Industry, Asia and the natural world

Friday, February 3rd, 2012
Cradle-to-cradle

Asia has led the world since the global financial crisis hit much of the developed world and looks set to see further robust growth in 2012.  Standard & Poor's has, however, warned that the region cannot be entirely immune from economic risks elsewhere, particularly in Europe and the USA, and that may have impacts including interest rate cuts and an increase in stimulus spending[1]

The pace of development across the region over recent decades has meant unprecedented advances in technology, prosperity and consumption, with Asian economies now well-placed to consolidate growth in the second half of the year, according to Reuters.

The economies of Asian countries, which together represent nearly 25 per cent of the world’s landmass and three in five of the world’s population, are changing at a bewildering rate, not least in the numbers of people moving to urban areas.  Indeed, one estimate suggests that up to half of all Asians will soon be city-dwellers, underlining how it is Asian cities – rather than countries and regions – which are behind economic growth.

That move from a rural to an urban economy, driven by the industrial sector, is having significant environmental impacts in a region that is particularly vulnerable to climate change, experiencing everything from rising sea levels and cyclones to flooding and drought. While there is a justifiable need for economic growth, the environmental imperative has also never been so important.

A new balance

China, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and India are all making significant investments aimed at reducing carbon footprints and other environmental impacts through innovation.  China, for example, wants to produce 16 percent of its primary energy from renewable sources by 2020.  South Korea has a policy and investment framework for green growth in its 2009–13 five-year plan, and Japan is aiming for 1.5 million new environment-related jobs in a national plan for green innovation.

All of that, and much more, is about finding a new balance between the natural and man-made worlds, and an influential new philosophy is helping to reshape how companies can adapt to the environmental agenda, and develop sustainable polices than can actually be good for business.

That philosophy was heralded in the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by the German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough.  Published in 2002, it introduced cradle-to-cradle concept, the central premise of which is that products should be conceived from the very start with intelligent design and the intention that they will eventually be recycled, as either “technical” or “biological” nutrients.

Cradle-to-cradle models human industry on the natural world, in which materials are nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It’s a philosophy that uses nature as a template for how we can redesign everything that we do – including manufacturing industry – to be more eco-effective.

It sounds deceptively simple but it actually turns conventional sustainability on its head because convention is all about a language of negatives. The green convention talks about “minimising” human impacts, “zero footprints,” “banning” harmful substances or “reducing” energy use.

Instead, cradle-to-cradle takes ethics out of the equation and paints an optimistic picture. It recognises that bad and polluting products are not unethical, they are just poorly designed. Conversely, good and non-polluting products are not ethical, they are simply well designed.

In the living environment, materials are constantly being transformed without losing their capacity as nutrients; however, rotten apples are not recycled back into new apples: instead, they are transformed by chemical and other processes into nutrients for other organisms.

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