampire Weekend.

    by Publius2008 on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 05:23:07 PM PST

  •  Moving from entirely unrealistic to batshit crazy (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Villabolo, GreyHawk
    " 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)"
    I am strongly behind moving this nation to a much much more people/environmentally friendly economy. As such I would agree with the first half (the failings of the current environmental movement)

    But for gods sake people "Are we really parasites or can we be productive and healing members of a complex biosphere?"

    When you start tossing around terms like "healing members of a BIOSPHERE" you  gotta realize your playing the wrong fucking game.

    I started out reading this with some hope that the goal was to discuss ways to truly make realistic positive change.

    There are hints of this in the article but it never quite jumped the gap to real world productivity.

    " 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."

    When you are basing your hope, on some random , idiosyncratic IMPOSSIBLE event happening you have no hope of productivity.

    Moving from a semi-capitalist economy to a ... environmental? economy would require nothing less than a civil war.

    Given this you must always ground your ideas in the fact that the majority of Americans, particularly those with guns and power would almost certainly side against you.

    Regulation in the last few eras has been less effective than it should be.

    Your discussion is a good example why. Many of the people who should be on the side of good, reasonable and strong regulation.  Have jumped the shark into a realm of unreasonableness and fairy tails.

    This has unfortunately left those who are pushing reasonable regulation without the kind of support they need.

    •  asdf (0+ / 0-)
      Given this you must always ground your ideas in the fact that the majority of Americans, particularly those with guns and power would almost certainly side against you.
      No, he doesn't, because the only real solutions may well be outside the expectations of the majority of Americans. You are doing your own fantasizing.
      •  Outside the expectations (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        marina

        would be fine and reasonable.

        Outside what they will even come close to finding acceptable is unreasonable and silly.

        The idea that many American's would rather kill than give up their semi-capitalism is not fantasy, they have been doing it for years.

        Hello every single conflict during the cold war. The average american, as evident by these conflicts would rather kill millions than give up the "American way of life"

        •  It wasn't the average citizen though (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Skyye, SaraBeth

          who made the decisions to engage in those conflicts, and the continuing ones.

          The average citizen is drugged into thinking we are always on some kind of mission to "protect our freedom."

          •  the average citizen is... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            annan, marina

            what?

            Why are we always making propositions (mostly negative and disempowering) about the average citizen? Why not let them/us speak for themselves/ourselves?

            Again I refer to the Occupy movement to get a glimpse of what the people really want if they were given a chance to be heard.

            As mentioned in the Upcyle book, I would bet that there are a bunch of business owners out there who are sick and tired of the rat race and would be happy to do something for the public benefit. They, too, need to be listened to.

  •  A naive view of sustainability. (4+ / 0-)

    And exhibiting profound ignorance of the environment and natural history.  About ants, I will listen to E.O. Wilson and ants DO NOT live in harmony with the environment; that is unless you think that survival within niche limits is harmony - the Malthusian bargain that humans may yet see.

    And, how have market forces moved corporations to anything but profit at the cost of external damage?

  •  Gus, I came back to see how the conversation (5+ / 0-)

    was going and i see that you've taken a few hits.

    Let me say this ... thank you for bringing this to my attention. I frequently wade in the design and tech/design waters, so I understand where your inspiration is coming from.

    The Subaru plant in Indiana is a good example of what you're talking about so it's possible. The Steelcase example is also very promising. Interesting that they are both happening in the rust belt.

    However, I agree with the comments so far. I don't think it will happen without collectively forcing it to happen via good government regulations. Unfortunately, "good government" feels like a fairy tale these days so it's easy to be cynical.

    Please keep sharing your thoughts. I believe that designers (pragmatic dreamers) may be our best hope for shoving the Overton Window toward sustainability and I also think it's going to take some heavy lifting from good government.

