How changing sustainable production could take us to Mars

First published by World Economic Forum, 4 January, 2017.

In September 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that we could have human missions to Mars as soon as 2022. One side effect – apart from pushing the frontiers of space travel – is that it will challenge us to design and perfect various systems of sustainable production. The reason is quite simple: Mars is a barren, hostile planet, where all life support systems – from food and water to air and energy – will need to be artificially made and sustained, mostly using the limited resources the crew take with them.

In essence, what Musk and his space cadets will be trying to do is replicate what nature already does for us here on earth: creating an intelligent biosystem that can endlessly reuse or recycle resources in a way that allows life to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. This is the same idea that underlies the philosophy of sustainable production – albeit that the motivation and applied context is different – and it is by no means a new idea.

1960s and 1970s: recognising limits

In the 1960s and 1970s, a growing cadre of concerned scientists, economists and activists began warning us of the dire impacts of the exponential growth in our consumption of resources and the associated proliferation of toxins, waste and pollution. This included the likes of: Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, 1962; Barbara Ward, author of Spaceship Earth, 1965; Buckminster Fuller, author of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969; and the Club of Rome, authors of the ground-breaking Limits to Growth study, 1972.

Ironically, “spaceship earth” thinking is exactly what Elon Musk and SpaceX are going to have to apply on Mars. It recognizes the fact that we live with limited resources on one planet that acts as a “metabolic, regenerating system”, as Fuller described it, or a “living, self-regulating organism” in the words of NASA scientist, James Lovelock, who named this the Gaia theory.

Unfortunately, we have been living (and hence producing and consuming), as if we were in a “cowboy economy”, rather than a “spaceman economy”, according to economist Kenneth Boulding. The cowboy, Boulding explained in 1966, is “symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behaviour”, while the spaceman represents the recognition of the earth as “a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution.”

The logical conclusion of accepting such a world of limits is, says Boulding, that humanity “must find its place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.” Walter Stahel, an architect and industrial analyst, added meat to the bones of Boulding’s vision by proposing, in a 1976 report to the European Commission, a “closed loop” approach to production processes. He called this “cradle to cradle” and developed it further through the Product Life Institute, which he founded in Geneva.

At the same time that these concerns and philosophical ideas were gaining traction, a more pragmatic solution was also emerging. At the World Energy Conference in 1963, Harold Smith proposed looking at a “cumulative energy concept”, which laid the foundations for life cycle analysis/assessment (LCA). In 1969, Coca-Cola extended this idea by assessing the resource and pollution impacts of different beverage containers. This emergent methodology became known as a Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis (REPA) in the US and as an Ecobalance in Europe.

1980s and 1990s: rethinking production

In the 1980s, while LCA gained momentum, a related concept called industrial ecology emerged. It was popularized in 1989 in a Scientific American article by Robert Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos, in which they declared: “Why would not our industrial system behave like an ecosystem, where the wastes of a species may be resources to another species? Why would not the outputs of an industry be the inputs of another, thus reducing use of raw materials, pollution, and saving on waste treatment?”

Industrial ecology, therefore, proposes that businesses should not only look at the life cycle impacts of individual products of individual companies, but also look for ways in which to link up with other businesses to minimize their impacts. The Danish industrial park in the city of Kalundborg is a classic example, where a power plant, oil refinery, pharmaceutical plant, plasterboard factory, enzyme manufacturer, waste management company and the city itself, all link together to share and utilize resources, by-products, energy and waste heat.

Meanwhile, life cycle assessment was becoming so popular that, in 1991, eleven state attorney generals in the US expressed concerns that the method was being used to make misleading green claims. This concern, together with pressure from elsewhere in the world, led to the development of two LCA standards as part of the International Standards Organization (ISO) 14000 series: ISO 14041:1998 on Life cycle assessment (goal and scope definition and inventory analysis); and ISO 14043:2000 on Life cycle interpretation.

