The change that is needed to become sustainable is fundamental and transformative. That is also likely the reason why we have seen so little of it. The danger of taking a narrow view on change for sustainability is that we keep improving the current state of affairs, which in itself is unsustainable. In simple terms: doing less of something bad doesn’t make it good.
As creatures of habit, it can be challenging to re-imagine our current situation. Thankfully, there are various proven and inspiring frameworks that are helpful in stepping outside of the box to evaluate and rethink the as-is situation. These frameworks take an ecological or systems perspective and spark innovation and creativity.
Janine Benyus (1997) introduces the term “biomimicry” in her landmark book with the same title. Biomimicry is the science that seeks to develop products and services that mimic nature. Nature produces no waste, nor hazardous materials that it cannot easily break down into harmless components. Nature is inherently sustainable, it has 3.8 billion years of experience in experimenting and producing everything that is needed for survival. For example, nature uses photosynthesis to generate, process and store energy. Can we develop an energy system that works like leaves? In biomimicry, the key question that is asked when developing products and designing processes is: How would nature solve this? Three guidelines are followed to answer this question: 1. Nature as model; 2. Nature as measure and 3. Nature as mentor.
The “Ask Nature” database lists the marvelous answers to these questions, from self-cleaning surfaces to creating water in the desert to self-assembling materials, you name it. It is worth to take a look.
Cradle to cradle
Architect William McDonough and Chemist Michael Braungart teamed up and developed the vision of Cradle to Cradle (C2C): a close the loop design approach to developing products, and even entire cities. Regeneration is at the core of the philosophy. The design phase takes the whole product life cycle into account, provisioning for disassembly, repair and ‘upcycling’ of materials. A distinction is made between biological and technical nutrition cycles. Biological components can safely be disposed into nature, where it serves as feedstock. The need for useful but toxic materials, such as heavy metals is recognized. However, the use of these is minimized and containment in technical reuse cycles assured.
The Natural Step
Taking science as a basis, The Natural Step (TNS) framework formulates the system conditions for thriving communities and ecology: “In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:
1. Concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust
2. Concentrations of substances produced by society (toxins)
3. Degradation by physical means
4. And, in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs”
What I like about this framework is that it explicitly takes the human role in sustainability into account. Resilient communities are better capable of taking care of their common resources than impoverished ones. I’m not simply referring to developing countries, but western countries as well: the draw into the ‘rat race’, cuttings into welfare systems, and lack of access to good education for everyone undermine a societies’ ability to actively identify with, connect and respond to environmental issues.
In the TNS approach a vision of a sustainable future is created through back casting. Keeping in mind an ideal situation in the future, it formulates the steps that need to be taken now to get there. The longer the timespan until the envisioned future, the more flexibility there is in the route to get there.
Less of a framework, and more an elaborate list of successful sustainability projects, the book ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins proposed four activities that will steer us to a sustainable form of capitalism:
1. Increasing resource productivity
2. Redesign fundamentally the way we make and produce things
3. Restoration of human and natural capital
4. The solutions economy
These elements resonate with the tenets of the previous frameworks. Efficiency is a way to buy time for transformation, not the solution on itself. The redesign incorporates models such as biomimicry and C2C. The formulation of the solutions economy was visionary. The example in the book covers the ‘sharing economy’. The idea behind it is that we want things not for themselves, but for their services. For example, I do not want a car, I want to have the flexible ability to transport myself from A to B. In moving from consumption and use to service models Interface was a pioneer when it leased its carpets instead of selling them. In the meantime, many different models emerged. Think tank SustainAbility covers them in the report “20 Business Model Innovations for Sustainability.”
There are many more other tools, frameworks and principles on sustainability. For example, LCAs for assessments of impacts throughout a product lifecycle, the GRI framework for reporting on sustainability, the CERES principles, and numerous others. Each one has its specific benefits. The ones I discussed I selected because they diverge from the others; their power is in the capability to envision, see, feel and believe the possibility of a sustainable future.