Sustainability: Drawing on nature

Twenty years ago, leaders from 167 countries came together in Rio de Janeiro for an environmental summit that has shaped thinking on climate change and sustainable development ever since. The 1992 summit coined the phrase “eco-efficiency” in the pursuit of sustainable development.
This, so it was hoped, would transform industry from system that takes, makes, and wastes into one that integrates economic, environmental and ethical concerns. Essentially, eco-efficiency means doing more with less.
The first principle of the Rio Declaration stated: “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.”
Twenty years on, the main theme for Rio+20, which takes place in Brazil in June, is “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”. That theme indicates how the world economy has changed since the first Rio summit.
In 1992, the consensus was that it was up to governments to ensure that economic development did not harm the environment. Now, the new consensus is that national governments can only do so much. The new environmentalism of the 21st century must embrace all stakeholders, including the industries that underpin economic prosperity.
That sea-change also reflects another reality. In 1992, the developed countries were experiencing economic growth while the developing world needed jobs. Today, that paradigm has been reversed: the developed countries need jobs and much of the developing world is demonstrating solid economic performance.

Green jobs
While creating jobs, especially “green” ones, is priority for Rio+20, so too is transformational approach to how we grow our economies and how we measure that growth. Judging economic performance on the basis of production and consumption, as is the case now, merely encourages over-consumption and puts little value on the natural environment.
Another driving factor towards new kind of economic model is the rising cost of resources – everything from oil to food, from energy to other basic raw materials. The new economies of the 21st century must therefore look beyond eco-efficiency to adopt new thinking on how to make the very best possible use of all our natural resources. Doing more with less, the old mantra, is no longer the best-possible way forward.

Design in action
European manufacturer Desso, which makes carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass, takes inspiration from cradle to cradle design.
Introduced in 2002 by the German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough, the cradle to cradle philosophy models human industry on the natural world, in which materials are nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms.
It’s philosophy that uses nature as template for how Desso can redesign everything it does – including the manufacturing process – to be more eco-effective.
The 1992 Rio eco-efficient approach has meant assessing manufacturing and distribution processes and then finding ways to minimise impacts on the environment.
It has been an enormous step forward in galvanising companies to think and behave in new ways and has brought significant environmental advances – often from companies thinking laterally and working collaboratively. For example, in the flooring sector, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic beverage bottles are now being recycled in their millions to make polyester carpet fibers.
But at Desso, and growing number of manufacturing companies, it’s been about adopting the new theory of eco-effectiveness, which looks at the manufacturing industry as regenerative rather than depletive, and designing goods that celebrate interdependence with other living systems.
From an industrial design perspective it means making products that work within circular rather than linear economy.

Cradle to cradle
In the living environment, materials are constantly being transformed without losing their capacity as nutrients. As in nature, so can we do the same, using innovative supply chain management to use materials from one industry to support others, eliminating the concept of waste because all waste becomes tomorrow’s raw materials or nutrients.
Braungart and McDonough state that when designers employ the intelligence of natural systems – for example, the effectiveness of nutrient recycling or the abundance of the sun’s energy – they can create products, industrial systems, buildings, even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to fruitfully co-exist.
In 2008, Desso entered into partnership with the Hamburg-based Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) – the brainchild of cradle to cradle co-founder Michael Braungart – and intends that all its products will be designed and produced according to cradle to cradle design principles by 2020.
It’s an approach that works commercially as well as environmentally. Desso’s earnings (EBIT) have risen significantly between 2007 and 2010, and its cradle to cradle journey is now the subject of case study by the London Business School.
In implementing cradle to cradle Desso has, for example, introduced carpet backing that can be entirely recycled back into carpet and announced that 60 percent of its carpet tile range will be made with yarn made from 100 percent recycled content.
In line with its cradle to cradle commitment, it has introduced Take Back programme where it collects used carpet from its clients and ensures that it is properly reprocessed. Desso offers an international collection service on project basis, which includes all carpet, irrespective of brand and type – with the exception of carpet containing PVC, which is not considered suitable for reuse according to cradle to cradle principles.
Collected carpet will be processed by waste management company and used as secondary fuel within the cement industry or re-used for other recycling initiatives.

Nature & human nature
Within the scope of the Take Back programme, logistics and recycling processes will continue to be further optimised, to provide the ideal solution for customers while contributing to Desso’s cradle to cradle ambitions.
From manufacturing perspective, that doesn’t mean making products more durable or designed to last longer. It doesn’t mean asking consumers to use their mobile phones or TV sets for longer, because consumption is bad.
Cradle to cradle makes planned obsolescence good; it makes consumption good. It merely asks us, the consumer, to buy new products from companies committed to the most sustainable closed loop manufacturing methodologies.
There are obvious benefits for all of us. First, it makes good business sense because, without waste, companies save money from having to source valuable new resources and, second, with nutrients being constantly recycled, it diminishes the need to extract any more new materials.
That really does change the design of the world and as world leaders prepare once more to travel to Brazil, offers valuable blueprint for manufacturing industries everywhere. M

Andrew Sibley is Desso’s regional sales and marketing director.

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