This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Microbial You, under the title 'Feel the Way'. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.
Hippy Dippy or the way to radical innovation for net positive outcomes? Tom Domen suggests an alternative to metrics as a guide to business.
Having recently spent more time than I wanted in endless discussions on how best to measure the environmental impact of washing and cleaning products, one starts to wonder if all the metrics we have created are only there to provide us with a false sense of being in control: the impression that we could calculate our way out of global warming by carefully hitting the ‘below 2°’ target (or is it now 1.5°?). Not that measuring is not important: with the insights that metrics provide, we can adjust and steer our efforts. But when they become an obsession, we risk losing the big picture. Overall, by nature, businesses tend to feel more comfortable being led by figures (profit and loss and life-cycle analysis alike) than by philosophy. Organisations are run like machines, with rigorous objectives, targets and metrics, and this impacts the way we all structure our journey towards a more sustainable future.
So, is there an alternative? In our quest to be more successful as a business, we at Ecover have always looked for inspiration in the way an ecosystem functions. More than be guided by a set of sustainability metrics, we employ an overall philosophy that is ‘lived’ organically by the organisation. So far, there has been very little oversight by a central sustainability team chasing people down with yet another target.
A couple of lessons we learned from nature: it runs on ‘current sunlight’, it recycles and upcycles nutrients in continuous loops, it uses renewable raw materials and it employs low-energy processes. Nature has evolved over time to develop the most efficient and effective ways of creating and recycling energy, water and materials, the perfect ʻcircular economyʼ model before the term became current. All these deep principles come together in innovative method for making eco-surfactants using a lowenergy biochemical process based on natural fermentation.
There is a careful nuance to be made, as we neither want to romanticise nature nor feel the need to hug trees. We can learn from nature’s systems to invent better solutions to modern design: there’s no need to go back to cave dwelling and foraging in the woods. Nature can be destructive and toxic, but the overall system behind it is pretty damn robust after 3.4 billion years of trial and error.
In nature, resources are valued as a nutrient for the next use, rather than on the cost of energy and resources to mine it safely. And yet, the current metrics only tell me how I can more efficiently perform their safe removal. There are no metrics showing the value of an ingredient as a nutrient in the next phase of its life.
Inspired by how eco-systems deal with resources, we have been trying to pioneer a radical evolution to a biobased economy. Yet, I’m confronted every time by clever calculators that prove me wrong and try to convince me to stick to using fossil resources, because the numbers say so. Learning from eco-systems, we try to diversify the sources of our ingredients and try to find what is locally available. Yet again I’m presented with figures demonstrating why palm oil is so much more efficient.
So, yes, we let ourselves be guided by something as soft as a ‘philosophy’, by something as new age and hippy-like as ‘nature’. But I wonder if it pushes us to pursue more radical goals that in the end will enable us to have a footprint that’s positive overall, both socially and environmentally. At People Against Dirty (the group that comprises Ecover and method) we are convinced that if we can design our business more like an eco-system, we can evolve to having a ‘real’ long-term benefit. This philosophy drives everything we do, from the way we want to inspire our own employees to more organically flow to their potential – to be happy, live fully – to designing products that restore a healthy balance for people and the planet, instead of just avoiding nasty chemicals.
If you have to measure a result, it’s not big enough.
Tom Domen is EU Head of Greenkeeping and Long Term Innovation, Ecover and a member of Forum for the Future's Network.
Image: Sérgio Rola / Unsplash