Sustainability: 100%

This fleece top is made from recycled plastic bottles. Edwin Datschefski, director of BioThinking International, argues that, until we develop a unified picture of nature and industry as a single interdependent process, debate about environment will always be on a ³mankind versus nature² footing where one side always has to lose.

A radical but simple framework for sustainability based on the principles


materials and energy flow in nature, cyclic/solar/safe is an easy to

understand protocol for understanding products and how they can become more


Legislation allows pollution. Even if all companies comply with the law,

there will still be substantial levels of toxic releases that cause damage

to ecosystems and people. The pollution is allowed on the basis that

releases will ³dilute and disperse² in the air or water and so be rendered

harmless. However, some chemicals do not simply dilute over time ­ they accumulate in ecosystems and can come back to haunt us.

All products are bad

One of the main ways that industry is tackling environmental issues is to

simply become more efficient. Using less materials, water or energy to get

the same job done is deemed to be better for the environment. This is based

on the assumption that all products are bad, and that if we use less then

perhaps someone won¹t make a product they would otherwise have done.

However, there are technological and thermo-dynamic limits to how much

savings can be achieved. Eco-efficiency is rather like giving the Titanic

more fuel-efficient engines. It¹s useful because it means less pollution

from the funnels, but the iceberg is still looming.

An Environmental Management System provides a framework for continuous

improvement by means of target setting. However, the targets are based upon

a very basic assessment of the organisation¹s impacts, and the EMS provides

no mechanisms for encouraging innovation. If all companies were to have an

EMS, then we would still be a very long way from having an industrial


that worked with nature, rather than against it.

Another common misconception is that every product has an impact on the

environment and we can only make each product a little less bad. A related

thought is that energy use is always bad, so using less energy is the main

goal. But what about changing the quality of the energy instead? If you can

use energy from the sun, in the form of wind, wave or solar energy for

example, then energy use is no longer ³bad², and in theory, you can use as

much as you want ­ or as much as you can afford, as solar energy is not

unlimited and it still costs money to collect it. Products can be made so

that they are fully compatible with natural systems.

Consumers want to consume. Yet ³buying less² is a goal promoted by

governments and environment organisations worldwide. This notion of ³doing

your bit² by consuming less is fundamentally unnatural ­ ecosystems tend to

maximise their throughput of energy and materials, and they also become


complex over time. Approaches to environmental improvement should work with

people¹s natural need to consume, not against it.

Social issues are being incorporated into corporate environmental

programmes, usually in the form of stakeholder consultations. This is a


way to avoid having neighbours and customers get angry with a firm, but


because some members of the general public agree with a course of action,


does not mean that it is right. Socially beneficial activity will always be

good PR, but it can be used to draw attention away from a lack of real

environmental progress. Bruce Sterling, in his Viridian Manifesto for 2000,

says: ³The human race has repeatedly proven that we can prosper cheerfully

with ludicrous, corrupt and demeaning forms of religion, politics and

commerce. By stark contrast, no civilization can survive the physical

destruction of its resource base. It is very clear that the materialinfrastructure of the 20th century is not sustainable. This is the issue at


Fate and pathways

A vast amount of effort has been put into making sure that food and drugs

are safe for people to ingest. Yet the European Environment Agency

acknowledges that very little is known about the fate and pathways of these

and the thousands of other chemicals that are routinely released into the

environment. It is possible to be too health- and people-centric. Just as

Copernicus challenged the notion that the heavens revolve around the earth,

we need to stop thinking that life revolves around us. As famous ecologist

Aldo Leopold said, ³We are but plain members of the biotic community.²

The good news is that all these misconceptions can be overcome, and the

global agro-industrial system can become compatible with nature. While

systems and targets and social issues and eco-efficiency are all important

tools, they must be viewed as stepping stones and not ends in themselves.