    "Let us not look back to the past with anger, nor towards the future with fear, but look around with awareness." James Thurber

    by annan on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 09:12:27 PM PST

    •  Government Regulation vs. Voluntarism (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Skyye, Powered Grace, annan, lotlizard

      I appreciate the comments and don't mind taking hits. That's part of discourse.

      I live in Germany (grew up in L.A.) so I have a different perspective on the US debate about government regulation. Here there is no major political, public or media force bashing "big government". There was, although, a wave of neoliberalism after 1990 and the social safety net has been chewed up some. People just don't question the role of government here like they do in the U.S.

      Cradle to Cradle seems to rely on voluntarism by business and "market forces" or the invisible hand which will naturaly move CEO's to do the right thing.

      I agree with the comments that that's wrong.

      Government has to be involved in all sorts of ways from taxing to assistance programs to regulating the financial system.

      The Economy for the Common Good does initialy rely on voluntary action by business because we don't have the political base yet to change laws. Building that base is a central part of the movement. It is, however, also a central tenent of the movement that change comes from within. If top management and also staff discover the intrinsic value of, for example, providing living wages and transparency then the success will be much higher than any law would be.

      Some of the "government regulation" we are calling for (when the time is ripe) will benefit companies (and non-profits) which score high on the Common Good scale:
      - reduced sales tax
      - availablity of low-interest loans from public banks
      - preferential treatment in receiving contracts from local and federal governments
      - preferential treatment for receiving research grants
      - lower import/export tarifs

      •  Excellent comment (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Gus Hagelberg

        Welcome to Daily Kos and thank you for bringing your perspective to this forum.

        Rage and anger are often the drivers around here, for good reason. We're partisans and good governance has taken such a hit in the US that it's hard to get past the daily insults to dream of a better future without being labeled an idealist.

        I am also seeing hopeful signs within the design community so I look forward to reading what you have to say in the future.

        "Let us not look back to the past with anger, nor towards the future with fear, but look around with awareness." James Thurber

        by annan on Mon Jan 13, 2014 at 08:41:37 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Meh. Branding exercise. (0+ / 0-)

    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.

    This is not what the environmental movement looks like from the inside. It's more like a right wing misrepresentation.

    “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.

    This is nothing new.  This is the book authors branding their consulting services by badmouthing their competitors.

    Other organizations have been doing this kind of consulting with businesses for years, e.g. The Natural Step,which has been framing 'sustainability' in business-friendly language for 25 years now.

    I think it certainly is possible to mount a serious intellectual challenge to framing environmentalism in terms of sustainability.  "Sustainability" is umbrella marketing term for a strategy, and not a particularly persuasive term at that when preaching to someone outside the choir.

    I've lost my faith in nihilism

    by grumpynerd on Mon Jan 13, 2014 at 08:23:58 AM PST

  •  Disagree with most arguments, but foor 4 thought (0+ / 0-)

    repub'ed to CCSOS.

  •  you said: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    enhydra lutris, blue denim
    In the book, Walmart and the US Postal Service (USPS) are mentioned as examples of positive change in corporate America.
    Since the USPS is shutting down mail processing centers and thus increasing its energy use for the transportation of mail and using that energy use to substitute for employment, it does not look like USPS is engaging in the sustainability you claim in its current changes.
    •  USPS not engaging in sustainability... (0+ / 0-)
      it does not look like USPS is engaging in the sustainability you claim in its current changes.
      Ya, but, in the next paragraph I write
      These two examples illustrate the weakness of the strategy.
      I name exactly USPS and Walmart in my critique of the Cradle to Cradle process.

      We need to judge a company in its entirety. USPS improves waste and energy use but at the same time lays off tens of thousands. That's not cool.

  •  Corporate america bases every decision, (0+ / 0-)

    including whether or not to comply with laws on cost-benefit analysis. Forget altruism from businesses. If they happen to do the right thing, it is only because they are convinced there is more money in it than doing something else.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Mon Jan 13, 2014 at 03:26:24 PM PST

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