Can Business Imitate Nature?

by Mark Lovett on November 20, 2009

It’s a question that is often asked, and I was recently reminded of this idea while reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. Written some 16 years ago, I decided to take a second look at a book that was way ahead of its time in 1993. Unfortunately our society still hasn’t caught up to his insightful concepts, especially in the area of eliminating waste.

The Ecology of Commerce

Intelligent Product System

Paul’s comments on the topic were inspired by the work of Dr. Michael Braungart and Justus Englefried of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg Germany. They proposed an Intelligent Product System which attempted to solve the issue of waste management by eliminating waste altogether.

The cool thing about nature is that there is no waste, nor toxic byproducts produced within the cycles of nature. The sun and rain create an abundance of plant life in which thousands of species thrive. Higher up the chain we encounter the dynamic of animals feeding on plants or devouring smaller animals. At every point in the process there is an input from a previous step, and an output to the next, a natural progression that repeats itself.

Can business shift from a linear (cradle to grave) to a cyclical (cradle to cradle) system?

Native American Wisdom

America wasn’t always a nation of waste and pollution. The Native Americans demonstrated a great respect for nature and the need for humans to integrate into the cycles of nature rather than claim dominance over them. The notion of waste was foreign to tribes from coast to coast, as all plants and animals were used to their fullest.

Life Renews Itself

Life Renews Itself

The industrial revolution changed all that, as the notion of extracting natural resources to produce products with relatively short lifetimes became the norm, and after World War II the trend toward consumption, rather than living our lives with respect for nature, produced unprecedented volumes of energy waste and toxic trash.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Business can adopt (or re-adopt) the approach of producing products that use the least amount of materials and energy, and designed to be recycled or reused, thus extending their life and reducing the amount of waste generated.

The Cradle to Cradle Philosophy

Material Use:

  • all materials should be non-toxic
  • all materials should be recyclable in either the biological cycle or the technical cycle
  • all materials and constructions should be easy to part into single, original materials
  • design closed loops from extraction to production to use to reuse
  • only use materials from sustainable sources

Energy Use:

  • use renewable energy
  • a building can generate it´s own energy (solar power, solar heating, passive solar heating and lighting)

Water Use:

  • don’t mix waste or waste water from different sources; it makes reuse more complex
  • use natural sources like rainwater, if possible in combination with passive climate control such as green roofs
  • buildings and production facilities can even clean water through on site filtering and natural processes, making the water that leaves the premises cleaner then the water that was taken in

We can create products that respect nature, while providing jobs and profits.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Giovanna Garcia November 23, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Hi Mark,

Now you got interested in Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce. If everyone will follow the Philosophy, we will all living in a better world.
Thanks for sharing.
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than No Action
.-= Giovanna Garcia´s last blog ..We can end hate and discrimination. =-.

Reply

Global Patriot November 24, 2009 at 11:11 am

I agree Giovanna that we should follow a path that aligns business with nature, and hopefully we can convince business to adopt that idea.

Reply

Giovanna Garcia November 24, 2009 at 12:37 am

Hi Mark,

Now you got interested in Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce. If everyone will follow the Philosophy, we will all living in a better world.
Thanks for sharing.
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than No Action
.-= Giovanna Garcia´s last blog ..We can end hate and discrimination. =-.

Reply

GlobalPatriot November 24, 2009 at 6:11 pm

I agree Giovanna that we should follow a path that aligns business with nature, and hopefully we can convince business to adopt that idea.

Reply

Erik van Erne, Milieunet Foundation November 23, 2009 at 10:00 am

I guess these viedo’s are interesting: Wisdom of designing C2C http://tinyurl.com/yfp9jgn Cradle to Cradle Explained http://tinyurl.com/ylb6lgx

Reply

Global Patriot November 23, 2009 at 11:40 am

William McDonough’s TED presentation is filled with thought provoking comments and insights – as well as examples on how to design cities in a cradle-to-cradle fashion – highly recommended viewing for all – thanks for the link Erik!

Reply

Erik van Erne, Milieunet Found November 23, 2009 at 5:00 pm

I guess these viedo’s are interesting: Wisdom of designing C2C http://tinyurl.com/yfp9jgn Cradle to Cradle Explained http://tinyurl.com/ylb6lgx

Reply

GlobalPatriot November 23, 2009 at 6:40 pm

William McDonough’s TED presentation is filled with thought provoking comments and insights – as well as examples on how to design cities in a cradle-to-cradle fashion – highly recommended viewing for all – thanks for the link Erik!

Reply

Steffan Antonas November 23, 2009 at 9:43 am

Mark – Great summaries of important ideas, as always. Tweeted. You’ve been doing such a good job of packaging ideas in bite-sized, digestible chunks for others who aren’t reading this stuff. Thanks for spreading important ideas. Here’s what I’m wondering about this stuff though…

Successful adoption of values and philosophies like this always seems to depend on policy structure and adoption. Without law to guide behavior and structure incentives, organizations almost always default back to “cheaper” and “more convenient”, which often shifts outcomes away from sustainability. Do you know of any books/resources on how to effectively change policy or change the balance of power? I read a lot about solutions in an ideal world and problems, and not much on how to really deal with the social barriers (policy) that stop good people with good ideas in their tracks. Thoughts?
.-= Steffan Antonas´s last blog ..Trends That Are Influencing The Future Of Work =-.

Reply

Global Patriot November 24, 2009 at 11:05 am

Many books have influenced me with regards to aligning our lives more closely with nature, but you’re right Steffan, there has been little written which describes how to effect positive change at a policy level. My personal opinion is that life at the top – both within government and business circles – is so innately corrupt at this point that we need to take a different approach.

One book stands out on the topic of changing the world from the bottom up (those on top will only change their ways when the bottom speaks out loudly) and it also happens to be written by Paul Hawken. Blessed Unrest talks about the millions of people who are making a difference in the world today, acting as individuals or as part of nonprofits and NGOs. Highly Recommended!

If we speak, and act, in a manner that supports the common good, I believe policy will follow.

Reply

Steffan Antonas November 23, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Mark – Great summaries of important ideas, as always. Tweeted. You’ve been doing such a good job of packaging ideas in bite-sized, digestible chunks for others who aren’t reading this stuff. Thanks for spreading important ideas. Here’s what I’m wondering about this stuff though…

Successful adoption of values and philosophies like this always seems to depend on policy structure and adoption. Without law to guide behavior and structure incentives, organizations almost always default back to “cheaper” and “more convenient”, which often shifts outcomes away from sustainability. Do you know of any books/resources on how to effectively change policy or change the balance of power? I read a lot about solutions in an ideal world and problems, and not much on how to really deal with the social barriers (policy) that stop good people with good ideas in their tracks. Thoughts?
.-= Steffan Antonas´s last blog ..Trends That Are Influencing The Future Of Work =-.

Reply

GlobalPatriot November 24, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Many books have influenced me with regards to aligning our lives more closely with nature, but you’re right Steffan, there has been little written which describes how to effect positive change at a policy level. My personal opinion is that life at the top – both within government and business circles – is so innately corrupt at this point that we need to take a different approach.

One book stands out on the topic of changing the world from the bottom up (those on top will only change their ways when the bottom speaks out loudly) and it also happens to be written by Paul Hawken. Blessed Unrest talks about the millions of people who are making a difference in the world today, acting as individuals or as part of nonprofits and NGOs. Highly Recommended!

If we speak, and act, in a manner that supports the common good, I believe policy will follow.

Reply

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