The Next Economy
Fool-Proofing Sustainability with the ‘Biosphere Rules’

Remediation has had some successes. But you can’t remediate an extinct species, an acidified ocean or a climate that’s pushed beyond its critical tipping point. What we need to be doing is “premediation."

My first job out of college was as an environmental consultant in Silicon Valley. This was the 1980s and a time before “sustainability” had emerged as a business imperative. Our approach to environmental sustainability was called “remediation,” which may sound sophisticated, but in truth was technical janitorial work. We would go to contaminated industrial sites and try to find ways to limit the spread of pollution that had gotten into the air, soil and water.

After about a year or so, I became pretty disillusioned with remediation. That’s because trying to clean up a contaminated industrial site is like trying to put toothpaste back into a tube. You can never get it all back in, and that’s especially a problem with industrial chemicals, because many are highly toxic and at low concentrations; we were working at the parts-per-million/parts-per-billion level, which is the equivalent of an eye-dropper’s worth of chemical in a swimming pool. You don’t have to be a genius to recognize that we should be putting as much effort into preventing the problem in the first place as cleaning up our past mistakes. Along with remediation, what we needed to be doing was “premediation” — engineering future sustainability issues out of product and production process in the first place through smart design.

That said, remediation has had some successes — we’ve gotten pretty good at capturing pollution before it gets out in the environment; billowing smoke stacks are an increasingly rare sight. But we are merely treating the symptoms, because the pollution hasn’t gone away. We still have to put thee captured waste into barrels and truck it off to a landfill somewhere, and hope that it doesn’t end up as the next remediation site.

But there are many problems that remediation can never solve. For example, you can’t remediate an extinct species, an acidified ocean, or a climate that’s pushed beyond its critical tipping point. And you can’t remediate industrial chemicals that bio-accumulate in the tissue of every living mammal and find their highest concentration at the top of the food chain in human breast milk. Those problems are not going to be solved by remediation. We have to admit that our current model’s broken and that we need a new one.

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Now, we’re fortunate because we have a perfect model of sustainable manufacturing that produces huge volumes of very sophisticated products — everything from high-tech ceramics to portable, cranial supercomputers. It’s constantly innovating and improving the performance of those products and does so in a way that never jeopardizes the livability of the planet. That model is the Earth’s biosphere. And what’s really important to remember is that the biosphere is the only model of a sustainable production system that we have. We have no other place we can look to learn how to manufacture and operate sustainably on this planet.

Luckily, this means we know exactly what sustainability is. It’s not a journey, as many executives like to claim — it is a clear destination. Human post-industrial sustainability is going to look like nature; and you can see what that means by looking out your window. Nature operates on a parsimonious materials palette, built from a small handful of elemental materials that make up everything you see. These materials are stored temporarily in nature’s products — trees, frogs, camels — awaiting the next turn of the cycle to be reincarnated into the next tree, frog or camel. Products are built additively, from the bottom up; and the power source is captured solar energy, stored biochemically in the products themselves. The ever-innovating system continually improves the products, storing the increasingly refined design information in genes that are spread globally in the cells of all organisms.

The premise of this article series is to decipher the principles that account for the sustainability of the biosphere, translate them for business and embed them in corporate DNA. By doing so, sustainability will disappear as a management concern. Once the “Biosphere Rules” are fully adopted by business you, in effect, foolproof sustainability.

That’s not hyperbole. Look at nature. Does a snail get up in the morning and say, “How can I be sustainable today?” Of course not — it doesn’t have to. Sustainability is already programmed into every living thing on the planet. And when that happens for business, managers won’t have to think about sustainability when they wake up, either. They can go back to focusing on traditional business concerns like outdoing the competition, enhancing profitability and thrilling customers. Sustainability will take care of itself.

Dr. Gregory C. Unruh is the Sustainability Editor for the MIT Sloan Management Review and author of the new book, The Biosphere Rules: Nature’s Five Circularity Secrets for Sustainable Profits. For a limited time, Sustainable Brands subscribers can download a complimentary digital copy of the book here.

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