Reimagining commerce through products with purpose
I have spent the past 6.5 years of my career at the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) working on sustainable manufacturing initiatives. This experience has opened my eyes to the power of commerce, both positive and negative. In fact, working on product sustainability has begun to fundamentally change my relationship to the products around me. Right now, sitting here at my desk, I have a newly purchased pair of sunglasses. When I look at them, I can’t think of them as just sunglasses. Instead, I think about who made them, where and with what materials. When I see the ordinary things around me, I can’t help but wonder, what made them possible?
Problematic mindset and value: plastic fantastic
The specific plastic these glasses are made of is Nylon 6. But what makes Nylon 6 possible? It turns out, the feedstock for Nylon 6 is benzene. Benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon and carcinogen, extracted from crude oil in an incredibly high energy- and water-consuming process. The creation of cheap benzene that feeds the nylon industry is based on a vast system of petroleum extraction and refining that spans the globe and touches nearly every aspect of our global economy.
As our modern economy has developed and advanced, we have relied largely on oil and other hydrocarbons for fuel. In the extraction and refining of these fossil fuels — or "Dead Dinosaurs," as Elon Musk would say — you end up with a lot of leftovers. The remnants of those petroleum byproducts are the basis for a cheap, innovative material we have come to depend upon: plastic. Not surprisingly, these man-made chemistries also don’t break down naturally, and we are rapidly discovering that many ingredients in the things we use every day have significant impact to human and environmental health.
The use of toxic chemicals in plastic production and other manufacturing processes is so ubiquitous that it is affecting nearly every life form on earth. Persistent toxic chemicals are essentially unavoidable — according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, BPA, a plastic additive with harmful fertility and reproductive side effects, is found in 90 percent of baby umbilical cords, along with a host of other problematic synthetic chemistries. Toxins are so pervasive in our bodies they are leading to dramatic health impacts on the entire human population. A global rise in learning disabilities, cancer, obesity and a host of other diseases can be correlated to a global rise in toxic chemical production and use.
A lack of transparency in the market has concealed this usage and accumulation of toxic chemicals from consumers. For example, when I started my career at the institute in 2012, it was nearly impossible to get any ingredient information about building products, products that daily affect the health of occupants, construction workers and communities surrounding factories.
It is now clear to almost anyone deeply involved sustainable manufacturing that there are fatal flaws in this current system. We might quibble about which chemicals are worse, the best methodology to evaluate them and how to balance trade-offs, but overall, as an industry, we agree something must change.
So if we are all in agreement that the system is fundamentally flawed, what made this system possible? Why are we are polluting our air, our water and releasing enough greenhouse gas emissions to change the global climate? Why are we continuing to create chemicals that threaten our survival as a species?
I believe the root cause is our mindset and values as a society that we can trace back to some foundational, yet problematic ideas. Milton Friedman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976, and considered the father of modern neoliberal economics, argued that businesses’ only appropriate social responsibility was to increase profits. That mindset pitted profit against environmental protection and social welfare. And for a very long time, companies used that logic to pollute. They believed financial performance would suffer if they considered social and environmental good. In this quest for profit, we created massive damage to human health and the environment that we are just now starting to feel.
The era of corporate responsibility
Fortunately, our conception of business has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades. Peter Drucker, one of the best-known management consultants and business authors, famously stated that "the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer." Companies began to realize that listening and gaining the trust of their customer was key to their long-term success and profitability. Consumer demand and pressure helped usher in a new era of corporate responsibility.
I believe we are on the verge of an even more fundamental transformation. Companies are actively engaging in the critical social and environmental issues of our time, and using their marketing power to help drive social and cultural transformation.
Nike’s groundbreaking 2018 ad campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick in his public NFL protest against police brutality, is a recent example of how companies can use their market power to educate and push forward a necessary, if not controversial, conversation. Rather than the ad hurting sales, by taking a bold position on these issues Nike’s online sales and year-end stock valuation skyrocketed. This successful campaign was followed by another powerful "Dream Crazier" campaign featuring inspiring female athletes discussing gender equity in sports.
Companies are beginning to stretch even further, going beyond stakeholder engagement and social commentary, to a new era of innovative corporate responsibility. These companies are strategically searching and finding critical social and environmental problems, and then building their business around solving those problems; their customers and stakeholders become partners in those solutions.
Bureo works with local fishing communities in Chile to pull cast-off fishing nets out of the water, clean them, grind them into plastic pellets and then manufacture them into high quality consumer goods using a manufacturing process powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Even a portion of Bureo’s revenue becomes recycled, donated back into supporting social and economic development in those coastal communities — further building these communities’ capacity to clean up the ocean.
Bureo was started by three surfers who got fed up with swimming in ocean plastic on their favorite beaches. They decided to build a company around solving that problem. Instead of finding or creating new consumers, they identified a problem and then partnered with their customers to find a solution, harnessing the power of business to scale impact. Bureo provides the plastic pellets, called NetPlus, as a feedstock and input for other companies, including Patagonia and Humanscale. Humanscale’s Ocean Chair uses eight pounds of recycled ocean plastic, meaning that every time they ship an order of chairs, a ton of plastic is pulled out of the ocean, more renewable energy is created and more investment is put back into the local villages to support economic development.
Products with purpose
Net Positive Living Products are not just confined to innovative start-ups such as Bureo. ILFI is partnering with the world’s largest manufacturing companies to create Living Products at scale, ensuring their products are not only environmentally net positive, but also ensuring that each of their handprinting actions has a social co-benefit.
For instance, Mohawk, the world’s largest flooring manufacturer, is offsetting the entire energy footprint of its Living Products in an incredibly strategic way. Partnering with Groundswell, a non-profit dedicated to developing community solar projects and programs that connect solar power with economic empowerment, Mohawk is installing solar flowers in low-income communities and supporting STEM programs to reduce utility bills and train the next generation for high-quality jobs.
It’s also important to note that for Mohawk, doing the right thing is actually the most profitable thing. Mohawk’s first Living Product, the Lichen collection, was one of the company's fastest-selling commercial product launches and has become a top-selling style in less than a year.
Companies pursuing the Living Product Challenge are among a group of bold innovative thinkers that are re-imagining commerce. We now have 21 certified Living Products from both innovative start-ups and the world’s largest manufacturing companies, along with dozens more in the pipeline. Together, these manufacturers are starting to create a new industrial ecosystem that massively can reduce waste and solve global crises — at scale. Imagine the world’s largest companies cooperating to solve our greatest challenges, instead of competing on price in a race to the bottom. Imagine deploying the world’s wealthiest corporations working together to search out and solve the world’s most intractable issues, then bringing their customers along in finding a solution.
I encourage everyone to start thinking more deeply about the products around you and imagining what is possible. Let’s not accept the glasses, coffee cup or office chair presented to us without asking the hard questions and spending a moment to imagine what if. What if every act of design and production made the world a better place?
Each product is a tool by which we can re-imagine business, manufacturing and how we relate to each other as a society. Each product can be proof that a new way of doing business is possible if we shift our mindset and our values. The Living Product Challenge is not just a certification program; it is an idea for how we can re-organize ourselves as a society, to regenerate people and the planet. There is no limit to what businesses can achieve when we work together.