The following is adapted from "The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier," by John Elkington, just released by Taylor & Francis. Elkington is the pioneering founder of SustainAbility, the think tank and consultancy just celebrating its 25th year. In this book, John Elkington introduces the Zeronauts – a new breed of innovator, determined to drive problems such as carbon, waste, toxics and poverty to zero – as well as creating the first Zeronaut Roll of Honor, spotlighting 50 pioneers in the field of zero.
For most business people, the term “zero” most likely triggers associations with the total quality management (TQM) agendas, as in “zero defects.” The approach’s champions argue that it “is a way of thinking and doing that reinforces the notion that defects are not acceptable, and that everyone should ‘do things right the first time.’ The idea here is that with a philosophy of zero defects, you can increase profits both by eliminating the cost of failure and increasing revenues through increased customer satisfaction.”
They also see the approach as “adaptable to any situation, business, profession or industry.” The inevitable question then is “whether or not zero defects is [sic] ever attainable. Essentially, does adopting a zero defect environment only set users up for failure? Zero defects is not about being perfect. Zero defects is about changing your perspective.”
Yes, it is clear that we need to change our mindsets, behaviors, cultures and, ultimately, our underlying paradigm. But as we push toward a 1-Earth Paradigm, business leaders must be careful about how they talk in public about all of this. Italy’s Enel, for example, claims – under the banner headline “Our energy will always be powered by your dreams” – that “starting with the dream of zero emission energy, we developed power stations … with technology that can capture and store CO2, which means they don’t use chimneys.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what proportion of their production does this now account for? Is it more than one plant? And still perhaps not the sort of thing, despite the dreamy words, that you would perhaps want in your back garden or in the heart of your community.
One well-known firm that has been producing ads spotlighting its ambitions for zero emissions and zero waste is the BMW Group. Among the taglines: “We’re bringing zero emissions within reach” and "We’re the first company to recycle 100 percent of our waste.” Well, in relation to that last claim, the company is not quite at 100 percent, but more like 96 percent. It modestly continues, “ahead of us is perfection, and we’re not slowing down.”
It’s hard not to admire the panache, but at least one of those ads -- one that ran in the U.K. -- got the German automaker into hot water in one of its major markets. The caption of the ad read: “The BMW Concept ActiveE is the first BMW to be powered purely by electricity”, and used the tagline “100 percent joy, 0 percent emissions.” Inevitably, someone complained that the claim of “zero CO2 when driving” could not be substantiated because the car would be charged with electricity from the relevant utility, which would result in emissions. BMW retorted that the inclusion of the phrase “when driving” limited the claim, and did not suggest the ad was referring to the vehicle’s entire life cycle.
However, the Advertising Standards Authority referred to a previous judgment when it banned a Renault ad for its “zero emissions” electric car range. Viewers had complained that Renault’s “zero-emission vehicles” line did not take the full life cycle of the vehicle into account, and the complaint was upheld. This was a small skirmish in a series of battles in a wider war to adapt our economic and business models to 1-Earth realities. In the context of the infinitely greater challenge of pushing our entire civilization through the Sustainability Barrier, BMW’s problems are small beer, but they hint at the complexities that will characterize this entire area.