Another concept that was gaining popularity around the same time was cleaner production, promoted by institutions like the OECD and UNIDO and resulting in the UNEP Declaration on Cleaner Production in 1998, in which they defined cleaner production as “the continuous application of an integrated, preventive strategy applied to processes, products and services in pursuit of economic, social, health, safety and environmental benefits.” To support its application, UNEP and UNIDO collaborated to set up a global network of National Cleaner Production Centres (NCPCs) in the 1990s.

2000s and 2010s: a new industrial revolution

In the new millennium cleaner production continued to spread, receiving further endorsement at the UN’s 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2010, UNEP and UNIDO also revived the NCPCs with the launch of a Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production network (RECPnet), with 41 founding members. This reinvigorated the practice of eco-efficiency, which the World Business Council for Sustainable Development had been championing since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It also introduced decoupling as a goal, referring to the need to delink economic growth and environmental degradation.

The EU government meanwhile began working with business to create product roadmapping as a way of systematizing the application of LCA in different industries. This culminated in the adoption, in 2003, of the EU’s Integrated Product Policy (IPP) to promote conducting LCAs with a view to potential policy interventions. Two familiar products with diverse impacts were chosen by the EU to demonstrate IPP: one was a mobile phone, put forward by Nokia; the other, a teak garden chair from Europe’s largest retailer, Carrefour.

While these multilateral efforts were going on, sustainable production really began to catch the imagination of business after architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart published their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in 2002. The cradle to cradle concept evolved from Braungart’s earlier work on lifecycle assessment with Germany’s Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), in which he grew disillusioned with the limitations of LCA.

Working with McDonough and applying their intelligent design insights to products and processes, they proposed a circular model of production in which there are continuous flows of biological nutrients (i.e. any renewable materials that can harmlessly go back to nature and be regenerated) and technical nutrients (i.e. any non-renewable, or manufactured materials that are not biodegradable, but remain useful if returned and reused in the production of products).

The future: towards a circular model

Today, “cradle to cradle” has been adapted, promoted and mainstreamed as a circular economy approach, which relies on sustainable production as a key link in the chain. The way I like to describe it is that we are now moving from an old industrial model, in which we take, make, use and waste, to a new “syndustrial” model (designed for industrial and ecological synergies), in which we borrow, create, benefit and return.

In the old linear industrial model, business and consumers take, make, use and waste. We take by depleting non-renewable resources and over-using renewable resources, and by striving for limitless economic growth. We make by producing any products and services that the market demands and persuading customers to buy and consume more. We use by buying more than needed, leading to over-consumption and by individually owning what could be shared. Finally, we waste by turning consumed products into trash and pollution and by creating toxins and impacts that harm people and nature.

By contrast, in the new circular “syndustrial” model, in which we design for industrial synergy, business and consumers borrow, create, benefit and return. We borrow by conserving all natural resources and increasing renewable resource use; and we create by designing and making products with no negative impact and innovating products with positive impact.

For example, Novamont, as an Italian producer of bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics, has adopted a renew and refine strategy. Among their clients are the global coffee company Lavazza, which now sells compostable coffee capsules that Novamont have produced, which biodegrade within 20-40 days. Similarly, BioGen in the UK has a renew and restore strategy, producing renewable energy (biogas) from food waste and then using the waste slurry as bio-fertilizer, which has been shown to produce higher crop yields when compared with chemical fertilizers.

In the new “syndustrial” model, we benefit by extending a product’s life, by repairing and reusing and by leasing and sharing. We return by using end-of-first-life materials to recreate the same products and to create new products.

For example, Caterpillar, the heavy machinery company, has pursued a reuse strategy through their Remanufacturing Centre in South Africa (the second largest in the world), which is designed to rebuild “as new” CAT components for 20-60% less than the cost of replacing with new parts. Similarly, Dutch aWEARness in the Netherlands is one of the first textile companies to make fully “circular” clothes, thus demonstrating a true recycle strategy. For example, their WearEver suits are made from 100% recyclable polyester, which can be turned back into a suit at least 8 times, giving a total life for the materials of 40-50 years.

