I remember standing in the grand hall reserved for the heads of state at the Rio Conference in 1992. It was magical to be one of the few who were adorned with the special badge that permitted entry into the sanctum that gathered more heads of state than ever before. Other special guests were Jane Fonda and Ted Turner. We all signed this huge board with declarations of admiration of, commitment to and love for our Mother Earth. Why did I deserve to be there? What made me a darling at this conference? The invitation arranged by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Colombia was based on the enthusiasm of the international community with an entrepreneur who was taking market share from multinational corporations like Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Henkel with biodegradable soaps, without advertising. We could all celebrate a new business model.
Biodegradability was rightfully considered as one of the key breakthroughs in steering business towards sustainability. I had claimed that my soaps - made from fatty acids derived from palm oil - degrade 3,000 times faster than the standard petroleum-based cleaning products. The response from the industry was fierce: this is a lie. And, after an independent consultant verified my statement, it indeed turned out to be a lie - he concluded that my soaps were “only” 1,000 times faster dissolved into nothing. I suggested that Iʼd be condemned by the courts for misleading the public. Obviously no one took me to court. However, it revealed an amazing reality: the world did not know in 1992 that biodegradation is measured on a logarithmic scale, one that moves from 1 to 10 to 100 to 1000.
It was remarkable that key parameters like biodegradation depend on complex measurements that remain poorly understood. And yet, even when people slowly started to grasp the importance of biodegradation, then we realized that this was not enough to take us towards sustainability. Indeed, it would take another 16 months after the Rio Summit before I would be face to face with the destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia where I realized that a rising demand for these ecological products that clean up the rivers in Europe, and which decrease the risk of allergies are causing a massive annihilation of the habitat of the orang utan. It was a shock and I fell into a depression.
Over the next months I tried and failed to communicate with the key actors in the green movement about this plight that my attempt to clean up the rivers in Europe lead to a disaster in Asia, only to be met by disbelief. It was as if I was destroying their green dream that social and ecological entrepreneurs like Anita Roddick (The Body Shop) and Ben Cohen (Ben&Jerryʼs) and I could indeed change the economy from the grassroots up. I must admit - I failed. Worse, I must admit that I was not in a position to correct my business model.
When you do not know the unintended consequences of your actions you developed with the best of intentions, you are ignorant and perhaps forgiven. However when you know the consequences of your products, processes and business model then you knowingly cause collateral damage which cannot be condoned by society. And if society tolerates this damage, it displays a double moral. Indeed, a thief who steals less will always be considered a thief, whereas a company that reduces pollution by 80 percent is heralded as an environmental success. That cannot be! Whereas I could not image an immediate solution, it did motivate me to look beyond my level of consciousness and frantically started searching for all the connections that at least would avoid the damages. Soon and thanks to a generous team of researchers linked through the United Nations University in Tokyo (Japan) this exploration evolved from avoidance of the bad to the design of multiple and positive effects. I imagined business that does good.
This is how the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) transformed its philosophy into action, known as The Blue Economy. It is therefore painful to read that the RIO+20 conference continues to live in the world of twenty years ago and has not yet grown into the new context where youth unemployment (one third worldwide under 26) turned chronic, basic needs are still not met since we continue to change details on the fringes without taking a fresh look at reality and accept that the green economy as worked out today is too little, too late, and too expensive. It is disheartening to observe that more time and platform is reserved to representatives of multinational corporations and hardly any for the entrepreneurs who make the difference on the ground.
Then, the RIO+20 Conference continues to plea for the transfer of billions to introduce business models that are based on Cleantech without ever changing the supply chain management, the core business based on core competence paradigm. Yes indeed, reducing pollution was the obvious logic two decades ago, now time has come to eliminate the concept of waste and pollution all together. Can we be that brave for once? We cannot do less bad - we need to do more good! We cannot only give money and technology we believe are best from our industrialized point of view, we need to jointly explore the marvelous opportunities embedded in culture, tradition, biodiversity, using what is abundant, renewable and locally available. Remember after peak oil we are witnessing peak globalization.
An economic model that is based on Breton Woods world financial structures, Chicago University macro-economics and Harvard Business management principles will argue that this discovery of this type of opportunities will not enable us to tackle the urgent crises that humanity is facing, starting with excessive government debt and the need to alleviate poverty through growth. Here is why we differ.
After decades of global negotiations we are not steering our societies towards sustainability, on the contrary, we keep on discovering surprises like the plastic islands in the Pacific Ocean and the acidification of our air and waters beyond repair while the CO2 continues to rise unabated. Therefore it is time to consider changes on the ground, initiatives in the communities, breakthroughs beyond the rule of the existing game and when the innovative business models are implemented, move forward on a broader scale. It is not about economies of scale, it is about clustering these opportunities that shift our material use, build social capital, accrue assets (not debt) and create a learning environment where we can all strive to do better - perhaps forever.
If humanity is prepared to embark on this evolutionary path, then societies can be transformed. Or do we really believe that politicians assisted by an army of lawyers will ever succeed in hammering out the global agreements that turn spaceship Earth towards a worthy livelihood? I must admit - I believed it but as time evolves I perhaps have become a little wiser.