Considering the current political climate and state of affairs (like increasing inequality and a drive to pull out social safety nets for…everyone) in the United States, I thought I’d revisit Ecology of Commerce (revised edition) by Paul Hawken. The scenario playing out right now in our government perfectly embodies his statement that, “You cannot protect a system that is rigid and entrenched without sacrificing the interests of the people it intends to serve.” Our government and the corporate interests it loyally serves is sacrificing away. The gulf between “what might be” and “what is” seems wider than ever. Perhaps that is because we are at the precipice of a new age.
I’ve been experiencing cognitive dissonance between my privileged existence and the realities of an accelerating deterioration of our local ecosystems and climate and communities. As Hawken says, “We have reached a point where the value we add to our economy is now being outweighed by the value we are removing, not only from future generations in terms of diminished resources but from ourselves in terms of unsustainable sprawl, deadening jobs, deteriorating health, and rising crime.” I hear the warning sirens from experts like Bill McKibben (Winning Slowly is the Same as Losing) and see the unreal have to be pulled into the norm. It feels like a downward spiral, with a hope for the future based on something increasingly unattainable. The reality is that way I live, despite my attempts at minimizing impact, is part of the problem. But I’m not sure where to go with that knowledge. To a large degree (as evidenced by my lack of posts on my blog over the last several months), I feel paralyzed.
I can see why Hawken focused his efforts on Project Drawdown, as the solutions he posits in Ecology of Commerce are pie in the sky, while Project Drawdown focuses on making it real. There are concrete (for lack of a better word) steps to take to address climate change. They are right there – 100 of them – researched, served up and ready to be acted upon. One of Hawken’s hopes in Ecology of Commerce is that small businesses will pick up the charge should a “revitalization and revisioning of incentives…liberate the imagination, courage and commitment that reside within individuals who truly want to make a difference – ‘ecopreneurs’ dedicated to restoring the world around them for the world that comes after them.”
My worry, similar to experts like McKibben and Hawken, is that it just can’t happen fast enough. That the massive brakes needed to stop this freight train traveling at full speed with cars full of oil and coal as far as the eye can see just don’t exist and will never exist. Perhaps it’s just not possible to slow it down.
Of course, there is another option – destroy the tracks and derail the train.
While the US government seems to lack any ability to “revision” anything other than how to consolidate power and defend the status quo for the indefensible, it’s the small efforts by individuals, non-profits and small businesses – and many of them – that perhaps are my greatest hope. This hope actually emerges from biomimicry research I started in my graduate program and plan to pick back up in 2018 – research focused on how invasive species disrupt systems quickly.
In researching invasive species, I’ve learned that invasive species aren’t considered invasive until seemingly all of a sudden they have widespread economic and environmental impact (“impact”, of course, being largely defined through the lens of human enterprise). At that point, you might say the ecosystem goes off the rails – ecosystem interconnections and resource flows are changed, sometimes irreparably so. In some cases, the eventual result is a state shift to an alternative stable state, never to shift back.
But at the point of perceived sudden widespread impact it’s not that they came out of nowhere, it’s that their small, dispersed populations went undetected or seemed insignificant (to us) AND the ecosystems in which they got established had their weaknesses. Our current systems, while being shored up by governments and increasingly walled off from the masses by corporations driven by perverse economic incentives, have clear weaknesses. The increasing number of efforts around the world to establish a different kind of system based on different criteria with different goals perhaps will eventually emerge at a large overlapping scale and shift us into a new age, the “alternative stable state” Paul Hawken and others have been talking about for decades.
This shift will derail that freight train relatively suddenly, and as with the real thing, it probably won’t be pretty. I don’t know what will emerge on the other side, but it does give me hope that the groundswell of efforts around the world, while seemingly insignificant at the moment, do actually have the potential for widespread, fast impact. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. But I hope together we can lay the groundwork to make sure that what emerges on the other side is restorative and generous. As Hawken writes, “Industrialism is over, in fact; the question remains how we will organize the economy that follows.” So let’s get on with it. Let’s change our story.