Tetrapak in Ecuador is part of a reinvent strategy, whereby beverage packaging waste is being upcycled by an independent company into a range of high quality products, such as corrugated roofing, furniture, tabletops and jewellery. Similarly, REDISA in South Africa is managing the recovery and reprocessing of 70% of waste tyres in South Africa into a variety of rubber and steel products, while creating more than 3,000 jobs.

These examples are all featured cases in a forthcoming documentary called Closing the Loop, due for release in 2017. By adopting and scaling these new business models, we can achieve a transformative sustainable and social responsibility, which focuses its activities on identifying and tackling the root causes of our present unsustainability and irresponsibility.

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Visser, W. (2017) How changing sustainable production could take us to Mars, World Economic Forum, 4 Jan.

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Closing the Loop: The New Syndustrial Revolution

Closing the Loop: The New Syndustrial Revolution

Article by Wayne Visser

First published on Huffington Post

The Industrial Revolution – a term popularised by English economic historian Arnold Toynbee – signalled the seismic shift from a predominantly agrarian, subsistence-based economy to an increasingly mechanised, market-based economy, following the invention of the steam engine. The Information Revolution of the 20th century marked another fundamental shift, driven by computers and the internet.

Now, once again, our industrial society is transforming though what I call the Syndustrial Revolution (or Integration Revolution), which is the confluence of innovation driven by smart, sharing and renewable technologies. We see this disruptive change occurring along intersecting fault-lines, namely the shifts from an atomised to a networked economy, from a surfeit to a sharing economy and from a linear to a circular economy.

The Syndustrial Revolution – and in particular the shift from a linear to a circular economy – is the subject of a feature-length documentary called Closing the Loop, which I am currently filming together with Emmy Award winning director, Graham Sheldon. For the past 8 months, we have been visiting pioneers and prophets of the Syndustrial Revolution from around the world to record their stories and predictions. In this Closing the Loop article series, I will be sharing the insights we have gained from these practitioners and thought-leaders.

More specifically, I will be unpacking what the Syndustrial Revolution really means, i.e. the business models behind the smart, sharing and circular economies. And I will be showing how companies and governments around the world are already taking steps to tap into this market opportunity, which Accenture analysis in Waste to Wealth by Jakob Rutqvist and Peter Lacy suggests could be worth at least $4.5 trillion by 2030.

Seeding the Next Industrial Revolution

To get us started, it is worth paying tribute to some of the intellectual progenitors of the Syndustrial Revolution. For example, British economist Kenneth Boulding introduced the concept of a ‘spaceship economy’ in 1966:

“… in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.”

Fast-forwarding through the decades, we then saw the practice of life cycle analysis emerging in the 1970s (promoted by the US Environmental Protection Agency), industrial ecology in the 1980s (popularised by Robert Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos), cleaner production in the 1990s (promoted by the UN Environment Programme), cradle to cradle in the 2000s (conceived by William McDonough and Michael Braungart) and now, the closed-loop, or circular economy (being championed variously by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, World Economic Forum and UN Global Compact’s Breakthrough Project).

The sharing economy – a term popularised by Harvard law professors Yochai Benkler and Lawrence Lessig around 2004-2008 – also has deep roots, stretching back to concepts of the civil economy, co-operative movement and social economy (all coming into usage in the 1700s), and more recently, ideas around collaborative consumption in the 1970s (introduced by Marcus Felson and Joe L. Spaeth), the love economy (Hazel Henderson) and local exchange trading systems (Michael Linton) in the 1980s and transition towns (Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne) and wikinomics (Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams) in the 2000s.

So what is this Syndustrial Revolution really? Is it smart cities and autonomous networked cars? Is recycling, or upcycling or zero-waste initiatives? Is it ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft? Is it the shift from buying products to leasing services? Is it moving from a take-make-waste linear economy to a circular economy? In fact, it is all these things and more, which is what makes it so confusing, not to mention jargon-laden.

