A Rallying Cry of Hope

May 20, 1999

By Michael Jessen

Environment Week will be celebrated in Canada from May 30 to June 5 and sustainability is this year’s rallying cry of hope.

The UN World Commission on Environment and Development – the Bruntland Commission – stated in 1987 that sustainability be widely adopted as a policy theme.

To the average person, it may seem that little has occurred. In fact, hundreds of organizations, institutions and companies are pushing humanity toward a sustainable future – one in which the actions of the present generation do not restrict the choices of future generations.

One of the most exciting developments has been the rise of corporate responsibility. While the negative influences of some corporations is well known, others are proving that corporations have the combination of skills, resources, agility, and motivation needed to be powerful agents of positive change in the transition to a sustainable economy.

The carpet manufacturer Interface has stated the problem in nutshell: “Industrialism developed in a different world from the one we live in today: fewer people, less material well-being, plentiful natural resources. What emerged was a highly productive, take-make-waste system that assumed infinite resources and infinite sinks for industrial wastes. Industry moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, wastes, pumps and disposes of four million pounds of material in order to provide one average, middle-class North American family their needs for a year. Today, the rate of material throughput is endangering our prosperity, not enhancing it.”

Interface recognized, with the help of its corporate consultant (the Rocky Mountain Institute), that it needed to become a company that addressed the needs of society and the environment by developing a system of industrial production that decreases its costs and dramatically reduces the burdens placed upon living systems.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) launched a process to upgrade energy and materials efficiency throughout the operation, green the corporate culture, and integrate floor-covering products with advanced concepts in whole-building green design.

Interface started leasing floor-covering services instead of selling carpet. It began taking back worn carpet tiles and using them in the production of new tiles, an innovation that will eventually eliminate the firm’s oil use when its materials loops are closed.

Another RMI client was Carrier, the world’s largest maker of air conditioners. This company also started leasing comfort services rather than selling air conditioners, another indication of how our society is moving from a manufacturing or industrial economy to a service economy that sells functions not products. In the near future, automobile makers will be strictly in the leasing business and they will be responsible for the maintenance and ultimate disposal of the vehicle.

By accepting that we live in a world that is constantly evolving, we give ourselves the mindset to reimagine and redesign the things we do. Individuals can recycle, conserve energy at home and find ways to use their cars less. Businesses can lead the way to the next industrial revolution and become restorative enterprises.

Hope does lie in sustainability because unsustainability cannot continue.

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