When I wrote for the first time on the need to embrace the principle of Zero Waste and Zero Emissions, it was a surprise to me that the article was initially published in 1991 in Korea where the President of the Kyung Hee University in Seoul took notice and secured its wider distribution. To distance myself from the notion that we have to reduce our impact was a bold statement. We have to do better. The suggestion that preserving and protecting what we have is a necessary first concern, but not enough to steer our societies towards sustainability sounded for many too far fetched. Twenty years ago I declared that we need more than the desire to reduce our negative impact. So I suggested the design of a production and consumption system where the bad like waste and emissions is converted into inputs for another process generating value. The concept of the biorefinery was born. This has now been solidly established by concepts such as the circular economy. Now we need to make the next bold steps, eliminating what is not needed (like batteries, pumps and so much more) and undertake 1,000 small steps in the right direction all at once.
The human race has to become more ambitious. Instead of seeking one minor improvement after another, celebrating tiny changes we must realize that we have the capacity to generate a broad and positive impact without ever leaving ugly traces behind. We have to be clear, it is not enough to reduce our footprint. We cannot leave a footprint behind! Steeling less is still steeling; polluting less is still polluting. Humanity should be part of the ecosystem and join this evolutionary path where we can redress the errors of the past by making multiple positive contributions and eliminate our chronic dependencies on the unnecessary. Since this approach is beyond the standard today, time has come to qualify this with some examples in which I have been involved over the years.
When the small green detergent maker on which board I served was at the point of collapsing, I accepted my duties as a board member to first become the interim CEO, then part owner and chair to convert this embryonic pioneer into a global statement on how sustainable enterprises could compete starting with the construction of perhaps the first ecological factory in the world. The building, which stands tall two decades later has a life expectancy of at least five years more, and only cost $2.5 million to construct.
Within months after its inauguration, the green factory with the green roof mobilized a multiple of its investment in advertising value through extensive media attention and thus created a unique emotional bond with millions of customers who remain loyal to the brand to date. The most coveted relation between producer and consumer - loyalty and repeat sales was established as a sign of appreciation from clients for the pioneering actions we undertook. It was more than a green factory, it was a new way of doing business.
The process and the message of constructing the factory was more important than the actual building itself. It helped change the state of mind of a significant segment of the market, offering people a chance to look beyond the obvious. A team had spent years imagining the green factory, but never gathered sufficient momentum to secure the funding and never had the drive to implement. Nine months after I took the leadership of the company, the Environment Commissioner of the European Union Carlo Ripa di Meana, and the environment guru Lester Brown, founder of the WorldWatch Institute planted the first flower seeds on the roof - instead of cutting a ribbon. Planting flowers, not cutting ribbons was the symbolic language for a factory that had its own wetlands to treat its waste water. It was an exercise of empowerment, permitting everyone to be their best and to go with the flow - even if it felt like a roller coaster of dozens of small, pragmatic initiatives.
The green roof turned brown within months, unaware of the fact that we inadvertently relied on a monoculture of grasses to provide a green cover. While we were debating what to do next, the birds and the bees did the job. Before we could finish our dialogue with the experts, biodiversity was invited to take over the football field some 10 meters above the production floor and turned the symbol of the green factory into a diverse and lively cover that regulated the temperature inside. We had provided the living conditions, and once nature took over, the looks turned back to green. In addition, already 20 years ago we experimented with biofuels for mobility. We encouraged carpooling by offering parking space closest to the entrance for those who come to work in the most fuel efficient car, and promoted the use of bicycles as a means of transport. Our staff in the factory received Patagonia long johns and undershirts. This move surprised Yvon Chouinard, owner of the outdoor clothing company who never thought that energy conscious companies would opt for his quality wear. Dressing up workers as if they were going to scale the highest mountains permitted us to save on heating inside the factory. All our findings were published, open source and created a media buzz at a time when fax machines were the only innovative communication tool around.
The chosen direction - sustainability - is a good but is embarrassingly insufficient to steer our societies towards the future if we only take one step at the time. We need to undertake many steps in parallel. That is what Paolo Lugari did in Las Gaviotas1. He was never content with the sole production and installation of water solar heaters. His team was not satisfied with the mere planting of trees. It is the attitude that you need to deploy multiple initiatives - each with multiple benefits that creates a platform for real change. Twenty five years later Gaviotas demonstrates that it can tick off results attaining basic needs in terms of water, food, housing, energy, jobs and health, while at the same time regenerate biodiversity. Better: Gaviotas not only meets the Millennium Development Goals, it also meets the tough financial criteria in terms of return on investment and cash flow in a part of the world where government services excel through their absence.