In Search of a New Industrial Paradigm

So I’d like to propose a simple model, which I will use to frame our discussion in this series. I call it the New Syndustrial Model, because it is really a new economic paradigm and set of business models to create better synergies in our industrial society. A high-synergy society does not build economic capital by destroying natural capital, eroding social capital and exploiting human capital in the way that our current win-lose-lose-lose capitalist system does.

In the Old Industrial Model (see Figure 1), we take, make, use and waste:

  • We Take – by depleting non-renewable resources and over-using renewable resources (Extract) and by striving for limitless economic growth (Expand);
  • We Make – by producing any products and services that the market demands (Produce) and persuading customers to buy and consume more (Promote);
  • We Use – by buying more than needed, leading to overconsumption (Consume) and by individually owning what could be shared (Collect); and
  • We Waste – by turning consumed products into trash and pollution (Dump) and by creating toxins and impacts that harm people and nature (Damage)
Old Linear Industrial Model

In the New Syndustrial Model (see Figure 2), we borrow, create, benefit and return:

  • We Borrow – by conserving all natural resources (Reduce) and increasing renewable resource use (Renew);
  • We Create – by designing and making products with no negative impact (Refine) and innovating products with positive impact (Restore);
  • We Benefit – by extending product life through repairing and reusing (Reuse) and by improving product use through leasing and sharing (Redistribute); and
  • We Return – by using end-of-first-life (EOFL) materials to recreate the same products (Recycle) and to create new products (Reinvent).

Over the coming weeks and months, I will use this model to share what we have discovered during our filming of Closing the Loop. To be sure, many companies and economies are still stuck in the Old Industrial Model and we have a long way to go before we reach the New Syndustrial Model, but our explorations have showed that not only is it possible and preferrable, but that this new industrial revolution is already happening.

 

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://sustainablefrontiers.net/”]Link[/button] Sustainable Frontiers (book)

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Visser, W. (2016) Closing the Loop: The New Syndustrial Revolution, Huffington Post, 17 Oct.

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Where Next for the Circular Economy?

Where Next for the Circular Economy

Article by Wayne Visser

An International Sustainable Business column for The Guardian

It is not hard to make the case for a circular economy, ie one where closed-loop production brings us closer to the goal of zero waste; according to Hunter Lovins, author and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, our global economy is so inefficient that less than 1% of all the resources we extract are actually used in products and are still there six months after sale.

Not only is this unbelievably inefficient, it is also profoundly unsustainable. As Richard Heinberg says in his book, Peak Everything, “The 21st century ushered in an era of declines”, from global oil, natural gas, and coal extraction to yearly grain harvests, climate stability, population, fresh water and minerals like copper and platinum.

The idea of a circular economy is not new. In the 1960s, US economist Kenneth Boulding called for a shift away from “the cowboy economy”, where endless frontiers imply no limits on resource consumption or waste disposal, to “a spaceship economy”, where everything is engineered to be constantly recycled. Mariska van Dalen, a circular economy expert at the consultancy and engineering firm Tebodin, captures the essence of the concept as: “Waste is food, use solar income and celebrate diversity.”

One of the most prominent advocates for the circular economy is Michael Braungart, co-author of Cradle to Cradle (with Bill McDonough). Today, Braungart holds academic chairs in Cradle to Cradle innovation and quality at Rotterdam School of Management and for design at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where Braungart has found his intellectual home.

When I interviewed Braungart for the Top 50 Sustainability Books a few years ago, I found out that he regards the Netherlands as most likely to become the first circular economy. “The Dutch never romanticised nature, so it’s different to the United Kingdom or Germany,” he said. “There’s no ‘mother nature’, because with the next tide they would just swim away. It was always a culture of partnership with nature, learning from nature, and that’s what we need. We can learn endlessly from nature, but it’s not about romanticising nature.”

