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Sustainability requires forward planning

Today’s ‘eco-friendly’ designs just delay the inevitable. It’s time to plan ahead

Today’s ‘eco-friendly’ designs just delay the inevitable. It’s time to plan ahead

Rosie Bosworth

[Design]

Until very recently, our planet’s resources were thought to be limitless. We assumed nature was perpetually regenerative, with the ability to absorb all we could throw at it and continue to grow, and exploitation of those seemingly endless supplies was therefore viewed as entirely appropriate. How times change.

In a world where by 2050 close to ten billion people will demand their needs be met, and the world’s resources are being consumed faster than they can regenerate, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we are headed towards ecological and societal dire straights. We are now firmly in an era that ecologists call ‘overshoot and collapse’.

Just by looking at current technology and consumer devices for mass consumption in terms of their resource and energy use, emission levels and end-of-life potential, it’s clear they are completely unsustainable. The concept of ten billion people buying, say, the latest washing machines—powered by polluting energy sources, consuming precious water, relying on toxic chemical powers and expelling polluting grey waste, just to clean clothes we’ve worn for eight hours—is no longer tenable.

Gone are the days of accommodating a consumer-driven world where iPods and their built-in obsolescence are filling landfills at the rate of close to one billion a year. And where our global population thinks they can transport themselves in vehicles fuelled by a substance that is wreaking havoc with our climate and has increasingly become subject to economy-crippling price volatility.

We have created economic, social and ecological problems that the world can longer afford nor sustain.

Real sustainability

Despite the fact that ‘sustainability’ is now present in everyday corporate rhetoric, our comprehension of the word remains poor.

Companies are increasingly taking fragmented and biased views on attaining environmental sustainability within their businesses. They are focused on incremental innovations and minor product improvements that are actually incompatible with long-term sustainable development. The cold hard truth is that even today’s most environmentally efficient technologies and innovations don’t have what it takes to drive us into a truly sustainable era.

Factor X—also referred to as eco-efficiency or eco-factor—describes the range of efficiency with which the developed world currently makes use of the environment and its resources. If long-term sustainability is to be adequately addressed, the factor X of current technologies produced by even our most environmentally sound organisations must be improved by a factor of anywhere from ten to 50. Under today’s paradigm, however, we can only expect increases of two to three at best.

Obviously there is a huge gap that needs to be closed. A token ten percent increase in energy efficiency or using 100-percent recycled cardboard in gratuitous packaging just won’t cut it. It is a big mistake for companies to believe there is an incremental path to a sustainable future—because there isn’t.

With nothing within our current technological framework that brings us even close to sustainability by 2050, we need fundamental change. All our products, services and systems need to be redesigned and reconfigured with entirely new systems. For example, clothing technology will change so clothes will no longer need water or polluting detergents to clean them.

Sectors that aren’t heavily engaged in developing and commercialising path-changing innovations right now will be left in the dust. The future of economic success will lie exclusively with those that seize the opportunity now.

As clean energy technology gains momentum, the Shells and BPs will become distant memories of the past. Plastic-based throwaway products will disappear as fast as the rate at which they are filling our landfills and oceans.

So what will your company be doing?

Over the horizon

Companies need to use ‘over the horizon’ strategic planning and product design to become genuinely sustainable and ensure their long-term survival. Resourceful companies will set aside people and money to establish what the sustainable future has in hold and, more importantly, what it doesn’t. This means a shift towards being a hub for research and development of sustainable technology and product development. The basic elements of over-the-horizon design are foresight, scenario planning, backcasting—planning backwards from this desired future sustainable state—and the creation of in-house think tanks for research and development.

New Zealand is at an advantage in that we are flexible and able to move quickly. We can take the lead in over-the-horizon design and strategic planning and gain an international first-mover advantage. While China, India and other developing countries feverishly engage in building extensive manufacturing infrastructures for low-value, unsustainable commodity goods, nimble New Zealand manufacturing firms can shift their focus to the longer-term goal of sustainability. By sending our manufacturing offshore, we can avoid investing money in production systems that will eventually be lost, and our transition to sustainable business models will therefore be far less costly. And when the tipping point comes where traditional products are prohibitively expensive or impossible to produce due to lack of resources, those proactive and farsighted New Zealand firms will have already made the investment in developing and building sustainable products.

The paradigm shift towards sustainability will take time—maybe decades—but companies who are able to make this shift will reap great rewards. We operate in an independent economy that embraces innovation and rapid change, so there’s little doubt we can win the race towards sustainability.