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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Foolproofing Sustainability, Part 2:
Materials Parsimony

The amazing diversity of life is founded on dramatic materials parsimony; almost everything in nature is built out of just four elements. Whereas, what we humans have gotten since the Industrial Revolution is materials proliferation.

This is the second in a seven-part series on what author Gregory Unruh calls the ‘Biosphere Rules.’ Read part one.

Biosphere Rule #1 — Material Parsimony: Minimize the types of materials used in products. Focus on materials that are life-friendly and economically recyclable.

The first Biosphere Rule is Materials Parsimony; and it is, quite simply, about simplification. It is minimizing the types of materials used in products. I want to be clear that I’m not talking about minimizing the amounts of materials. Minimizing the amounts of materials is a different sustainability strategy — alternatively called eco-efficiency, dematerialization or even light-weighting. In Rule 1, we're talking about types of materials, and we'll see why minimizing the types of materials is so important as a foundation for the biosphere rules.

The power of simplicity is something that human thinkers back through the ages have understood.

Aristotle said, “The more perfect a nature, the fewer means it requires for its operation.”

Jump ahead a couple of thousand years and we have Leonardo Da Vinci saying, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

And then in the 20th century, architect Mies van der Rohe actually said what all these other sages were trying to say, with “less is more.”

Of course, the master simplifier of all is the Earth’s biosphere. When you look at the periodic table of the elements, you are seeing the material foundation of the visible universe — every visible thing in the universe is made up of some combination of these fundamental elements. What is amazing is that out of the 90 or so naturally occurring elements available to life, the biosphere was founded on just four elements — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen — that make every living thing we see. Organic chemists call this CHON, and it is the material foundation of life. When you look out the window at nature, everything you see — from flowers to grass to birds — is built out of just those four elements. And if you add calcium and phosphorus to the mix, you get to about 98 percent of every living thing. The amazing diversity of life is founded on dramatic materials parsimony.

In contrast to nature, when human industrial engineers, materials designers and chemists look at the periodic table, they see a giant sandbox and ask, “What can we do with iron? What can we do with cobalt? How can we use chlorine? What can we make with strontium?” They then innovate new and complex synthetic materials that are not naturally occurring in the biosphere. Instead of materials parsimony, what we've gotten since the Industrial Revolution is materials proliferation. There are thousands of novel materials synthesized every year — so many that it’s hard to get an actual count. We don't really know the full extent of material proliferation or its environmental consequences.

When the proliferating engineers look at the periodic table, they wonder, “Why would the biosphere waste all the opportunities of those other elements?” The answer is that materials parsimony is the foundation of a functional, closed-loop production system. Thanks to its standardized materials pallet, the biosphere can take a cactus, break it down on the spot and use those same materials to build a jack rabbit or a honey bee or even another cactus. No sorting or shipping required. Because everything is made from the same parsimonious pallet, materials are always at hand.

When I present the materials parsimony rule at conferences, I often have engineers and materials chemists stand up and say that I am trying to stifle innovation. But that’s not the case. Materials parsimony doesn’t stop innovation. Just look at the biosphere — materials parsimony has not in any way inhibited the ability of the biosphere to innovate in ways unimaginable for human beings. The earth is populated by millions of different species that inhabit every ecosystem niche on the planet. Nature’s innovation makes human efforts look like child’s play.

There are important business benefits to pursuing materials parsimony, irrespective of a circular economy. Modern materials proliferation carries many hidden costs in the form of added complexity. And academic studies on the costs of creeping complexity show that it is expensive. A white paper by global consultancy AT Kearney found that complexity in Germany’s top businesses was costing €30 billion a year, money that could be recovered by simplifying their manufacturing and supplier relationships. Materials parsimony drives cost savings by concentrating demand around a smaller number of materials, fostering quantity discounts and supply chain simplification. And because you’re buying more from your remaining suppliers, you get better service.

So, how parsimonious can you go? Monomateriality, where products are built with a single material, is a growing design trend. The Curv” technology, for example, consists of 100 percent polypropylene thermoplastic composite monomaterial sheets, currently used by Samsonite to create its Cosmolite and Lite-Cube luggage lines. Other applications of monomateriality are arising in the garment sector and in packaging solutions. But these are relatively simple products. What about more complex technologies and systems?

The automobile is a paragon of materials proliferation. Cars are built from thousands of components and hundreds of different materials, and seem an unlikely place candidate for monomateriality. But new innovations such as 3D printing — which can create complex forms from a single material — are opening new opportunities for circular economists. One of these is Arizona-based Local Motors, which uses industrial 3D printers to fabricate cars and public transportation vehicles. While still a complex product, Local Motors vehicles demonstrate impressive materials parsimony — 80 percent of the car is made in a single print from a monomaterial. Instead of thousands of components and materials, cars can be made from dozens.

While monomateriality is not yet an option for many products, there are clearly opportunities to reduce the number of materials in every product. Doing so sets you up for the next Biosphere Rule – Value Cycling, which we will cover in the next installment.

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.