Going Loopy: Mindsets for a Sustainable Economy
One of the things that really impressed me with Dame Ellen MacArthur last Friday (other than the solo around the world sailing stuff) was, despite coming to the topic of sustainability relatively recently, she grasped the fact that the circular, closed loop economy is a much better sustainability model than eco-efficiency. Many so-called experts don’t get this.
Nature is inefficient by our standards – how many sycamore seeds are released for every new sycamore tree? – yet it is sustainable. Materials and nutrients travel in solar powered loops and nothing gets poisoned on a grand scale. Efficiency, at best, slows the unsustainability problem down, but doesn’t solve it.
In chapters 6 and 7 of The Green Executive, I describe what I call the eco-system model of sustainability and how it can be applied to industry at a macro level. The eco-system model requires all energy to be from renewable sources, all materials to be recovered for re-use in continuous loops and nothing gets poisoned. This model needs to permeate all operations, the supply chain and products/services.
Impossible, you cry, you can’t recycle ‘X’! Well don’t use ‘X’ then. Or find a different way of doing using ‘X’ where it can be recovered and reused. Likewise, toxic materials should simply be designed out.
Taking the eco-system model a step further, we can look to nature to inspire design solutions – aka biomimcry. Some of my favourite examples in the Green Executive are from the world of biomimcry:
- InterfaceFLOR use adhesive pads which emulate the feet of geckos to stick without glue;
- The US Navy has developed an anti-fouling paint which emulates sharkskin – you don’t see limpits on a shark – rather than trying to poison such unwanted passengers;
- Industrial symbiosis where all waste becomes ‘food’ for another company.
These examples show the need for a change in mindset. The anti-fouling example required a radical rethink of the problem. If you take the eco-efficiency mindset, you will try to trade off the loss in efficiency in moving the ship from the fouling against the impact of toxic anti-fouling paint and will inevitably end up with a messy compromise. The eco-system model says “you can’t use poisons at all”, so you have to find another way of tackling the problem – hence the innovation. Similarly the eco-efficiency mindset says “recycle only if it saves energy/resources” whereas the eco-system mindset says “close the loop – make it work”.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – sustainability is all in the mind. And, as Einstein is said to have said:
“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
The eco-system model requires a different mindset. So are you going to go loopy?