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Business has historically operated a ‘take-make-waste’ philosophy, but a radical transformation is now needed

June 29, 2012

Whatever form business takes as it negotiates out of the current conundrum, it must operate within the limits of a finite world. While relatively cheap labour in the developing world may fuel growth and feed increasing rates of consumption, pressure on natural resources means manufacturing (and the economies that flow from it) need to radically transform be fit for purpose today and in the future.

Earth Overshoot Day is the point in the year when we have already consumed the amount our planet can provide for sustainably. In 2010 it was 21 August, and it’s getting earlier each year. Unlike the debt of a sovereign nation or bank, the debt we are accumulating with nature cannot be restructured or diluted through administration. There is no debt default with nature, no financial loophole or escape route, we must pay our dues.

In the words of professor Mervyn King, Chairman of the Global Reporting Initiative: “Since the days of the industrial revolution, companies have conducted business on two false assumptions, namely that the Earth has infinite resources and has an infinite capacity to absorb waste. In fact, the Earth has finite resources and the landfills from this ‘take, make, waste’ philosophy, both on land and in the oceans, have resulted in the toxification of the land and waters of the Earth.

“The planet is in crisis, as we have reached ecological overshoot, which means that we have used and continue to use the natural resources of planet Earth faster than nature can regenerate them”.

The current ‘take-make-waste’ philosophy still prevalent in global manufacturing is rampantly inefficient and wasteful. More than 90% of all natural resources that go into the production of durable goods are wasted by the point of sale. This is not fit-for-purpose; it needs to change and fast. The good news is that many industry figures are conscious of this, with some recognising the immense challenge and opportunity this brings their businesses and the wider global economy. One well-publicised example is Unilever’s plan to double output by 2020 and halve its environmental impact at the same time.

The question of the moment for forward-thinking businesses, like Unilever, is how to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.

The challenge is to innovate through sustainable products and services while reducing resource and energy intensive production methods. This requires optimisation alongside innovation and transformation; not for the fainthearted.

Industrial ecology is an approach that challenges the over-exploitative nature of the current ‘take-make-waste’ paradigm. It uses inspiration from nature in exploring how systems can be less linear and more interconnected, where waste of one part of the business ecosystem is input for another. It questions the need for wasteful emissions of any kind (whether gas, liquid or solid waste).

Today, there are many organisations embracing the core principles of industrial ecology in seeking to ‘reach zero’ in their waste emissions and radically improving resource efficiency. Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, AT&T, Novo Nordisk and are just some of the better known businesses exploring industrial ecology.

Focusing on reaching zero emissions brings win-wins (and often synergistic multiple wins) of reduced long-term costs, as well as improved value creation through innovation and collaboration across the business ecosystem.

In order for organisations to radically reduce waste emissions, they need to rethink and redesign their products and production lines, from upstream design and input sourcing to downstream product use and end of life disposal.  Redesign at this scale is facilitated by the collective intelligence that emerges from collaboration within business ecosystems, across organisational boundaries and amongst traditionally silo’ed departments within organisations.

This is a positive evolution in the paradigm of business, adapting it to that which is more in harmony with nature, where waste is food and where economies of scope balance economies of scale.

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