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Sustainability is Better By Design

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Despite sustainability being the driving theme of this year’s Better By Design CEO Summit, I struggled to spot the swag of archetypal tree hugging men donned in leather sandals, hemp trousers, and organic cotton shirts with unkempt dreadlocks that I was half-expecting.

With the tagline for the event reading “sustainable design for the bottom line”, I was greeted with a Better By Design conference handbook printed on sustainably produced paper printed with vegetable based inks, a pencil made from recycled plastic, and organic water (is normal spring water somehow not so?) presented in a bottle made from plants and 100-percent biodegradable. With a stash of free eco-friendly giveaways in hand I was feeling very virtuous and almost completely guilt free—a great way to kick off a day of close to 10 hours of learning how NZ firms can climb the economic ladder through implementing sustainable business innovations and practices.

However this virtuousness soon dissipated once Michael Braungart—co-author of Cradle-to-Cradle—entered the spotlight. Michael’s light-hearted cynicism pointed to the fact that we are not too overpopulated at all, but rather we are just too stupid. Braungart emphasised that in our quest for sustainability all we have been doing is coming up with solutions to the problem by being to “less bad” rather than producing products and services that are actually beneficial to our environment. In Braungart’s eyes, eco-efficiency is merely a form of “guilt management”, and being “less bad” doesn’t actually make us any better.

Braungart doesn’t believe our current rates of gratuitous consumption need to be reduced at all—in fact, he actually views consumption as fundamentally good. If we do it in the right way, that is. He believes the fundamental flaw of today’s society actually lies in the fact that our design is “bad”. Braungart asserts that we don’t need to be reducing anything at all; we just need to be producing products that are designed to be recycled as food back into the ecosphere as “biological nutrients” or goods that can be recycled as “technical nutrients” back into the “technosphere” as new products. The emphasis here is on eco-effectiveness rather than eco-efficiency, where everything we produce gives back to the land—and rightly so. I mean (as Braungart suggested in his presentation), who really wants to be having efficient sex when effective sex is up for grabs?

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Michael Braungart speaking at Better By Design

However, in a world dominated by a me-me-me consumer culture and where the imminent consumer societies of China and India will soon be bursting at the seams whether eco effectiveness and constant consumption—no matter how good the products are for the environment—can be sustained remains to be seen.

Founder and chairman of Interface Ray Andersen’s approach to sustainability is somewhat contradictory, although no less impressive. In his quest to reach what he refers to as “Mt Sustainability”, Andersen has successfully transformed a company that was once in financial doldrums into the largest commercial modular carpet maker in the world—all because of a latent whack of guilt he experienced from the environmental damaging effects his company were having on the environment. His approach? Implementing closed loop recycling, accessing renewable energy sources and whole systems design. In the context of Interface, Andersen’s “guilt management” effectively drove the company to break out of the old paradigm enabling the company to achieve unprecedented reductions in waste, energy use, GHG emissions and water use. This goes to show that even a better-late-than-never approach to sustainability and what Andersen refers to as “upside down thinking” can have momentous positive and beneficial effect on the environment and on a firm’s bottom line.

Biomimicry genius Janine Benyus provided enlightening insights into how human and sustainability problems are able to be solved simply by imitating nature’s best processes, ideas and structures. Benyus stresses that the traditional “heat, beat and treat” approach needs to be replaced by “life friendly chemistry” where good and services are actually designed for life on earth. Under the Biomimicry approach sustainability will require ‘collaboratories’ where biologists and designers are both sitting at the same table designing environmentally benign products.

Lee Weinstein—former director of Nike’s US and global public relations—has shown that with some outside influence, instilling corporate social responsibility into a management team that was once (and often still is) nailed by the global public as using child labour within poor working conditions in third-world countries can make a huge difference with corporate ethics and its concern for the environment. Today an array of product lines such as Nike Trash Talk, basketball shoes made entirely from manufacturing waste and recycled materials have been developed by the company in its quest to reach zero waste carbon neutrality and 100-percent recoverability of materials within the next decade.

The Summit’s keynote speaker for the evening was Alex Steffen, founder of WorldChanging.com. Luckily as I sat before a sumptuous banquet of culinary seafood, fish and meat—having only just been told hours earlier how environmentally harmful the cultivation of these foods are—I managed to digest Steffen’s speech rather well in contrast to my own ecologically perilous dinner. Adamant that we don’t need any new devices, tools or technologies to help us reach sustainability, Steffen highlights that we just need to start applying all the technology and knowledge we already in a more integrated and more succinct manner—NOW.

 

On a more grass roots level, the Summit’s local born and bred speakers engaging heavily in the sustainability movement are also worthy of mention.