Life on Earth has been around for billions of years (3.85 billion, give or

take), and it has a few tricks to offer us. If we learn from nature and

change the quality of the energy and materials we use, then we can advance

closer to being fully sustainable. For example, if we use solar energy,

there can be no environmental impact at all, so we can use as much as we

like or can afford. Another important idea is that the flows of materials


nature tend to be cyclic, so you can never run out of resources. By

recycling more minerals we can mimick nature. And obviously, using


that have been grown is also a good thing < and there are now some very hi-tech and high performance plastics made from corn as well as wood and soya biocomposites to choose from.

Basic protocols

It is very achievable to undertake mass production using the basic


followed by natural systems. There are five design requirements for

sustainable products. The first three mimic the protocols used by plant and

animal ecosystems:

– Cyclic: The product is made from organic materials and is recyclable or

compostable, or is made from minerals that are continuously cycled in a

closed loop.

– Solar: The product uses solar energy or other forms of renewable energy

that are cyclic and safe, both during use and manufacture.,p>

– Safe: The product is non-toxic in use and disposal, and its manufacture

does not involve toxic releases or the disruption of ecosystems.

The fourth requirement is based on the need to maximise the utility of

resources in a finite world:

– Efficient: The product¹s efficiency in manufacture and use is improved by

a factor of ten, requiring 90% less materials, energy and water than

products providing equivalent utility did in 1990.

And the fifth recognises that all companies have an impact on the people


work for them and the communities within which they operate:

– Social: The product and its components and raw materials are manufactured

under fair and just operating conditions for the workers involved and the

local communities.

For a given product, it is possible to score each of these requirements out

of 100, and this information can be expressed in a simple logo, or it can


presented in text as a vital statistics-style index: 50/30/90/40/10.

We have the technical building blocks for a 100% sustainable industrial

system in all but a few key areas ­ most of the staple technologies of the

sustainable future already exist, and only a few will require major new

innovation, specifically electronics and microchip manufacture.The basic protocols of cyclic/solar/safe are very simple: use materials in

cycles, and instead of emitting poisons, only emit materials that can be

³food² for others. Sustainable products are products which are fully

compatible with nature throughout their entire lifecycle. For example, the

materials they are made from form part of a continuous cycle, and the


used to make them does not release persistent poisons into the air or


Some sustainable products become part of the living ecosystem, such as


fibres which are grown and then turned into board for packaging. At the end

of the package¹s life, the material is composted and returned to the soil

once again. Such a product would be deemed to be mostly within the

³ecosphere² ­ the living ecosystem. Other types of sustainable product are

more part of the ³techno-sphere², but follow similar protocols. For


aluminium sourced from recycling collection, now known as ³urban mines² or

³above-ground mines², makes an excellent lightweight car body. The


is melted down using energy from biomass or small scale hydroelectricity,

and is collected and re-used at the end of the car¹s life.

Piecemeal efforts

It makes sense to adopt the cyclic|solar|safe approach for a number of


It is a logical follow through of the environmental approaches adopted so

far, which have been piecemeal efforts to increase recycling, reduce toxics

and introduce more renewable energy, but with no clear end in sight.

These protocols are the same ones used by living organisms, which is the

only materials and energy system that is proven to be sustainable ­ it has

been going for around 3.85 billion years, as opposed to our current


industrial experiment.

This protocol-based approach works from the ground up, and once a critical

mass is reached, can become self-organising.

It applies the most basic strategic method ­ working backwards from an end

point to make a

plan. If we want cyclic materials flow, the elimination of toxics, and to

have all energy sources to

be nonpolluting, all by the year 2050, the question becomes

not ³how much can we improve from here?², but rather ³what will it take to

get where we need to be?². Does every design choice help us towards


100% sustainable?,p>

Business is responsible for the task of redesigning every product

and process used today. It is capable, both technically and financially,

of meeting such

a design challenge. What seems radical today will be mainstream tomorrow.

Becoming 100%

sustainable is not only possible, it

can be achieved

by the year 2100.

By moving away from the ³how

can we be less

bad?² mentality to the ³how can we be 100% good?² mindset,

we give ourselves the capability

of redesigning every product and process to be

100% cyclic, solar and safe.

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