Sustainability – Where industrial ecology & business collide

Earth Inc. knits together the principles of industrial ecology and business

I have long felt that business will need to develop a new set of core competencies in a sustainable world.  In my Thesis (which I gratefully completed last year) I called them “Green Core Competencies“.  And while I listed a set of knowledge and skills that might be required for these “Green Core Competencies”, they were disjointed and not well developed.  At the time it was clear that “industrial ecology” was a piece to the puzzle. 

Things became a little clearer in the Sustainability Learning Centre’s Industrial Ecology Webinar Course this summer.  Instructor Tracy Casavant, President of Eco-Industrial Solutions defined industrial ecology as:   “…a rapidly-growing field that systematically examines local, regional and global materials and energy uses and flows in products, processes, industrial sectors and economies. It focuses on the potential role of industry in reducing environmental burdens throughout the product life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, to the production of goods, to the use of those goods and to the management of the resulting wastes. ”  Al-l-l-l-righty then – if I lost you, don’t worry, the idea that “nature’s” rules can apply to business or industry seems a little questionnable to many people. 

Then, fast forward to a webinar I attended yesterday hosted by Harvard Business Press.  Gregory Unruh was talking about his new book “Earth Inc.:  Using Nature’s Rules to Build Sustainable Profit”. I think that Gregory is onto something!  After studying countless companies, Unruh has settled upon a set of “Biosphere Rules” or industrial ecology principles that businesses can and have implemented.  When taken together they are the basis for sustainability in business.  The five principles are: 

  1.   Materials parsimony.   Minimize the types of materials used in products with a focus on materials that are life-friendly and economically recyclable.
  2. Power autonomy. Maximize the power autonomy of products and processes so they can function on renewable energy.
  3. Value cycles. Recover and reincarnate materials from end-of-use goods into new value-added products.
  4. Sustainable product platforms. Leverage your value cycle as a product platform for profitable scale, scope, and knowledge economies.
  5. Function over form. Fulfill customers’ functional needs in ways that sustain the value cycle.

While none of this information is new (these are principles of industrial ecology), I appreciate the way that Unruh has packaged them together and demonstrated how companies have been using them successfully (and profitably) for a long time.   This book holds real value for those who have been struggling with how the elements of sustainability fit together.  If we can do business within the natural laws of the planet a real systems approach can emerge. 

Dr. Unruh is professor of global business at Thunderbird School of Global Management and director of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management.  He co-founded the Center for Eco-Intelligent Management along with William McDonough (renowned “green” designer) and also has served as a technical reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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