The Netherlands also have a culture of support, whereas the Americans, Germans, British and Swedish have a culture of control, Braungart said. “They assume human beings are bad anyway and we need to control them to be less bad. But the Dutch culture is a culture of support, because if you don’t support your neighbour, you will drown (because your neighbour couldn’t take care of your dyke). Even if you don’t like your neighbour, you need to support your neighbour. So Cradle to Cradle is a culture of support.”

I was interested to find out whether experts working on the circular economy in the Netherlands also shared Braungart’s confidence. Krispijn Beek, who worked at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Innovation and Agriculture on sustainable business policy, said “Cradle to Cradle was a big hit in the Netherlands, including government.” Apparently, the trend really took off after a 2006 television documentary, Afval = Voedsel (Waste = Food).

However, at a later point the idea stalled – at least in government. Beek claims that “one of the showstoppers was the commercial certification process, which made it impossible to use Cradle to Cradle in public procurement.” …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/article_netherlands_wvisser.pdf”]Pdf[/button] Where Next for the Circular Economy? (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

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Visser, W. (2012) Where Next for the Circular Economy? The Guardian, 10 December 2012.

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Circularity

Circularity:

Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production

Blog by Wayne Visser

Towards the end of the 1980s, a concept called ‘industrial ecology’ emerged. It was popularized in 1989 in a Scientific American article by Robert Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos, in which they declared: ‘Why would not our industrial system behave like an ecosystem, where the wastes of a species may be resource to another species? Why would not the outputs of an industry be the inputs of another, thus reducing use of raw materials, pollution, and saving on waste treatment?’

Hence, the idea of industrial ecology is that businesses should not only look at the life cycle impacts as individual entities, but rather look for ways in which to link up with other businesses to minimise their impacts. For example, there is a Danish industrial park in the city of Kalundborg where a power plant, oil refinery, pharmaceutical plant, plasterboard factory, enzyme manufacturer, waste management company and the city itself all link together to share and utilise resources, by-products, energy and waste heat.

Another concept that was gaining popularity around the same time was ‘cleaner production’, which resulted in the UNEP Declaration on Cleaner Production in 1998. Later, this evolved into the concept of ‘sustainable consumption and production’, which was defined at the UN’s 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development as an approach ‘to promote social and economic development within the carrying capacity of ecosystems by addressing and, where appropriate, de-linking economic growth and environmental degradation through improving efficiency and sustainability in the use of resources and production processes and reducing resource degradation, pollution and waste.’

The University of Cambridge Business Primer on Sustainable Consumption and Production (2007) gives an example to underscore the importance of creating more sustainable industrial processes. On average, the report says, a gold wedding ring weighs 6,000 kilograms. The enormous discrepancy between the actual retail product and the remaining weight is explained by accounting for all the materials used and the waste created during the production life cycle of the ring. The gap between a gold ring’s actual, physical weight and its ‘resource weight’ highlights the scale of physical and financial impacts that are associated with the creation of apparently simple, everyday products.

The report concludes that ‘the increased cost that results from the difference between sustainable and unsustainable production is not good for anyone. It is not sustainable financially – such low resource efficiency is wasteful and inefficient. And it is not sustainable socially or environmentally – hazardous or damaging waste products are produced systematically, and resources are increasingly depleted.’

Recognising this challenge, the EU government has begun working with business to create ‘product roadmapping’ as a way of systematising what might otherwise be a more organic, haphazard approach to developing products and the policies that support them. ‘Integrated Product Policy’ (IPP) is how government describes conducting life cycle assessments with a view to potential policy interventions. The IPP of the EU, adopted in 2003, aims at reducing the environmental impact of products, instead of specific industries or processes …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/blog_circularity_wvisser.pdf”]Pdf[/button] Circularity: Towards Sustainable Consumption & Production (blog)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Link[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

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Visser, W. (2011) Circularity: Towards Sustainable Consumption & Production, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 21 September 2011.

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