My approach to Bhutan has been comparable. A country that is opening itself to a globalized society faces hard choices when it wishes to preserve its culture and tradition like the farming of buckwheat in remote villages or the use of soap nuts as the basis for hygiene. Whereas the Royal Government of Bhutan has clearly opted to grow its capacity to respond to the basic needs of all in an effort to improve the happiness index, reality is that the country has been swamped with cheap imported goods that offer its citizens a temporary pleasure of the “new” at low (perceived) costs, but completely drains its cash resources from the local economy. A widespread shift towards the cheap and the easy fundamentally alters the direction of development, away from sustainability, depriving the local economy of the financial resources to keep it liquid. Unfortunately, few realize the cascading of these negative effects when comparing prices on a supermarket shelf.
Now, if we only argue to substitute cheap imported GMO rice with subsidized buckwheat that has fallen out of favor with the locals since advertising has convinced them that white rice is “in”, and brown buckwheat is “old” then the country will never succeed in its quest to maintain its tradition and culture, while developing the economy and ensuring happiness for all. The smart development of buckwheat for the future includes a myriad of initiatives with buzz words like beer, malt extract, animal feed, wild yeast harvesting, overseas licensing with a royalty fee that generates more than the original cost of farming, plus a local brew( 2). Only a clustered approach could succeed in making a dent. Implementing a dozen of those, puts a sustainable Bhutan squarely into the globalized world. Other recent initiatives like the one for the Province of Limburg (Belgium) equally highlights how it is possible to embark on a portfolio of innovative business models, and as Herman Reynders, the Governor of the Province states, this causes everyone to change their way of thinking. We need more than new technologies, we need a new way of thinking: shift from doing less bad, to doing more good.
When we observe the potential of the island of El Hierro today and compare the reality with the impressions a decade ago when few considered that there would be a future for this island without water, dependent on subsidies for diesel fuel to keep the grid humming, then we realize how few thought this would ever be viable. Now, even the Spanish Minister for Industry, Energy and Tourism takes notice realizing that the island does not even need subsidies anymore, a welcome message in a cash strapped society that is struggling to keep its head above the water with a staggering unemployment rate in excess of twenty percent. The same cluster approach mentioned for Gaviotas, Bhutan and Limburg demonstrates like the initiatives in El Hierro that it is possible to develop of portfolio of initiatives that deliver results. In this case the offer includes competitive electricity that provides more water, strengthening the productivity of local farming, which now goes organic, and more value for the economy with a cheese factory and a slaughterhouse, and a ready market to buy all excess output. This strategic portfolio approach not only reduces the carbon footprint and ultimately eliminates the footprint, it generates jobs and offers a future in the periphery of Europe. Now, it is the periphery - a small island located closer to the coast of Africa than the Spanish Peninsula that shows the center how many actions can be undertaken on the ground - with patience and tangible results.
The Blue Economy (3) I propose solely embraces projects that have by design multiple benefits, and when we then embark on dozens of these initiatives in parallel in well defined regions we can realize the change we can implement. Honestly, I see no other way. The key to success is to design positive interactions, to envision synergies, and to facilitate progress by multiples of ten to one hundred and it does start with a wide portfolio of initiatives. We are often blinded by the notion that one small initiative can hardly have a global impact. Let me be clear, we do not need to see the global impact, we first need to see multiple local impacts. Successes at the local level, not one small one, but dozens connected ones all in parallel will turn the global conditions around.
What my original work at the green factory has in common with Las Gaviotas, Bhutan, Limburg, El Hierro and the other initiatives I have had the privilege of being involved with is that everyone choose a clear direction, and teams embark on a portfolio of initiatives. No one expects a quick fix, no one wants to embark on one trial only. We know from experience that pilots and tests lack commitment and therefore fail in producing the breakthroughs that are needed. We need the science that offers certainty and entrepreneurs who are prepared to embrace the risks. And, as we weave more examples together, solutions bring the message home, and touch peopleʼs heart, as well as their wallet. Then we can start beyond a remote village or a distant island.
Therefore we need to change that overly careful management style of taking one step at the time and expose people to all the opportunities right before us at the local level, and leave the global debate for what it is: frustrating and without concrete results. Then, we will realize that reducing our footprint is a good idea, but it is not good enough. Better, then we realize that we are capable of doing so much more, so much better, and that is what inspires me to pursue the work I do, and should inspire you.
(1) The case of Las Gaviotas can be seen in the video that I produced and is available on YouTube
(2) This is is described in detail in Case 98 which you can download from http://www.zeri.org
The aim of this blog is to present a fresh look at realities around us. Whereas I do not pretend to present the truth nor a definite position, I do wish to push the reader to think beyond the obvious. After all, time has come to dramatically improve the plight of millions, and that requires more than the predictable. Sometimes it forces us into spheres of discomfort.