The next industrial revolution: the shift from the usual process of 'takes, makes and wastes' to one that restores ecological, social and cultural systems

In his book, The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawkens predicts the next industrial revolution: the shift from the usual process of ‘takes, makes and wastes’ to one that restores ecological, social, and cultural systems. This could mean, for example, buildings that produce more energy than they consume; wastewater from factories that leaves the building cleaner than it arrived; products, when at the end of one life, may become the resource or ingredient for a new product life. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Such approaches are already underway in New Zealand. Design Mobel, winner of the NZI Sustainable Business Award in 2007, has won over 20 design awards in the last four years. The design and process for creating its slat beds and bedroom furniture are determined to reduce toxicity and increase natural products. Waste byproducts aren’t dumped, but are part of materials for the next product. Design Mobel actively offsets its emissions through thousands of tree plantings.

Formway is a similarly lauded furniture manufacturer and has sustainability at its core. Jake McLaren, Formway’s environmental manager, says: “We look at the whole picture, what goes in and what comes out, and the lifecycle assessment helps us improve and evolve the product. The knowledge then flows into all new designs. We can take what we know about what makes the most sustainable table leg, and apply that to a new product.”

The market opportunities for this new way of designing are growing fast. The 2006 Stern Report estimated that the global market for low-carbon products and services will be £500 billion by 2050.

Sustainability is a great strategy used by more and more businesses for driving innovation, and particularly for reassessing products against future opportunities and risks. This is about solving problems: what to do about alternative fuel, toxicity, labour standards, staff retention, changing markets and more. It’s about rethinking lifecycles from ‘Cradle to Cradle’, an idea coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book of the same name.

The Sustainable Business Network shares a vision to make New Zealand the model nation of sustainability—and that happens when the ideas and designs include sustainability from the beginning. What are we doing about it? Well, together with organisations including the Design Institute of New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment, we have formed a National Leadership Group focused on sustainable design. With the Sustainable Business Network as facilitator, this small group of practitioners, academics, and researchers has attended one ‘think tank’ with more in the pipeline. We have high hopes that the establishment of this group, focused on developing the capacity and capabilities of New Zealand’s abilities to develop sustainable products, will lead to progressive and innovative application of sustainable design across many industries. Stay tuned.

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