As the degenerative impact of waste and toxins from human systems becomes increasingly unacceptable, our normal human reaction is to “reduce”. Programs tend to be framed about “waste reduction” and “the goal of zero” – which sound SO obvious…

However, these 20th century approaches may NOT be the best way to uncover business opportunity and innovation:

  1. Waste multiplies – so even 1% waste propagated down a 9-stage global supply chain stays significant – especially when you count the ancillary transport, energy and storage wastes.
  2. Toxins stay toxic. And we’ve come up with some amazingly long-life nasties in the last few centuries. We’re learning the hard way that there is NO “away”. Entropy (otherwise knowns as the second law of thermodynamics) applies, and materials generated by human industry will eventually disperse throughout nature (and in to us).
  3. Authorities are increasingly holding businesses and industries accountable for their waste, with extended producer responsibility regulation pushing back through the supply chain.
  4. Buying into “the goal of zero” risks running yourself into the wall of diminishing returns. The closer you get to zero, the harder (and more expensive) it gets to gain that last bit. And if you have to redesign eventually – why not start there?
  5. Reduction programs still assume that we have a “license to do harm” and that “less bad is a good start”. They don’t necessarily change the design mindset or inspire creativity.
  6. “Less bad” isn’t a powerful innovation driver – because the human brain doesn’t process negatives well. Essentially, it means that you’re still driving towards a cliff – just slowing down a bit.

What does stimulate innovation, engagement and bottom line benefits? A nice Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG).

Making things “all good” from the start

The engineers and designers and innovators of the world are increasingly turning on to “do more good”. It’s resulted in a wealth of new design approaches, from Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation to Biomimicry. (And a new business strategy or design principle – implemented strategically and consistently over time – delivers bottom line benefits.)

We’re gonna make a world less less unsafe, less unhealthy, less unjust, less polluted air less polluted soil, water and power, and economically driven How we doing? Is this it? Get up in the morning go get it done?…

[What about] a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, soil, water and power – economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed”

William McDonough, Design as Optimism

There’s been an unspoken Industrial Era assumption – that ecosystems are infinite, with endless capacity to absorb/process waste as well as resources. It might have been fine when prehistoric hunters dumped organic waste into middens. But it breaks down today, when a population approaching 8 billion is producing a growing range of noxious, hard to process chemical hybrids.

There’s a new game in town – and it’s proving great for bottom lines. It’s about making products and delivering services that are totally safe – totally safe to manufacture, totally safe to use AND totally safe to dispose of.

Wastes and toxins create bottom line leakages

Under this mindset – when the reality is that there is no “AWAY” – waste and toxic materials both end up as a leakage from your business bottom line. Disposal costs, effluent costs, storage costs, safety costs…

In an early Cradle to Cradle example a partnership between Designtex, William McDonough and his colleague, Michael Braungart, and the Swiss textile mill Rohner set out to develop an upholstery fabric with remnants that would not be considered hazardous waste.

Braungart analyzed more than 8,000 chemical formulations commonly used in textile production, and found just 38 that were deemed safe for human and environmental health. These were the only dyes and process chemicals allowed to be used in the production of Climatex upholstery.

Optimizing this chemistry changed the mill’s water release, which became cleaner than the incoming water. With no hazardous chemicals in the factory, storage and compliance costs substantially reduced. By producing fabrics that decomposed safely, the mill saved fabric scraps and turned them into felt, avoiding costly disposal fees. Local strawberry farmers used this felt as ground cover for their crops.

Solving worthwhile problems is a massive motivator

Carpet company Interface has been a corporate environmental leaders since 1995, when CEO Ray Anderson first set the goal “to be come the world’s first restorative business”. People came for a job – and stayed because they were changing the world.

They targeted all their environmental impacts, including emissions. In the first 12 years of their program, they put $393,000,000 as they “climbed Mount Sustainability” and more recently:

“In 2019, the company officially announces the completion of Mission Zero and introduces the next mission, called Climate Take Back; an aggressive new strategy to sequester carbon in their products and make their factories perform the same functions as forests, sustaining and replenishing the ecosystem”

Beyond Zero Film Press Kit

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