Referring to environmentally damaging behaviour of firms as “fat”, Sarah Gibb’s natural skin care company Trilogy would have to be one of the leanest and most toned NZ companies around. In its quest to climb Mt Sustainability Trilogy comes top for being the first New Zealand skincare brand to achieve carbon neutral certification and adopting a totally transparent supply chain driven by the procurement of fair trade, organic and fully recycled materials and ingredients. This “light and tasty” approach appears to be reaping the rewards.

Also on the topic of traceability, Jeremy Moon, CEO of and founder of Icebreaker, mentioned how the company has recently introduced a novel concept of the “Baacode”—a unique and revolutionary traceability system illustrating to their consumers the complete traceability of all the products and methods used in the production of their funky woolly winter warmers. Icebreaker’s Baacode essentially enables customers to trace Icebreaker’s (undisputedly high) sustainable and ethical practices, starting from farmer Joe’s gates right through the entire supply chain.

Looking down at my own merino wool undergarment I was wearing on the day, my guilt levels and eco consciousness become increasingly acute. Shamefully my merino fashion accessory was not purchased from Icebreaker but purchased from probably the most unethical company around (shudder) and thus had no traceability baa-code whatsoever—though it probably had a definite toxicity-code! And on top of that already massive faux pas, it was black—a colour Janine and Michael had mentioned to me during one-on-one interviews as one of the most toxically unbiodegradable dyes around. There go my supposed eco-friendly values. Time to buy local, I think.

Other speakers include larger than life Brigid Hardy, founder of BEE (Beauty Engineered for Ever), a household cleaning product company. Hardy has made dreading the mundane laundry chores a thing of the past and is cleaning up the environment in the process—no clean feat, excuse the pun. Hardy believes that sustainability goes beyond the green revolution (which she has also already totally nailed in her products) and involves values, true passion and meaning for what you are doing. Making the analogy that the sustainability movement is like the gym junkie shifting from aerobics to yoga, Hardy is adamant that sustainability is about passion on global scale where your footprint is not only harmless to the environment but it also has depth, soul and meaning.

Responding to consumers suffering severe water restrictions while being desperate for a pleasurable shower, Matt Crichton, CEO of Methven, the New Zealand-based tap and showerware company, demonstrates that even your everyday boring and functional shower experience can be transformed into a calm and sensual experience all through sustainability initiatives. As part of Methven’s climb to Mt Sustainability’s summit the company has developed an innovative shower head system, Satinjet, which uses using only a fraction of the water required while still delivering a “sensory heaven and a spa in your very own bathroom”. Don’t know about you but after writing this I’m off to buy a Satinjet so I too can experience a spa in my very own bathroom … mmmm.

Brett Hewlett—Comvita CEO—describes how even a once-lacklustre commodity honey company has broadened its wings into producing a hip new range of natural skin care products. In response to the increasing burgeoning market demand for sustainable products from savvy, eco-conscious consumers, Comvita has launched a new product range, branded Huni, whose products are so down to earth, environmentally friendly and natural that you almost want to eat them. Yum!

Brian Richards, brand strategist for BBR, also drills the sustainability message home stressing the importance of moving past the corporate greenwash, the green grime, towards demonstrating an authentic true care and respect for the environment surrounding us. According to Richards, transparency and an integrated brand story is key in a global market where consumers are increasingly demanding products and services produced sustainably.

All told, despite Braungart’s somewhat light-hearted cynicism, the general mood for the conference was that of hope, inspiration and of opportunity—that we can really make the change and that we already are making inroads in our quest for sustainability.

However, in a world tipped to reach nine billion by 2050, where climate change has significantly reduced Mother Nature’s capacity to produce materials, resources and food for the ever-growing population and where very shortly the remainder of the planet’s population will be demanding the privileged consumer lifestyle in which we Westerners have indulged for decades, is this enough?

Despite the positive vibe on the day, one question must be asked: Have Kiwi firms really got what it takes to reach radical levels of sustainability and fundamentally huge advancements towards bona fide sustainability? Will simply offsetting our emissions, introducing concepts like the Baacode and producing goods out of recycled materials really enable firms to move past our current “generation Me” paradigm to create a new paradigm where everything is sustainable, where the threat of unsustainability no longer looms heavily over each of our shoulders, and where we can all enjoy a quality of live living harmoniously within the Earth’s limits?

Given that we Kiwis were the first to conquer Mt Everest, I have hope that with our dogged determination and left field, innovative thinking, the CEO summit will provide us with the inspiration that we can also be the first nation to conquer the lofty heights of Andersen’s Mt Sustainability. Taking a leaf from Michael Braungart, I’m adopting some light hearted cynicism to ask if we are smart enough yet to turn the groundswell into momentum, and I will be waiting on the cliffs of Mt Sustainability with crossed fingers to find out.

As Tim Gibson, NZ Trade and Enterprise CEO, concluded in his opening speech: “Sustainability starts right here and it starts right now.” So let’s get cracking.

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