Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Imagine No Possessions

“How many times do they expect me to buy the White Album?” This question expresses a common frustration about the continuous improvement in audio-visual technology: The Beatles released the White Album in 1968 as an LP, then we bought it on cassette or 8-track tape, then we bought the CD, then there was Super-Audio CD, and then…

But something new has happened: now you can buy the license to download the White Album to your hard drive, and the purchase gives you the right to listen to those songs, in whatever form you want, for the rest of your life. Instead of buying some thing—a record, cassette, CD—you buy the listening rights.

A bonus: we don’t have to store all those tapes and disks in our houses anymore.

The same goes for movies: why have shelves full of DVDs? You can drive to the video store, or better yet, download a movie from NetFlix and watch it instantly. In effect we are renting the right to watch a film instead of purchasing our own copy.

These examples, common experiences for many of us, are the vanguard of what Paul Hawken calls the “next industrial revolution.” This revolution is described in Hawken’s book Natural Capitalism: “The first of natural capitalism’s four interlinked principles is radically increased resource productivity. The others are: redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste; shifting from the sale of goods (for example, light bulbs) to the provision of services (illumination); and reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of prosperity.”

Ray Anderson is the founder and (until recently) chairman of a global corporation doing more than $1 billion in annual sales, and he is trying to implement these principles. Anderson’s company, Interface, based in Atlanta, is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile. In 1994 he was asked to give his company’s salespeople some talking points about Interface’s approach to the environment. So he started reading about environmental issues, and thinking about them.

He was inspired by Hawken’s writings and began implementing natural capitalism’s principles in his carpet business, particularly the ideas about closed loops and the provision of services instead of sale of goods.

Biological systems operate in loops, where one creature’s waste is another’s food—in nature there is no such thing as waste. Our current industrial system operates in a straight-line: materials are extracted and used to manufacture products; products are sold to consumers; products are owned and used by consumers; when products wear out they are discarded by the consumer into landfills. This system results in lots of waste.

Anderson and Hawken envision a new industrial system based on circular processes, where materials for any given product are continuously reused in a loop. A product is manufactured and leased to a consumer who uses it until it wears out, at which time the producer replaces it with a new product. The producer doesn’t discard anything, but recycles all the worn materials into new products, which are then placed in a consumer’s home to replace worn-out items…

In this new scheme, we don’t buy things any more; we lease their use.

For example, Anderson’s company has developed a program they call “Evergreen Lease”: a customer doesn’t purchase carpet from Interface; they lease “carpet service.” Interface installs, maintains, and regularly replaces worn carpet tiles.

Anderson writes in his book Mid-Course Correction: “The customer pays by the month for color, texture, warmth, beauty, acoustics—the services carpet delivers—and avoids the landfill liability altogether; that’s our problem, and we intend to convert that liability into an asset through closed loop recycling…The economic viability of the Evergreen Lease for us and its ultimate value to Earth depend on our closing the loop. That is, we must be able to recycle used carpet fiber into new carpet fiber.”

Have you ever tried to recycle a computer? Some large computer manufacturers like Dell will take your old computer in exchange for a new one, but they just send them off to China or an African country and poor people strip the components for useable parts, incurring considerable risk to their health in the process from all the toxic components.

Hawken is talking about a future where we will lease “computer service” from a company such as Dell and they will be completely responsible for ensuring the components from old computers are reused. What this will do is spur innovation in building computers (and everything else) so they can be easily and safely dismantled and recycled/reused.

Imagine leasing the service of refrigerating food! You would no longer actually own a refrigerator, just lease the cold space. The manufacturer would take care of it when it needs replacing and would be responsible for dismantling it and reusing all the components. As a result, the refrigerator would be designed in such a way that it could continuously feed the materials loop.

Why does John Lennon’s song “Imagine” keep playing in my head:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

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