Trying to give away or get rid of a Whole Host of Things from our house, I decided I should add a “Manager of Things” title to my resume. I have become a truly reluctant expert. This last round of Expunging of Stuff saw me spend literally an entire day trying to give a Carload of Things away (not to mention the time previously spent to sort and separate), only to come back home with a third of it. My goal was to not throw anything away. I failed.
As an Expert Manager of Things, I’ve learned what can and can’t be recycled (hint: not much can be easily recycled), what Things secondhand stores are willing to take and what they’re not (especially when it comes to Children’s Things) what Used Things people are willing to pay for – which have just enough value that people will come pick them up but not pay for them, and which have no value (unless you’re very patient with space and time to spare), and how arbitrary and relative price can be (how soon do you need to get rid of it, how badly do you need the money, how many people actually want the Thing, etc.).
For anyone who manages Stuff in their house, you know what I’m talking about when I say that the Shuffling of Things from one pile or shelf or room to another and eventually out the door to Somewhere Else is a perpetual pain in the rear. Particularly if you have children, the amount of Stuff is overwhelming and much of it is crap. My threshold for the Random Stuff that finds it way onto our counters and furniture and into our car is just about at its peak. This results in a less careful approach to disposal. I’ve become an expert at discretely putting Things into the free giveaway pile under our front porch (avoiding the watchful eyes of my children), but after learning that most Children Things can’t be recycled or even given away, more and more Stuff ends up in the garbage for a lack of any other option.
It’s stupid and stresses me out. The thing is, every Thing is a physical manifestation of something taken from the earth. Our economic priority to willfully ignore the full impact of each Thing is driving us (or already has?) towards irreversible ecological system collapse – mind you, these are the very systems that support the survival of our own species. Therefore, for every Thing that comes into my hand, I have a heavy heart for what it represents. But I also see huge opportunity. We have the ability to make choices, and there are opportunities at all levels of the system to change behaviors and processes. It does not have to be this way. At all.
But we’ve made it easy to forget this is a problem – you just put Things in the garbage bin and you never have to see them again. Off your conscience. It’s too easy. And it lets consumers, government and designers off the hook. We all have to do better. And this pile of garbage? It’s ripe for disruption.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) circular economy push is a step in the right direction. Aiming to “redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimising negative impacts,” the foundation looks to rethink and redesign entire systems. This is inspired by the fact that in natural systems there is no waste – all byproducts are raw materials for something else in the system, and any byproduct that isn’t used efficiently is an opportunity for innovation and a new niche to be established in the system. These niches add the value of complexity – diversity, redundancy and variation – that make systems resilient. Circular economy advocates ask, why can’t we do the same?
In October, I was fortunate enough to attend one of EMF’s CE100 member “acceleration workshops” in Chicago on behalf of the Biomimicry Institute. I was able to see firsthand how companies large and small – retailers, commercial goods manufacturers, government agencies, the food industry – are grappling with what the circular economy actually means in practice. It’s not clear to most of them, but the energy and interest in figuring it out is strong, from trying to figure out new retail and take-back models to overcoming the structural deficiencies of recycled plastic. Just check out the Disruptive Innovation Festival this year (DIF 2017) to see how people from across the spectrum are working to make it real.
Starting with The End
Going back to my recent failed effort to avoid throwing Things in the garbage, I can’t help but think that any effort to transition towards a circular economy (or something similar) must start with what happens to the product at the end of its life. The questions must be asked at a minimum:
What disposal options are available to the consumer?
How likely are they to use the option I am considering, and is it even available to the majority of my typical consumers?
How much time will they dedicate to disposal/handing off of my product?
What behaviors do they currently have around “waste” disposal?
If they must shift their behavior to do what I want them to do, what would incentivize them to do so? Is that realistic?
How can I make it as easy as possible?
How can I leverage behaviors they already have to achieve my goals?
Do I need to think bigger and change my business model?
Speaking of disposal options, I can’t help but wonder: what if all local governments mandated that all waste must fall into specific categories with no waste to landfill allowed? What if residents had to consciously think about what they brought into their house knowing they would be heavily fined or inconvenienced if they couldn’t recycle, compost or hand it back when they were done with it? What kind of bottom up consumer pressure would that put on retailers and back up the supply chain to the design table? Or what if municipalities made waste companies pay to pick up their valuable byproducts (which we currently call solid waste, but they should hire marketing professionals to change the narrative!) – would the companies still throw everything in the landfill? Talk about disruption.
