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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2002 : New Perspectives

New Perspectives

Waging Peace with Intelligent Design
From the viewpoint of both sustainability and international relations, reliance on a single, non-renewable resource to fuel economic growth is a signal of a design problem. Here's one strategy for building a strong support system for peaceful economic renewal.


In early October, The New York Times reported that the United States was preparing to launch a $94 million counter-insurgency program to help the Columbian military protect a 500-mile oil pipeline. The pipeline, which transports 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day for the Los Angeles-based energy company Occidental Petroleum, has been regularly attacked by Columbian rebels since the 1980s. In an effort to make Columbia safe for ongoing oil exploration and meet one of the Bush Administration’s national security goals—diversifying the sources of America’s oil—U.S. military personnel will train 4,000 Columbian troops and supply them with high-tech surveillance equipment and combat helicopters. The Columbian army, in turn, will use this array of American technology and know-how to defend the nation’s oil fields and take the offensive in its decades-old civil war.

“We have been fighting here,” a Columbian officer told the Times, “but there are still so many things the Americans can teach us.”

Teaching counter-insurgency is not a new strategy in the search for security. For many, it echoes an American tradition of strategic intervention. But perhaps there’s a more secure approach. In the midst of a civil conflict that has cost more than 35,000 lives and displaced nearly two million people, what if we waged peace as fiercely as we are prepared to wage war?

This, too, is an American tradition—and, having been born in post-war Japan and Germany, it’s one for which we are personally thankful. There is no denying that the outcome of World War II was achieved with military power. But immediately after the war, American might was harnessed to build democratic values and institutions. The Marshall Plan, for example, distributed $12 billion over four years to revitalize European nations, including West Germany. There, aid fed hungry children, rebuilt the industrial infrastructure, supported civil society and demonstrated the attractiveness of democracy. In Japan, the military occupation was conducted in part by young American couples—unarmed and disarmingly cheerful—who visited even the smallest Japanese communities, all in the spirit of peacemaking, good will and respect. Along with an infusion of monetary aid, this intentional honoring of Japanese individuals and cultural traditions yielded an ally and an economic partner. The same was true in Europe. Where dictators had reigned, democratic values emerged, and Japan and Germany became two of the world’s most vital nations. The architects of their recovery plans? George C. Marshall and Douglas MacArthur, American generals bent on waging peace.

Design and American Security
Today, we might try waging peace on the scale of the Marshall Plan with the widespread application of intelligent design, a concerted international effort to develop products, industrial processes and social systems that support sustainable economic strength, cultural diversity and environmental health. From this perspective, sustainable design can be seen as one of the essential paths to peace and security. Consider resource dependency. From the viewpoint of both sustainability and international relations, reliance on a single, non-renewable resource to fuel economic growth is a signal of a design problem. In Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, for example, we see oil generate wealthy elites, but no democratic institutions and no emerging intellectual infrastructure to support long-term social well-being or economic growth. In America, there are strong democratic traditions, but today the U.S. spends up to $50 billion annually, as well as lots of international good will, to protect the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. South America is now emerging as the new, unstable oil arena.

How effective, productive and smart is an economy based on such an energy system? And, if the current business model is indeed unsustainable, how can intelligent design contribute to the creation of products, services and systems that transform the American economy into a model of healthy, safe and peaceful productivity? Given the powerful influence of the United States on the global economy, these become security concerns and design questions not only for Americans, but for the entire world.

A Vulnerable Economy

Oil dependence disguises the weak spots in the design of the American economy. Even if we leave aside tumbling stock values, rising unemployment and the crisis in corporate accounting—what some might call short-term problems in an otherwise healthy system—a business cycle inextricably linked to a single, non-renewable resource screams vulnerability.

So does the far-flung assembly line. As supply chains span the globe, many U.S. manufacturers are importing materials and product components that are causing health problems for American workers and for their customers as well. This increases healthcare expenses for U.S. companies, drives up costs for waste management, squanders material assets and, ultimately, leads to more outsourcing for cheap materials—a toxic flow of losses and liabilities that threatens long-term economic strength.

Through the lens of sustainability, an energy market defined by scarcity and a manufacturing sector reliant on toxic materials suggests both design problems and opportunities for innovation.

Energy
In the energy sector, design problems and opportunities are signaled by a playing field strongly slanted toward oil, with coal, natural gas and nuclear power rounding out the U.S. government’s favored energy sources. The Bush energy plan, for example, called for more than $35 billion in subsidies over 10 years to those industries, while calculations by some energy experts suggest that total federal subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power amount to as much as $21 billion a year. A wind production tax credit, meanwhile, will give the wind power industry—the fastest growing energy sector in the world—about $5 million for each of the next two years.

