Can manufacturing save the world? Inspiration from Tesla, Owens Corning

Photo of industrial metal working
ShutterstockVadim Ratnikov
The wheels of change are turning in favor of green chemistry, transparent design and living products.

This article originally was published in Trim Tab, the International Living Future Institute's magazine for transformational people and design.

Manufacturing and industrial production long have been the poster children for what is wrong with our current economic system. For decades, the environmental movement has been focused on battling industry to clean up its act. It is assumed that business is bad and that economic growth is necessarily at odds with protecting the environment.

These assumptions are not unjustified. In fact, progress in science, technology and the industrial revolution can be largely to blame for many key issues that are dramatically impacting our planet: CO2 levels continue to rise well past levels considered safe to maintain our current climate and way of living; synthetic persistent toxic chemicals can be found in almost all life on earth, with profound environmental and public health consequences; and overdraft of water supplies is depleting geological reserves not replaceable on the timescale of human lifespans. 

While the story of our technological progress can be viewed in a very negative light — showing how technology largely has served to provide humanity the capability for even greater, more profound and more dangerous impact on the planet. It also can be viewed as a story of incredible progress — a series of extraordinary feats in engineering and ingenuity, with a global impact that is truly awe-inspiring.

Since the Industrial Revolution, although we continue to lag behind many areas of the world, we have seen massive progress globally in public health, poverty alleviation and economic empowerment. But that progress has come at a cost, and our ecological debt is coming due. 

However, assuming that industrial production is necessarily negative discounts humanity’s capacity for innovation. We have done incredible things before — conquered space travel, cracked the atom, created a global communication network that has transformed industry and commerce. Now it is time to harness the same ingenuity and creativity to effect positive change on the environment.

The Living Product Challenge puts forth a radical vision: Can we remake our global product system of manufactured goods to create a framework in which industry works in harmony with nature and to the benefit of society and the environment? Fortunately there are key signs that the transition to a truly regenerative economy is already underway.

Green chemistry 

The incredible rise in CO2 emissions since the Industrial Revolution has been paralleled by a growth in the production of synthetic chemicals and compounds. This is not surprising, as petrochemical derivatives, the leftovers of fossil fuel production, are the building blocks of modern plastics and synthetic chemical industry. This also makes them artificially cheap; not only are they often waste products of fuel production, they benefit from the fossil fuel subsidies.

Many of these synthetic materials are persistent, bio-accumulative toxic compounds that never before have existed in nature and don’t break down in the environment.

They are showing up in all life forms on earth, and the overall toxic load in humans are increasing. Toxic chemicals such as mercury are found in 89 percent of children in the U.S., Bisphenol A in 96 percent and halogenated flame retardants in nearly every child, while autism, asthma and other chronic diseases are on the rise. The links between these chemicals, the built environment and health outcomes are becoming increasingly clear.

As John Warner, widely considered the father of green chemistry, has stated, we must redesign the fundamental building blocks of our industrial economy if we are to create a truly sustainable future. He argued that we should design new molecules and chemical processes that are inherently less dangerous and energy intensive. By starting with the right inputs, we can create industrial processes that actually work within natural systems, instead of degrading them. 

Innovative companies such as Evocative Design are illuminating a new path forward. Instead of creating plastic foam derived from fossil fuels that have to be extracted, refined, coated with toxic flame-retardants and shipped across the globe, it creates foam by growing mushroom spores in an agricultural medium. Through this process, Evocative literally can grow a product that can be used for plastic foam, chair backing and product packaging.

Green chemistry even can offer the potential to solve current environmental issues. In an inspiring example of industrial ecology, a start-up called Blue Planet is completely reimagining the production of concrete, one of the most common building products. Concrete is composed of water, aggregate, cement and various other admixtures that influence its performance and strength. Portland cement, the most common cement, is produced by calcining limestone (CaCO3) under extremely high heat, which drives off CO2 to create calcium oxide (CaO). The energy used to produce heat and the CO2 that is released as a result of the calcination process makes Portland cement production one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Blue Planet is revolutionizing this process by using calcium carbonate cement instead of calcium oxide. The calcium is derived from seawater and the carbonate comes from CO2 harvested from the flues of coal-fired power plants, producing both cement and limestone that can be used for aggregate. Instead of generating greenhouse gases, this process sequesters tons of CO2 that would have been released in the atmosphere. As an added benefit, the process of concentrating calcium to create limestone is complementary to the demineralization of water necessary for desalination, a growing need as our water resources decline. 

Net positive enterprise

A growing group of companies and NGOs recognize that simply reducing a company’s negative impact is not enough. Companies also must maximize the positive impact of their products and operations. In the Living Product Challenge, we not only ask companies to reduce their negative impacts of footprints, but also maximize their positive impact, or handprints — a measure of the sum total of positive actions versus business as usual. 

This growing net positive movement is igniting innovative entrepreneurs and large multinational corporations alike. Jeffrey Hollender, the co-founder of Seventh Generation, stated, "Net positive is the most promising and hopeful framework that I’m aware of. If pursued by business, [the net positive mindset] would lead to dramatic positive impact for the planet and society." 

An entrepreneurial start-up and pilot for the Living Product Challenge, Bureo Skateboards, has founded its business on the concept of net positive (or rather, net positiva). The company trains and empowers mainly unemployed women in Chile to gather discarded fishnets (nearly 10 percent of plastic pollution in the ocean). The fishnets are collected and repurposed into a resin used to produce skateboards and other high-quality goods. The company also recycles a portion of the proceeds back into coastal communities. 

Net positive strategies not only make good social and environmental sense, they also make good business sense. As consumers become more aware and concerned about the impact of their decision on the environment and society, sustainable products and services are becoming more valuable. A recent report from the Conference Board shows that growth in revenue and profit for sustainable products is significantly outpacing conventional products.

