SAPPHIRE and The Story of Stuff

Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff sustainability presentation has been doing the rounds in American classrooms and has stoked up many on both sides of the political divide. On one side, parents tell of angst ridden kids now wondering about the ecological footprint of Lego and on the other side free enterprise advocates say Leonard has misled the public - surely market forces kick in to correct all of this long before it starts to get out of hand?

Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff sustainability presentation has been doing the rounds in American classrooms and has stoked up many on both sides of the political divide. On one side, parents tell of angst ridden kids now wondering about the ecological footprint of Lego and on the other side free enterprise advocates say Leonard has misled the public - surely market forces kick in to correct all of this long before it starts to get out of hand?

The Story of Stuff is a prettied up & highly politicized illustration of the work of eminent environmental scientist Lester R Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. He argues that a materials economy based on a linear industrial process of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal is unlikely to be sustainable for the environment over the long run. He posits we need to redesign the materials economy to close the loop so that it becomes compatible with the natural ecosystem.

This initiative has several components. It includes designing products so that they can be easily disassembled and recycled, redesigning industrial processes to eliminate waste generation, banning the use of throwaway beverage containers, using government purchases to expand the market for recycled materials, developing and using technologies that require less material, banning gold mining or at least its use of cyanide solution and mercury, adopting a landfill tax, and eliminating subsidies for environmentally destructive activities.

Unlike Brown, Leonard gives more the activist impression of a vast & deliberate conspiracy for environmental destruction hatched by industrial scientists dominating our public & economic policy since 1950. I think probably the truth, a little less complicated but no less devastating, is best described by Ian McEwan in his novel, Amsterdam:

But now it appeared that this was what it really was – square miles of meagre modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing up to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but on one had been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it but most people had to live in it.

The good news is that most businesses do now understand the environmental impact of their operations and many are trying hard to flex the business model and improve process not least because waste output equates to wasted resources and money. GM is a good if unexpected example of such a firm, the current crisis in the auto industry not withstading. A few weeks ago I spoke to GM's environment guru, John Bradburn and he would admit that up to 10 years ago GM could not readily grasp the environmental question. The change came when GM shifted its understanding from a linear production process to one of full Life Cycle Assessment from Cradle to Cradle. In the past two years the GM environmental, finance and procurement divisions have been working in lock step to analyze the materials throughput and improve efficiency and reduce waste which Bradburn refers to as ‘a resource out of place’. GM claims that it saves $1 billion a year from these efforts & is now achieving a global recycling rate of 90% though GM's most recent sustainability report claims it to be 88% which is down 1% from the previous year. (by the way, this dissonance of data is exactly why independent assurance of sustainability reports is so important) Bradburn says the IT capability has been crucial though, interestingly, GM chose to develop its own software in house.

The big sustainability question is whether we can scale up efforts like at GM to shift the industrial base of our economy fast enough to a more sustainable footing and what market and policy signals are necessary if not inevitable if this is to happen? In order to stabilize the climate, experts suggest a reduction of 50-80% of CO2 levels below 1990 levels before 2050 is required and CO2 concentrations must peak before 2020. But climate change is just one aspect of the growing sustainability crisis. Lester Brown writing in this month's Scientific American throws down his own gauntlet as part of his Plan B 3.0 for what it will take to reach sustainability:

  • cut carbon emissions by 80 percent from their 2006 levels by 2020
  • stabilization of the world’s population at eight billion by 2040
  • the eradication of poverty
  • the restoration of forests, soils and aquifers

This is a huge up hill task and there is not much time left if we are to avoid a growing catastrophe. IPCC Chairman R.K. Pachauri reckons we only have about 6 or 7 years left to start to reverse the process of climate change let alone tackling population, ecosystmem and poverty. So what is the enterprise to do? The honest answer is that there is no silver bullet, rather, it is hard graft. Daniel Goleman, writing in his Leading Green blog at Harvard Business School says:

In the context of this challenge the Sustainability Map below and as presented at SAPPHIRE last week is an interesting development. First - it is seems to be an attempt to break out of the Green IT, data centre box to talk about what IT can do for sustainability performance and so move beyond a more introverted conversation focusing only on making IT operations more sustainable. Both IT operations and what IT can enable is important, but only the latter can achieve serious global scale, in terms of sustainability performance, from business process design & management. Second – its sure to be a useful resource for any corporate sustainability manager who may find herself trapped in a functional silo. The map can be used to engage the CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO etc to drive analysis & decision across the enterprise about which business processes the firm ought to prioritize for an ecological 'perpetual upgrade'.

(Please note my disclosure)