The eco industrial revolution

The Irish Times, 12 October 2004 – Some multinationals are changing their ways in order to reduce waste and get in tune with nature, reports Iva Pocock.

There’s a revolution brewing in the business world. Multinationals such as Nike and Ford are paying a German ex-Greenpeace campaigner and a radical American architect to advise on improving profitability by transforming their relationship with nature. The corporations realise there’s real business value in rethinking their processes and trying to make them mimic natural systems, as promoted by Dr Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough.

Following accusations of poisoning workers in Vietnam, Nike decided not to simply improve ventilation and provide their workers with masks, but to heed the pair’s advice. “We said no, you need to use the right chemicals,” says Braungart. The company spent $20 million analysing their materials as a first step to eliminating toxic substances from their production process. Since the end of 2002, Nike shoes no longer contain any PVC, a toxic plastic, in production or disposal.

“To make toxic products is stupid. A quality product is far more competitive,” says Braungart, as they are cheaper to make and reduce the threat of liability lawsuits, from both workers and consumers. In a world in which allergies are increasing all the time (47 per cent of children now develop them by the age of seven, according to Braungart) making chemically benign products is a good business move.

After all, the day may come when women decide to sue over products containing hazardous substances that have been found in their breastmilk. “Up to 950 chemicals have been found in women’s breast milk,” says Braungart. “It could not be sold as drinking milk because it is full of flame retardants and plasticisers which are in our everyday products.”

Another company that decided to take a critical look at its chemical use was Swiss cloth mill Rohner Textil AG, featured in The Next Industrial Revolution, a documentary about Braungart and McDonough’s work. On being told their waste trimmings qualified as hazardous waste and would have to be exported, the company knew its costs would increase. The solution lay not in minimising its waste, but in eliminating the concept of waste, key to Braungart’s thesis.

By working with one of their main clients, DesignTex in New York, Rohner Textil AG persuaded Swiss chemical giant, Ciba, to allow them to analyse 1,600 dyes, in order to ascertain which were non-persistent and non-toxic. Only 16 dyes met the protocol standard, but by using them the mill’s fabrics became “edible”, says Braungart – they were no longer classified as hazardous waste and could be sold as a garden mulch, to be absorbed into the food chain. Given concerns about air quality in aircraft, such fabrics are now used on 60 per cent of airline seats.

Nutrients are central to Braungart’s thinking: products and services should be divided into two types – biological nutrients and technical nutrients.

Biological nutrients are things that are safe for humans and the planet. They can be released into the biosphere without harm and they won’t accumulate in women’s body fat or men’s testes.

Technical nutrients must be capable of being recaptured – if released into the environment they pollute, kill and threaten future generations of humans, plants and animals. Ideally, technical nutrients should not be sold to individuals all over the planet, who use them for a few minutes, days or years before sending them to the landfill.

“They cannot biodegrade, so it’s about selling their services,” explains Braungart. By leasing a product’s services, companies aren’t spending money on raw materials, 90 per cent of which ends up as waste. Rather, they are upping their chances of customer loyalty and ensuring they can regain the material value of their products – by taking them back when the customer decides to upgrade. “Washing machine owners don’t need to own their washing machine; they need the 3,000 washes it performs,” says Braungart. One such example of a company that has realigned itself is the carpet manufacturer Interface, which no longer sells its products but leases them.

Europe, including Ireland, is perfectly poised for spearheading what Braungart describes as the next industrial revolution. “The US is losing its industry dramatically for three reasons: its products can be made much more cheaply in China, its engineering is not great, its design is ugly,” he says. By contrast, Europe is home to beautiful design and good engineering. Pride in this is, he believes, driving the shift towards environmentally benign business.

“People want to be proud of what they are doing,” he says. There’s no point in feeling guilty about what humans have done to the planet. Rather, genius must be celebrated and used to create growth systems that don’t mean more mining or burning of non-renewable resources.

“When we follow nature’s rules, growth is good,” says Braungart, who will be presenting his ideas on how Irish companies can benefit from rethinking their systems at a business conference, Building the Eco-Economy, organised by the Sustainable Ireland co-operative in Dublin this week.

If Braungart’s vision is realised, businesses will no longer count the bottom line. Rather they’ll measure their performance by what he calls the Triple Top Lines – making money and enhancing the well-being of nature and society.

Copyright 2004 The Irish Times
The Irish Times
Author Iva Pocock
Publication Date 12.10.2004

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