Part 2

How to create real value for people and environment

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In a faraway corner of China, there is a secret lake. A lake that shall not be named, a black hole with toxic waste. A BBC reporter called it ‘hell on Earth’. It exists for one reason only: mining the materials that create our smartphones. [1]

The factories around the lake mine huge amounts of ore, using chemical processes to extract rare minerals like neodymium and cerium. They use these minerals to make tiny magnets that our technology needs. From hundreds of tonnes of mining, a small fraction is used but the majority ends up in the lake of death.

(Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)
(Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

If you want to neutralise the waste products for producing one laptop you need around 2.000 swimming pools of water. [2]

That is our current system of production and consumption. It is a process of: Extract -> Use -> Waste. It’s the linear economy with growth, efficiency and GDP as the holy metrics.

A linear model like that cannot work on a finite planet. If you take out resources faster than they return, by definition it is impossible to sustain. If everyone lived like the average European, we would need 2-3 planets (Americans need more). [3] The inconvenient conclusion is that either the poor people will never get out of poverty or we will have to sacrifice some of our wealth.

The only solution is a circular economy, where the resources return to production. But a circular economy is much more than recycling. It’s about true value creation.

Efficient Nazis

You start to wonder whether we should produce anything at all. Babette Porcelijn also went down this slippery slope. She wondered whether the most sustainable option would be committing suicide.

But when you get depressed about the impact of your actions you’re asking the wrong question. It is a result of thinking with outdated maps, where productivity and efficiency are the highest priority.

Those old maps often frame sustainable progress as a matter of efficiency. If only we would have more energy-saving lightbulbs, better solar panels, and more range for electric cars. But an electric car produced in a linear system still has a huge negative impact on the our environment.

Back in 1875, a man called Jevon predicted that the impact of a process increases when it becomes more efficient. Our cars and refrigerators use less energy, but that just means it becomes cheaper and we buy bigger cars and refrigerators.[4]

“In a philosophical sense, efficiency has no independent value: it depends on the value of the larger system of which it is a part. An efficient Nazi, for example, is a terrifying thing. If the aims are questionable, efficiency may even make destruction more insidious.” ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ – Michael Braungart and William McDonough

We can have the most efficient electric cars, but if we do it in the system of a linear economy it doesn’t matter. To use the analogy of the road again: It doesn’t matter if we drive better Teslas when we’re heading towards a cliff.

Counting on efficiency to save us is like selling a boy his favourite candy at a 70% discount but asking him to buy less of it. Instead, how can we sell him a healthy fruit for the same price that tastes even better than the candy?

What we can learn from ants

Ant colonies are the ultimate productivity kings. With fascinating teamwork, they build houses, farms, waste facilities, cemeteries and food storage. Ants manage their own waste and that of other species. Instead of exploiting their environment, their cities make the surrounding life better. [5]

If we would make our cities and factories more like ant colonies, what would that look like?

Businesses often talk about value creation when they make a product, but most of the time that goes along with value destruction. Moving from a linear to a circular economy is not just about reducing value destruction. A circular economy means switching from a mindset of efficiency to a philosophy of holistic value creation.

If you’re Coca Cola it’s not enough to use less sugar and reduce plastic by making your bottles a little lighter. How about making a drink that is actually healthy and doesn’t need new packaging material?

If you’re Adidas it’s not enough to make shoes from recycled ocean plastic. How about inventing a business model that is not about getting people to buy the newest model and where all clothing is biodegradable?

If you’re Unilever it’s not enough to introduce a vegan shampoo without microplastics. Especially not when you’re still selling all the unsustainable options. How about making a shampoo that actively nourishes your hair AND our environment?

Maybe you think I’m setting the bar too high. But this has already been done.

A material so clean you can eat it

25 years ago a Swiss company wanted to make beautiful and sustainable upholstery (the textiles that cover couches and chairs). It’s one of my favourite stories from the book ‘Cradle to Cradle’.

The company suggested using recycled PET bottles combined with cotton (sound familiar Adidas?). But the plastic could erode and release microplastics. Combining natural and synthetic materials is also problematic because it’s difficult to separate for them afterwards. They concluded that “this was not a product worth making.”

They also had a problem with the rest material they cut away. Usually, the trimmings were burnt at the local waste plant, but this was no longer allowed. What if their new waste was so healthy that it could be composted? Instead of the waste polluting their environment, it would nourish it.

They also wondered how their product could benefit the people who are forced to sit the most: “The mill interviewed people living in wheelchairs and discovered that their most important needs in seating fabric were that it be strong and that it ‘breathe.’ The team decided on a mixture of safe, pesticide-free plant and animal fibers for the fabric: wool, which provides insulation in winter and summer, and ramie, which wicks moisture away.”

The most difficult process was colouring and processing the fabric without harmful chemicals. It’s common to select some qualities and then balance their toxic effects with other chemicals. But they only wanted to use ingredients that were nutritious from the start. Sixty chemical companies were afraid of these high standards, but they found a partner. Together, they eliminated more than 8000 chemicals and selected 38 ingredients. This created a product that could literally be eaten. It also had a higher quality and was cheaper to produce.

My favourite part about this story is when Swiss officials inspected the Mill’s wastewater (effluent). “They thought their instruments were broken. They could not identify any pollutants, not even elements they knew were in the water when it came into the factory. To confirm that their testing equipment was actually in working order, they checked the influent from the town’s water mains. The equipment was fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as — or even cleaner than — the water going in.”

The product was so clean that the company no longer had to be regulated, saving paperwork and stress. The previous rooms for storing chemicals became positive workspaces and employees stopped wearing gloves and masks. At the end of its life, the customers could take off the fabric from their chairs to throw it onto the compost. On top of all that the company’s profits were better than ever before.

Conclusion

I’m not trying to shame companies or mock all sustainable products. I just think we are setting our bar way too low when we are happy with a few shoes from recycled plastic.

Instead of trying to reduce damage, we should be looking for ways to add real value. The industrial revolution made us very rich but its outdated map of ‘extract – use – waste’ is holding us back now. Instead of asking how those old ways can be ‘less bad’, we need to start looking for a better map where we create real value for us and our environment.

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[1] http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=pockethits

[2] Babette Porcelijn – The Hidden Impact

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33133712

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/20/the-efficiency-dilemma

[5] ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ by Michael Braungart and William McDonough 


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