A select version of that has happened in Illinois – electronic waste is no longer allowed in the garbage. The reality of this regulation is that informed residents are reliant upon municipalities to offer them options for disposal. If the municipality doesn’t communicate about the regulation, only offers a drop off window one day a year, or simply doesn’t offer any help because of budget issues, people may throw small Electronic Things in the garbage anyway. Maybe residents will find a local retailer willing to accept Select Electronic Things, but there are few, if any, incentives to go the extra mile. And that’s for those who are informed. Me? I put Electronic Things on top of my garbage bin and scrap collectors that roam our alleys pick them up.
But okay, let’s be realistic. Municipalities (made up of elected officials) aren’t going to all of a sudden turn the tables on solid waste for their own constituents. So what are our options?
We could encourage consumers to be obsessively vigilant about what they let into their homes to prevent having to throw as much Stuff away in the first place, and if it is something that will eventually be discarded, they can make sure the products they buy are made to be reused by someone else, recycled or composted. Oh wait, I said I’d be realistic. Scratch that…
Getting Down to Business
Okay, so let’s move onto business. EMF is focusing their efforts on businesses for a reason. There is incentive for businesses to try to tap into the circular economy craze. The amount of inefficiency in our current system designated as “waste” is obscene, and the potential to turn that “waste” into money is enough to set any businessperson off rummaging through one of the many Blue Oceangyre garbage patches or the nearest beach. But they might just have a look in their own garbage bin for inspiration.
Based on my own experience, there are clear opportunities to identify linear waste streams that are overly ripe for disruption, even if you just limit yourself to Kids Stuff:
To be clear, I wouldn’t have time to go to eight different places to properly pass on these eight different categories of Things (although, okay, I admit I might do it anyway, but the average person probably would not). Solutions need to make it easy for the consumer to pass Things onto their next phase, which is why I think often solutions might come down to changes in business models that incentivize behavior change.
Some companies looking to close the loop on waste generated by their own products that can’t be handled by traditional municipal recycling programs are partnering with TerraCycle. TerraCycle aims to make recycling easy, and has figured out a way to recycle most “non-recyclable” wastes. Their programs are free (funded by these partner companies) for generators of waste – individuals, schools, anyone – and even raise money for charity. Their efforts are impressive, and they clearly have honed in on a part of the market that is wide open. However, while the TerraCycle solution addresses “end of pipe” issues, we’re still talking about waste generation at a massive scale.
At an even larger scale before anything gets to my garbage can, the U.S. Materials Marketplace “facilitates company-to-company industrial reuse” where ” industrial waste streams are matched with new product and revenue opportunities.” The platform is growing and used by hundreds of companies to start to close the loop. The potential to leverage circular economy opportunities in business-to business scenarios is enormous. Yet most of these businesses are in the supply chain for and/or make products that eventually end up in our homes and offices. And there it still is, the pile of stuff in my home that I couldn’t do anything with but throw away. This has to be addressed at the front end of design.
Designing Value In
So we’re back to the literal drawing table. Unfortunately, businesses and designers that operate in a consumer-based linear economy in which business has no responsibility for waste and sees planned obsolescence – literally designing value out of a product by ensuring it’s useless after a short period of time so the consumer has to buy another – as a serious business driver might have insurmountable challenges conceptualizing and rethinking their products and business models within the circular economy. However, for those ready and willing to make the transition, using biomimicry tools can help jumpstart and guide the redesign process.
So how can designers design products or even business models to fit into circular economy models? (check out these EMF case studies for examples!) Using biomimicry in the innovation process can help with both understanding and identifying opportunities at the system and business model scales, as well as solving specific product design challenges that might arise, such as when trying to substitute materials or redefining how to deliver the same function as the old product, but in a completely new way.
