Thursday, 19 Jun 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

I’ve devoted today to research. Our research team is working on some fantastic projects and one of my highest priorities is getting the results of these efforts into the right people’s hands and minds.

The projects are all cross-cutting and highly strategic. We typically take on issues that multiple companies and industries are dealing with, such as: What is a sustainable material or product? Or to put it more simply: What is sustainable stuff? We see the confusion around this issue as an obstacle to furthering sustainability efforts and at the same time as a huge opportunity to move the field forward. Our goal is always to provide clarity and to generate practical guidelines for action.

What exactly does this mean we are doing? If I had to sum it up in a few words, I would say: creating pathways.

Take the example of our design initiative. I used to work for a famous architect who lived by the philosophy, “Everyone is a designer.” If you look at your own life in this way, you’ll see the truth in his statement. Consider the outfits you assemble, the way you decorate your home, and the meals you choose to prepare. Think about all the decisions you make in a day and the filters you may not even know you use to make them. Now imagine if your decisions multiplied by thousands. You put on orange pants and your whole office wears orange pants. You cook spaghetti and your whole neighborhood eats spaghetti.

This isn’t too different from how professional designers operate. They choose blue leather and reams of it is purchased. They design a laptop bag and millions are produced. The goal of our design initiative is to insert sustainability criteria into the design process at the very beginning, so that designers consider the life of a product from “cradle to grave” and have a clear pathway to follow.

In partnership with IDEO, a leading international design firm, we have merged our sustainability principles with best practices in product design to develop a useful set of guidelines and a methodology for designers. Today I’ll meet with Bob Adams, the designer leading this project. We are working on finalizing the handbook, developing graphics to help communicate the ideas it contains, brainstorming ways to get press coverage on the initiative, and generating an overarching, strategic-outreach plan.

For the outreach plan, I’ll borrow some ideas from another plan I’m developing for our Food, Fish, and Fiber initiative. This project draws on the needs and challenges of closely linked industries. It aims to promote a systems approach to sustainability for industrial-scale users of these resources.

Look around and you’ll quickly see how instrumental food, fish, and fiber are to our basic existence. These renewable resources grow in interconnected ecosystems and currently face significant challenges to their safe and steady supply. Despite the great work being done to address the problem, there isn’t much clarity for companies trying to make environmentally and socially responsible purchasing decisions. We believe the more clearly a vision of sustainable food, fish and fiber can be articulated, the greater the chance that businesses (and their supply chains) will understand and begin changing procurement practices. The food, fish, and fiber research initiative seeks to provide this clear vision and steps for action.

As you can probably imagine, developing the pitch for this initiative is going to be tricky. It is an incredibly complex project and yet has the potential to profoundly change some critical industries.

I also have a meeting today with Sissel Waage, the head of our research department. She has spent over a year editing a book titled, Ants, Galileo, and Gandhi: Re-Shaping Business through Nature, Genius, and Compassion. I’ve been working with Sissel on everything from the title to copyediting to cover art; now it’s time to talk book promotion.

The book will be published this fall and is largely a result of The Natural Step’s 2002 conference on sustainability and innovation. Conference presenters wrote most of the chapters. Together, they tell the story of how sustainability concepts and practices are beginning to permeate the economic landscape. It will be important to get some opinion leaders and well-known public figures to review the book. Our objective is for it to appeal to mainstream society and to inform the sustainability community.

As The Natural Step fulfills its goals of creating new pathways that point toward sustainability, my job is to make the pathways accessible and lead people to them.