Rather than allowing innovation and markets to drive the energy economy, subsidies prop up an economy built almost entirely on a single energy source. From the perspective of both natural and economic systems, in which more diversity means more health, we could say the current system is woefully impoverished—and therefore weak and unstable. The good news is renewable energy entrepreneurs are entering the market on their own. Imagine the economic vitality unleashed as they gain traction and begin to deliver the practical, cost-effective innovations people are ready to support with their pocketbooks.

Manufacturing
Design opportunities in the manufacturing sector are signaled both by the well-known environmental impacts of industry and the increasing application of sustainable alternatives to conventional cradle-to-grave systems. Following our Cradle to Cradle DesignSM strategy, for example, designers are developing products for closed loop systems in which every ingredient is designed to be safe and beneficial—to either naturally biodegrade and restore the soil or provide high quality resources for subsequent generations of products. These biological nutrients and technical nutrients allow manufacturers to generate and recover value, rather than losing material assets when a product moves out the warehouse door.

Less well known, perhaps, are the security concerns generated by today’s more conventional manufacturers. Over the past decade, American industry has been both utterly traditional and radically revolutionary. While designing and manufacturing a fairly typical array of products with fairly typical materials—that is, materials with unexamined ingredients that often have adverse affects on human and environmental health—it has begun to dismantle the traditional assembly line, shifting it from the local factory floor to contract manufacturers half a world away. Both strategies—the traditional and the new—threaten product quality and the competitive advantage of American industry.

Certainly, many corporations with manufacturing operations overseas have seen their bottom lines grow as they have reaped the advantages of cheap labor and a less strict regulatory environment. But the increasing dispersal of supply and manufacturing has proved to be a double-edged sword. Not only have many businesses overextended themselves in the race for global reach, they are increasingly reliant on factories and supply chains they do not own or manage. Consequently, many products sold by American “manufacturers” are not actually produced in the U.S., and further, when we ask for the detailed chemistry of materials, few companies know what’s actually in their products. Suddenly, it has become quite difficult for a business to stand by measures of quality defined by the social conditions of manufacturing or the environmentally beneficial effects of product ingredients. Thus we have costly high-tech waste management strategies for low quality products rather than high quality products that eliminate the concept of waste. Transnational manufacturing also sets up an economy in which a distant political crisis can upset the steady flow of goods and services.

This business model is beginning to draw concern. As the business journalist Barry Lynn writes, Cisco Systems became the largest manufacturer of communications equipment in the 1990s by becoming a “virtual company,” relying almost exclusively on outsourced production, much of it offshore. Indeed, says Lynn, post-national manufacturing has created “new forms of foreign dependence for the United States that may soon leave us gazing fondly back to the days when our nation was joined at the aorta only to such dear fellow citizens of the world as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.”

“Why,” he wonders, “did we so grievously fail to understand that running our ever more delicate assembly lines across so many fault lines, political and tectonic, might endanger our power and our well-being?”

A New Business Strategy
Why not support our power and well-being by supporting natural and cultural diversity? Why not redesign our energy and manufacturing systems so we can offer the world productive and profitable business models built on design principles that enhance human, environmental and economic health? If we begin now to develop commercial enterprises around proven cradle-to-cradle design protocols, the U.S. can become a world leader in intelligent design and resource recovery, rather than competing on uneven and unhealthy terms within the old industrial system. This would not only protect the health and well-being of American consumers, it would nourish the American economy and the American land. It would also yield exceedingly profitable, effective benchmarks to export to developing nations, rather than exporting harm. Additionally, as we renew product quality, we will also be developing an intellectual infrastructure supporting the making of things that will give us long-term security and prosperity, rather than the tenuous promise offered by the policing of distant oil fields.

Clearly, this is an ambitious strategy. Yet innovations in design, business and government are already laying the groundwork for strategic change. With the transition underway, here’s our strategy for building a strong support system for peaceful economic renewal.

Intelligent Products
High-quality products are the cornerstone of a strong economy. From a sustainable design perspective, quality is a measure of the degree to which a product enhances peaceful prosperity, social equity and environmental health. Within our Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol, achieving high levels of product quality is a step-by-step process of assessing the chemistry and full life cycle of materials so that products can flow within closed-loop systems of manufacture, use and recovery.

As we have seen, the world-spanning supply and assembly line makes this problematic—but it’s hardly impossible. In an effort to effectively manage its supply chain, the furniture assembler Herman Miller has begun to specify a safe materials palette for its suppliers. Nike, meanwhile, is working with offshore contractors to enhance both product quality and workplace health and safety. Both are attending to material chemistry because safe, healthful materials are the key to resource recovery. Small companies are not excluded. At any scale, manufacturers gain a distinct competitive advantage by finding reliable sources for intelligent materials and developing systems for their retrieval and reuse.

