Three Earth Day Rules to Help Your Business Grow

Thunderbird Professor Gregory Unruh

By Gregory Unruh, Ph.D.

Natural scientists define sustainability as the capacity of healthy ecosystems to continue functioning indefinitely. Maintaining this capacity has become a clarion call for business. Consider General Electric’s ambitious Ecomagination project, Coca-Cola’s efforts to protect water quality, Wal-Mart’s attempt to reduce packaging waste, and Nike’s removal of toxic chemicals from its shoes. These and other laudable efforts are steps on a road described by the aluminum giant Alcan in its 2002 corporate sustainability report: “Sustainability is not a destination. It is a continuing journey of learning and change.”

Unfortunately, Alcan had it wrong. Sustainability is not a distant, foggy goal but, rather, a real destination. And planet Earth already provides a perfect model. Our planet’s self-regulating biosphere is a brilliant sustainable operating system that has fashioned prolific life without interruption for more than 3.5 billion years. By studying this system and applying the principles to commerce, managers can learn how to build ecologically friendly products that reduce costs and attract consumers. Here are three key biosphere rules:

Rule 1: Use a parsimonious palette

More than 100 elements in the periodic table form the building blocks of everything we see from mountains to oceans. Astonishingly, however, nature chose to use just four — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen — to produce all living things. The fourteenth-century scholastic William of Occam derived his law of parsimony from Aristotle’s assertion: “The more perfect a nature is, the fewer means it requires for its operation.” Today we say simply “Less is more.”

In contrast to nature, today there are more than 100,000 synthetic chemicals in the marketplace. The impulse of manufacturers to readily adopt every new synthetic material is understandable. But there is one overriding reason to emulate nature’s parsimony: It makes recycling easy. Furthermore, nature’s simple palette results in products far more advanced than those produced by human industrial science. Nature suggests that the potential for inventive uses of easily recycled materials is huge.

Rule 2: Cycle up, virtuously

Standardization ensures that raw materials are always available to organisms; they don’t have to be shipped or sorted. When an organism dies, the biosphere recovers its materials and reinserts them into its production process without loss of quality or performance. This is called cycling up. A dead beaver can be up-cycled as a tree, a mollusk, an eagle, or even another beaver.

Down-cycling, in contrast, destroys the original value, as when a plastic computer casing is melted into a speed bump. Virtuous recycling relies on planned obsolescence. This process, otherwise known as death in the biological world, plays a vital role in the biosphere because it allows change. In the industrial realm, planned obsolescence and up-cycling can lead a company toward environmentally superior designs through natural evolution.

Rule 3: Exploit the power of platforms

Earth is populated by a mind-boggling 30 million to 100 million species, all of which miraculously share an underlying design. This design is a general-purpose platform that has been leveraged over and over again to create the planet’s astounding biodiversity. Luckily for managers, business logic concurs with this biosphere rule. Businesses across sectors have long exploited the power of platforms.

But platform design in industry tends to occur at the component level, allowing parts to be swapped among product offerings. Industry needs to go below this level and scrutinize the makeup of the components themselves: The materials are a more fundamental platform on which both components and final products are built. Businesses that follow these biosphere rules may arrive at the destination of sustainability. In the end, sustainability is nature’s best secret.

Gregory Unruh, Ph.D., is a professor of international business and the director of Thunderbird’s Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management. The center serves as the institutional nexus for Thunderbird’s training in global citizenship, which includes professional ethics, corporate social responsibility, reputation, and global sustainability. Unruh holds a Ph.D. in International Environmental and Technology Management, has served as a technical reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and is recognized as a strategic partner of the United Nations Global Compact.