The Challenge of Sustainability

April 5, 2010
Being a green business means taking intelligent stewardship of natural resources.
But the term “green” has been perverted because there has historically been a lack of definition about what makes a product or process green. The concept has been expanded to included “sustainability,” which means meeting the requirements of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.While social responsibility is laudable, it is not a lasting motivation and often gets sidetracked for short-term needs. My contention is that sustainable programs can be successful only if they are demonstrated to be profitable, leveraging sustainability for competitive advantage—lower costs, higher performance and increased value. Improved profitability will generate growth, beyond which social responsibility can be leveraged to enhance brand equity.The first Industrial Revolution generated high productivity at a time when there were fewer people and low per-capita output in a world with seemingly unlimited natural resources. Today, we have overpopulation, combined with labor-saving automation and resource scarcity. The world is not production-limited, but resource-limited.Value natural capitalIn their 1999 book, “Natural Capitalism,” Paul Hawken and co-authors suggest that “the next industrial revolution” will develop with four central strategies: a) the conservation of resources through more effective manufacturing processes; b) the reuse of materials in ways similar to natural systems; c) a change in values from quantity to quality; and d) investing in natural capital, or restoring and sustaining natural resources. The book claims that distinct competitive advantages and increased profits will result from properly valuing “natural capital,” compared with the conventions of the first industrial revolution, which values it at zero.Though “sustainability” has become a mantra for modern business, most disposable consumer goods still go to the dump. The solution to this is Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design, modeled on nature’s processes in which material resources continue circulating in healthy, safe metabolic processes. Industrial ecosystems must use, protect, enrich and circulate material resources.C2C responsibility means that a manufacturer is fully accountable for resources used—from design, to manufacturing, to marketplace, to end-of-life disposal and back to inception of new products. The key to complete sustainability is for end-of-life materials to be diverted back into the market—reusing materials from previous-generation products in next-generation products and processes. The model in its broadest sense is not limited to manufacturing processes, but can be applied to buildings, environments and systems.In his article, “Sustainability Leads to Next-generation Manufacturing” (Automation World, March, p. 28), Gary Mintchell cites several examples of manufacturers and process equipment suppliers that work toward sustainability through helping conserve energy. True sustainability must go beyond just energy and process savings—it must encompass C2C design and manufacturing.The C2C model should apply to all forms of product and packaging waste. Here’s a challenge to chew on: Americans purchase nearly three billion dry-cell batteries every year, and in spite of regulations, recycle only about 2 percent, so that thousands of tons of toxic waste end up in landfills. The real value of the battery is the power it generates for a short time—the “usage.” But the depleted, “used” battery still looks new, with a package designed to outlast the product’s useful life. Major growth and success awaits the developers of disruptive technologies to solve this problem by extracting materials from spent batteries for re-use in other products.Cradle-to-cradle design and manufacturing is the beginning of Natural Capitalism, a new paradigm of clean technologies and resource conservation. Sustainability programs should be a major part of every company’s continuous improvement programs, seeking reduced costs and increased profit, and leveraging environmental and societal benefits.Acknowledgement: The ideas in this article were developed with the involvement of Vikas Ahuja.Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]. Or review his prognostications and predictions on his Web site:

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