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.
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
– Cyclic: The product is made from organic materials and is recyclable or
compostable, or is made from minerals that are continuously cycled in a
– 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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.