An Introduction to Industrial Ecology & CSR

By Brad Allenby. President of the International Society for industrial ecology and professor of civil and environmental engineering and of law, at Arizona State University.

Most people who are not already familiar with industrial ecology tend to react with surprise at the term, which seems to link two unconnected realms, the industrial and the biological. And yet the analogy is a powerful one, for it begins by raising a basic question: suppose human economic systems were as efficient as biological systems at cycling materials and creating ordered structures? It is this idea that continues to lie at the core of industrial ecology.

For those, however, who seek certainty in their lives, industrial ecology may be defined as the objective, multidisciplinary study of industrial and economic systems and their linkages with fundamental natural systems. It draws on research involving such disparate fields as energy supply and use, material stocks and flows, new technologies and technological systems, economics, law, management and social sciences.

It provides a context within which more specific challenges, such as the rapid development and industrialization of Asia, or the implications of the shift from agriculture and manufacture to services in Europe and North America, can be analyzed and resolved. More about industrial ecology may be found at the websites of the Journal of Industrial Ecology (, and the International Society for Industrial Ecology (

Industrial ecology as a field of study is only about fifteen years old, however, and thus it is not surprising that interesting questions continue to arise about its boundaries. For historical reasons, for example, industrial ecology has tended towards a quantitative and technological focus, which raises the question of how social sciences intersect with it. Are the relevant organizational and cultural dimensions of the firm part of industrial ecology, or just the material fluxes with which the firm is involved? Are there scale limits to industrial ecology – should it deal with facility and plant operations, with regional and global material flow analyses, or does it include earth systems engineering and management (e.g., how to manage the carbon and nitrogen cycles, or regional systems such as the Aral Sea, the Baltic or the Everglades)? Does it include the study of technology systems, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, ICT (information and communication technology), and cognitive sciences – the so-called NBIC convergence? How will industrial ecology continue to integrate the lessons of biological systems, such as ecological complexity? This is a subset of the questions involving complexity in general, especially given the reflexive characteristics of human systems, for it is apparent that in most cases the systems with which industrial ecology deals are integrated human/natural systems of significant and rapidly evolving complexity.

Unlike most of the areas of study and practice that environmentalists are familiar with, industrial ecology developed from an industrial, rather than an environmental activist, background. The seminal article on industrial ecology was written by two senior managers at General Motors, the first engineering text on industrial ecology was written by a scientist and a lawyer at AT&T, and the field itself owes much to the support of AT&T, and the AT&T Foundation, over the years.

This gives it a different flavor than many similar efforts, in particular, an emphasis on quantitative models, systems behavior, and data driven analysis. Thus, for example, one of the first examples of industrial ecology in action was the development and deployment of Design for Environment (DfE) methodologies in the electronics industry, a trend that was institutionalized by the IEEE, the largest professional engineering organization in the world, in its annual Symposia on Electronics and the Environment, now in its 12th year. The scope of industrial ecology research continues to expand, however; for example, the field’s publication of record, the Journal of Industrial Ecology, has recently run special issues on information and communication systems, and consumption.

Despite the conceptual challenges, researchers are also now applying industrial ecology approaches to services, such as virtual office and telework, a necessity if the environmental and social implications of service-intensive developed country economies are going to be understood.

Primarily reflecting the vagaries of history and initial funding, industrial ecology activities at the beginning were heavily centered in the United States. Happily, this has now changed and, in fact, a good argument can be made that Europe is becoming the primary center for industrial ecology research. More encouragingly, rapidly developing and environmentally critical countries such as China and India are also beginning to adapt industrial ecology to their circumstances. The importance of this evolution lies in the fact that such countries have the opportunity to blend environmental, social and economic efficiency in ways which developed country economies, with their legacy technologies and economic systems, might find much harder (see, e.g.,

Industrial ecology differs from corporate social responsibility (CSR) in a few notable ways. Most obviously, perhaps, CSR tends to be an activist discourse, with significant normative dimensions. CSR is specifically intended to create social change. Especially when the social dimension of triple bottom line systems is involved, as it frequently is with CSR, prescriptions tend to be driven by particular sets of values. While individual industrial ecologists are certainly activists, industrial ecology as a discourse is more research oriented, and has more of a tendency to generate data and analyses about industrial systems and material flows through them, rather than prescribe ways in which corporate behavior should be changed. More generally, CSR tends to focus on questions of social performance of firms, while industrial ecology may address many questions, such as material selection in complex artifact design methodologies, that have little direct social content. Whether this is a good thing, of course, depends on your predilections.

More subtly, CSR and industrial ecology go about the process of generating change in complex systems differently. Broadly speaking, CSR is an attempt to restructure corporate performance from the outside, generally through fairly traditional activism (shareholder resolutions, direct campaigns, and the like). CSR usually involves externalities to which NGOs or other groups want firms to respond, and CSR initiatives may or may not be data driven.

Industrial ecology does not directly challenge existing institutions; rather, it generates data and perspectives that may be used to create incentives internal to the firm for change. Thus, for example, AT&T’s industrial ecology program includes implementation of network-centric organization, corporate intranet systems, and virtual office/teleworking practices. This program has not only been implemented by AT&T, but has also been offered to that firm’s large business customers, where it does indeed save firms unnecessary consumption of energy and paper, and reduce commuting – but neither AT&T nor its customers does it (primarily) for CSR or environmental reasons, but because it enhances their competitiveness, reduces cost structures, and makes their employees happier and less stressed. And in future such systems may make societies more resilient to terrorism, and to the challenges of aging demographics, and have a number of other effects that are extraordinarily hard to identify, much less measure, balance against each other, and unambiguously define as “good” or “bad”.

This leaves both CSR and industrial ecology with an interesting question: how will those communities identify, much less analyze, environmentally and socially responsible practices in the context of the large integrated human/natural global systems that are characteristic of what the journal Nature has called the Anthropocene – the Age of Humans, especially when the relevant technologies and practices have very little to do with environment or social issues on the surface? What are the real implications of network-centric economic production models over time – or real time dynamic n-point routing algorithms that make e-commerce and global delivery systems much more energy efficient? How will we understand, much less deal with, the actual, ever more complex world that we actually live in? These are the challenges that both the industrial ecology community and those interested in CSR face, and even though the two discourses operate at different points in the “intellectual supply chain,” both recognize that such questions, and their underlying complexity, can be ignored or trivialized no longer.

Brad Allenby is Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and of law, at Arizona State University. He is President of the International Society for Industrial Ecology, and also a Batten Fellow at Darden Business School and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

Journal of Industrial Ecology –

International Society for Industrial Ecology –

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