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

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

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Sustainable by Design?

Sustainable by Design?

Lessons in Circularity From Seventh Generation

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 11 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for CSRwire.

The CSR 2.0 principle of circularity has roots in life cycle assessment, cleaner production, sustainable consumption and cradle to cradle concepts. In The Age of Responsibility, I explore various well known multinational examples, from Interface’s carpets and Nike’s Considered Design shoes to Coca-Cola’s water neutral initiative and Tesco’s carbon neutral programme. But there are also smaller, more nimble companies, like Seventh Generation, that are able to go much further much faster. What can we learn from these companies that are intentionally sustainable ‘by design’?

Seventh Generation, an American household cleaning products business started more than twenty years ago by Jeffrey Hollender, took inspiration for its name and philosophy from the Iroquois Confederacy (a council of Native American Indian tribes), which included the admonition that ‘in our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations’. From the beginning, this meant thinking in a circular way about the impact of their products.

To begin with, this meant swimming upstream. ‘When Seventh Generation told executives at the old Fort Howard Paper Company that we wanted to market bathroom tissue made from unbleached recycled fibre, they laughed,’ recalls Hollender. Despite such early resistance, however, Seventh Generation has remained steadfast in its commitment to ‘becoming the world’s most trusted brand of authentic, safe, and environmentally-responsible products for a healthy home.’ And indeed, it now has an impressive catalogue of cradle to cradle designed products, and has been doing extremely well, showing strong growth even through the recession.

However, ensuring that Seventh Generation lives up to their promise of authenticity is something that requires constant vigilance. For example, in March 2008, the company was ‘exposed’ by the Organic Consumers Association for having detectable levels of the contaminate 1,4-dioxane in their dish liquid. In fact, Seventh Generation’s product was declared the safest of those available and they had been working with suppliers for more than 5 years to remove it. They have since eliminated the contaminate completely, but, as Hollender later declared ‘our effort was simply not good enough. Our real mistake was to exclude consumers and key stakeholders from our ongoing dialogue about dioxane. In short, we flunked the transparency test.’

Of course, the very foundation of transparency is information and the most basic kind is a full list of product ingredients, which, unbelievably, is not required by US law for household products. Consequently, Seventh Generation launched a ‘Show What’s Inside’ initiative, which included an educational website and an online Label Reading Guide, downloadable to shoppers’ cell phones, which helped them interpret labels at the point of purchase, especially any associated risks. As Hollender and Bill Breen report in their book, The Responsibility Revolution (2010), not long after, SC Johnson launched a cloned version called ‘What’s Inside’. ‘That’s just what we had hoped for,’ declared Hollender and Breen. ‘When a $7.5 billion giant like SC Johnson puts its brawn behind ingredient disclosure, it’s likely that the rest of the industry will follow, regardless of what the regulators do.’

Despite its green image, Seventh Generation also  …

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Visser, W. (2011) Sustainable by Design? Lessons in Circularity from Seventh Generation, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 15 December 2011.

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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=”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)

Cite this blog

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

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