Energy

The Living Product Challenge not only asks companies to create products that are net positive energy across their lifecycle, but also requires that the factories in which the products are produced are completely powered by renewable energy. The rapid decline in the cost of solar and wind energy is making switching to renewable energy increasingly economical.

In the state of Hawaii, solar energy is already significantly cheaper than buying it from the grid. In fact, renewable energy is already at grid parity in the U.S. as a whole, although individual states lag behind. At this point, it is no longer cost that is holding us back from a completely renewably powered future, but a slow-moving utility and energy distribution system that is deeply invested in the current paradigm.

Innovative companies are overturning many previously held views about how rapidly we can switch over our energy grid. Tesla Powerwall is one of those disruptive innovations. All of a sudden, utilities that have been resisting distributed power generation with backward net metering restrictions and limits on solar array sizes are facing the possibility that customers will defect from the grid. As the cost of energy storage comes down, producing and storing your own energy is quickly becoming cheaper than a connection to the grid.

Innovative companies such as One Earth Designs, a pilot for the Living Product Challenge, are developing disruptive new technologies — in this case, solar ovens that could help the developing world leapfrog over many infrastructure challenges that have plagued the developed world. Just as the cellphone has eliminated the need for massive, centralized technology, communication and banking infrastructures, solar ovens and renewable energy with on-site storage could make traditional centralized power generation systems obsolete.

Water

The Living Product Challenge asks manufacturers if they can operate within the water balance of their site and create a water handprint that is greater than the water footprint of the product across its lifecycle. While the short-term economics of water are not as compelling as energy, the business risks are perhaps much larger.

Climate scientists describe the ongoing drought in California as the beginning of a 100-year megadrought across the American West. We have depleted geological reserves left over from the last ice age to a point where we simply can’t drill or pump our way out of the problem.

As the LPC team has been traveling across the country meeting with manufacturers to pilot the program, it is continually surprising to see large warehouse roofs where rain is considered stormwater runoff, a nuisance that must be "managed." Given the business risks of declining water resources, doesn’t it make business sense to turn rain into a beneficial resource?

Transparency + open innovation

Overcoming the inertia of an entrenched industrial system with networks of sprawling supply chains and vested interests will not be easy. It took an incredible amount of time, effort, persistence and human ingenuity to get where we are, and making progress in turning the ship around will require re-thinking many of the ways we have done business in the past. 

Consider the electric car industry. Elon Musk realized that if his company were the only one to pursue electric batteries and the infrastructure to support Tesla’s fleet of vehicles, he could be the largest player in a small market. Tesla’s progress would be limited. So Tesla went against standard practice of keeping business information confidential and instead released its battery technology and patents in an open innovation strategy so that the company can be part of a broader, industry-wide transformation. 

A similar transformation is underway in the way that companies approach the inventory and screening of chemicals used in their products. Just three years ago, it was assumed that companies in the building product industry simply would not disclosure the ingredients they were using in products under any circumstance.

A whole infrastructure of proprietary certification programs evolved based on this assumption, and chemical analysis screening and assessment was incredibly expensive, as each company had to analyze its own ingredients and supply chain in isolation. However, since the release of Declare and other transparency platforms, leading manufacturers are fully disclosing their ingredients, and many more are following in their footsteps. 

Transparency and open innovation are fundamental to industry transformation for two reasons. First, transparency gives consumers knowledge to make good choices about the healthiest products to use (as well as product designers when they are selecting materials).

Second, transparency creates a system of shared learning and collaboration where the entire industry can advance together through open innovation, instead of each company struggling in isolation to inventory and assess chemicals in its own platform. If companies and industries work together to demand transparency and better materials using a common framework, we could see rapid progress.

To facilitate this kind of uncommon cooperation, the Institute has created the Living Product 50 (LP50), a group of 50 companies dedicated to transforming the materials industry through collaboration, innovation and sharing of best practices within and across industries. The vision is simple: Can businesses get outside their competitive bubbles to work together to be a force for a good in the transition toward a Living Future?  

The world’s first living products

A select group of manufacturers drawn from the LP50 including Teknion, Owens Corning, Bureo Skateboard and One Earth Design are actively working to develop the world’s first Living Products. The Living Product Team recently conducted a charrette at the Owens Corning Science and Technology Facility in Granville, Ohio, to reimagine the company’s products and chart a path forward to Living Product Certification. Owens Corning fully has embraced the concept of Handprinting in its work, and it is not only reducing the negative impact of its operations, but also is measuring and expanding its positive impact.

Product leaders from each of its major insulation product lines, including XPS, Thermafiber and fiberglass, joined the workshop. Using the Living Product Challenge as a framework, each team brainstormed how it could move its product toward completely renewable, bio-based feedstocks, eliminate any chemicals of concern, and then reimagine the product, production facilities and corporate practices to create net positive impact. 

The charrette was followed by a factory tour of Owens Corning’s "AttiCat" loose fill insulation facility — which produces zero waste, has dramatically lower water use, uses no chemical binders and engages each employee as a business partner to ensure safety, job satisfaction and efficiency of operation. After the workshop and tour it was easy for the Living Product and Owens Corning team to envision a future when the factory is powered completely by renewable energy, operating within the water balances of its site, while providing a home for biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

The creativity and excitement brought by the Owens Corning team demonstrates the potential for the Living Product Challenge framework to inspire the out-of-the box thinking necessary to remaking our industrial system to work for the benefit of people and the planet. 

Can manufacturing save the world? We have a long way to go, but through the Living Product Challenge, we are seeing signs pointing in the right direction.

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