Materials Pooling and Corporate Cooperation
With the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive, long-term responsibility for industrial materials became the law in the European Union. While no such legislation appears to be on the horizon in the United States, American companies can begin to recover the value of high-quality industrial materials by participating in Intelligent Materials Pooling.

Intelligent Materials Pooling is a collaborative, business-to-business approach to managing the industrial metabolism. Partners in an intelligent materials pool agree to share access to a common supply of a particular high-tech, high quality material, pooling resources and purchasing power to generate a healthy system of closed-loop material flows.

The process begins with an agreement to phase out a hazardous material common to a number of companies. Out of this shared commitment to intelligent design comes a community of companies with the market strength to effectively engineer the phase-out and develop innovative alternative materials. Together, the companies specify for preferred materials, establish defined use periods for products and services, and create an intelligent materials bank from which each partner withdraws and deposits. This business support system built on cradle-to-cradle principles gives companies the strength and know-how to make materials flow management an ongoing harvest of assets rather than an endless exercise in managing liabilities. Ultimately, it eliminates the concept of waste.

Energy Effectiveness
Even when materials have been defined as safe and beneficial, the energy required to illuminate and run the assembly line is likely to depend on fossil fuels. This need not be so. Despite fossil fuel subsidies, wind, solar and hydrogen power have become a viable alternative to oil. Indeed, as energy writer Matt Bivens has pointed out, “America is the Persian Gulf of wind.” Solar power is also abundant, and the prospects for renewable energy have never been better. Bivens and other energy watchers note:

* Texas, North Dakota and Kansas have enough wind energy to meet America’s electricity needs.
* In Nevada, 100 square miles could produce enough solar electricity to meet the energy needs of the entire nation.
* Germany has already harnessed wind power equivalent to 20 coal-fired power plants and the European Union plans to generate 22 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2010.
* Wind power is now available for less than 4.5 cents per kWh, and up to 90 “green pricing” programs nationwide allow consumers to choose wind and other renewables.

Each of these items is an example of energy effectiveness. Rather than developing an expensive infrastructure to support a scare resource, design for energy effectiveness taps the perpetually abundant forces of the sun and wind to deliver clean, affordable energy to all, as well as new opportunities for innovation. Imagine, for example, the national rail system revitalized by wind power. Railroad rights-of-way, in carefully selected locales, provide ample space for the production of wind power, while the trains themselves are perfectly suited not only for running on the converted energy of the wind, but for carrying locally manufactured, 200-foot windmill blades to new sites along the tracks.

From Regulations to Benchmarks
Intelligent products and systems are designed to be self-supporting, enhancing productivity, profits and sustainability without the carrot of subsidies or the stick of regulations. Yet not all companies have the wherewithal to support the research and development required to design materials so safe and beneficial they require no regulation at all. Sustainable design can become the strategy of choice as its knowledge base becomes widely available and widely promoted. That’s why we have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop new benchmarks that can be presented to industry as alternatives to regulation. As the EPA and other state and federal agencies support industry with design information and know-how, American business will be able to choose good growth: a healthy environment, a productive economy and a better quality of life for all Americans—and for the rest of the world.

Principled Policy
We would also encourage new strategies on Capitol Hill. While a government role is not required in the practice of intelligent design, federal policy does affect the economic landscape and the principles that guide civil society. Among them are those principles that shape the relation between people and nature. For 30 years, a public dialogue led by citizen activists and NGOs has firmly established that the federal government, as well as state and local governments, will be held responsible for protecting America’s air, water and soil. Perhaps now is the time to broaden that conversation to include a dialogue on the relations between economy, ecology and security. What, in this insecure time, is the government’s role?

British Petroleum CEO Lord Browne has said that government should level the energy playing field, eliminating the subsidies that support fossil fuels. “We need to get the market to tell the ecological truth,” he said in a recent interview.

While Lord Browne’s vision is not exactly popular in Congress, Senators John Kerry and Jim Jeffords have proposed harvesting 20 percent of U.S. energy from renewable sources by 2020, while Kerry and John McCain crossed party lines together to push for higher fuel-efficiency standards. Is there a willingness among these and other members of Congress to discuss energy and economic issues in the context of peace, security and sustainable design?

We hope so. It’s time to carry the sustainable design dialogue more deeply into the public realm. The transformation of the U.S. economy depends on it. American security and the security of the world depends on it. If, as the Columbian military officer suggested, there are still so many things the world can learn from America, what is it we will choose to teach?

By teaching intelligent design, by fiercely waging peace, we can take the future into our own hands and shape a world in which our children and our children’s children find prosperity, security and health along with all the world’s citizens—and indeed, along with all the creatures of the Earth.


William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy that works with a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective design and commerce strategies. For more information,
visit www.mbdc.com

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