A good place to start when thinking about how to deliver a product with the big picture materials systems in mind, we can look to biology to understand the strategies for how to design “products” that fit into it. At a high level when using the biomimicry methodology, we can look to Life’s Principles such as:
Use Life-Friendly Chemistry – This seems obvious, but understanding and deliberately designing products with materials that benignly interact with life throughout their own life-cycles is critical – green chemistry efforts bring us closer to making this a reality. Even Life’s un-friendly chemistry (like snake venom) decomposes into benign elements.
Break Down Products into Benign Constituents – Speaking of decomposing, every material created should break down into something harmless and useful for another purpose, non-toxic elements that won’t harm humans or any other life when recycled back into the environment. This must be an imperative from the outset when choosing materials in the design process.
Build Selectively with a Small Subset of Elements – Often times human-made materials are made with many elements of the periodic table, many of which life never uses and for good reason – they are often rare and/or hard to access, toxic, particularly when concentrated in large quantities. Instead, life creatively uses only a few abundant elements as building blocks to achieve an incredible array of forms and materials through variations in structure. Our materials too should be limited to life-friendly elements of the periodic table – what elements are avoided by life, and/or when rare elements are used, why and in what forms and quantities? How too can we take advantage of abundant elements to create diverse materials?
Do Chemistry in Water – Life uses water as a solvent and we should too. Water has incredible properties – if we can learn to leverage them, our chemical processes would significantly improve their impact. Biology has a lot to teach us about this!
Use Low Energy Processes – Life does chemistry at ambient temperatures. How can we rethink the way we process and manufacture materials and products to leverage existing energy flows?
Use Multi-Functional Design – Life’s designs are elegant, achieving myriad functions with one simple solution. How can we more effectively engineer designs that provide multiple benefits to the user with more than one use in mind, reducing the number of individual products needed? Smartphones have disrupted so many industries because they serve multiple functions in one easy-to-use piece of technology. Where can that strategy be replicated?
Recycle All Materials – This a no brainer when we’re talking about the circular economy. This is fundamental to the way nature works. Again, an understanding of the end game should happen during the design process. And to cycle back, at the outset of the design process finding opportunities to use “waste” materials in your own product starts to build that circular and self-supporting economy.
Fit Form to Function – Achieve function through elegant forms that require less energy and material (and are manufactured using low energy processes!). How can you achieve better results through intentionally using form to achieve function(s)?
Use Readily Available Materials and Energy – Products are often made of materials that are made with raw materials sourced on one continent, processed and or manufactured on another, then shipped to another continent (many even back to the same one!) to be put into a product that is then sold all over the world – a hugely energy intensive process that often relies on fossil fuels obtained who knows where. Birds don’t fly to Canada to gather materials, then bring those materials back to the Amazon to make a nest, then bring that nest back to Texas to have babies. We know that would be absolutely ridiculous. What materials exist locally at each of your manufacturing plant locations? Are there currently undervalued consistent “waste” streams that you might use? How might using local materials reduce risk and increase the resilience of your supply chain?
As we wrap our heads around what redesigning products for the circular economy looks like. biomimicry can be an important tool for helping design teams make these transitions – significantly broadening their thinking, providing inspiration with brand new ideas and science literally no one has seen before, and starting to shift concepts of what’s possible. But once we know the goals and think about how systems might begin to shift, it’s often hard to practically conceptualize and embody these principles in an actual product.
In addition to using Life’s Principles as a framework to think about design implications for the circular economy at a systems level, biomimicry also has a lot to contribute to the innovation process in looking to organisms to solve for specific, practical design challenges. Life has myriad solutions to kickstart and guide that redesign process, offering up a treasure trove of ideas that can help build a roadmap for short-term tweaks to long-term aspirational paradigm shifts. Critical to discovering design breakthroughs is ensuring that during the biomimicry process the design team digs deep into and stays true to the science they are mimicking including the system in which that organism operates – context, raw materials, manufacturing process and end of life.
How are (or might) you use biomimicry to transition to the circular economy? And please, start by looking at the piles upon piles of Things leaving our houses with nowhere to go – the pile is ripe for disruption! I’d love to hear about and showcase your efforts. Let’s change our story!