“Why?” is the most powerful weapon in sustainability
One of the things I love about my job is I get to speak to people from a wide range of sectors – from charity shops to defence, from crazy golf course owners (really!) to national newspaper groups. On Wednesday I chalked up a new one – the laboratory sector when I was asked to talk about Green Jujitsu at LabInnovations2014.
One of the perks about these gigs is hearing other speakers – I’ve worked alongside sport legends such as Steve Backley and Ellen MacArthur – and this time the keynote was given by Robin Ince of Infinite Monkey Cage fame. He was very entertaining and made a wonderful case for being proud and excited by science for science’s sake, never mind solving the world’s problems.
Another highlight for me was Andrea Sella, Chemistry Prof at UCL and frequent Monkey Cage participant. Andrea is one of those ferociously intelligent people who has never lost that childhood knack of questioning absolutely everything – and has the manic energy to pursue any enquiry to its fundamentals. And he reminded me of the importance of asking Why? because the answer is usually “We’ve always done it like this.”
Andrea told an anecdote about lab gloves at UCL. Every student entering a lab was being issued with gloves – a total of 250,000 per annum at a cost of £15k, even though:
- Not all the chemicals the students were using were harmful;
- The gloves don’t actually protect your skin against many organic solvents such as toluene – giving a false sense of security;
- Students spill more chemicals when they’re wearing the gloves than when they don’t.
He persuaded his Health & Safety people to only issue gloves when they were needed – and would actually make a difference (I would love to have sat in on that conversation). The result was a massive reduction in glove use, a cut in waste production and a decent financial saving – and no rise in accidents as the students take more care with bare hands.
You will be surprised how many decisions are made by default. Your job as a sustainability practitioner is to find your inner toddler and always ask “Why?” You may be surprised by the results.