The term Sustainability - the ability of healthy ecosystems to continue functioning indefinitely - is increasingly being applied to business.
Whilst there is a lot of confusion about what sustainability is, we already know exactly what sustainability looks like - because the planet's biosphere provides us with a perfect model which has successfully operated for billions of years. As Gregory Unruh points out ("The Biosphere Rules", Harvard Business Review Feb 2008), enterprising companies are already applying biosphere rules for both environmental and economic gain. Scarcity of resources combined with increasing legislation in areas such as waste and recycling means more and more companies are going to need to exploit these biosphere rules. Here are three:
Rule 1: Use a Parsimonious Palette
Do more with less. Just four elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen) out of a possible palette of 115 or so elements form the basis of all life. So simplify the supply chain and make recycling easier by rethinking your sourcing strategies and dramatically reducing the number and types of materials used in your company's production. Rethink design to ask not "What is the best material for this application?" but "What design will meet our product specifications using our chosen materials?"
Rule 2: Cycle Up - Virtuously
When an organism dies, its elements become available to build another organism so that materials can be endlessly up-cycled. Up-cycling maintains the value of materials between generations of recycled product without loss of quality or performance. Down-cycling in contrast destroys the original value, as when a plastic computer casing is melted into a speed bump.
Rule 3: Exploit the Power of Platforms
Earth is populated by 30-100 million species, all of which share the same carbon-based architecture. General purpose and endlessly adaptable, this strategy is so successful that life has adapted to exist everywhere on the planet. Rather like another general purpose architecture, Microsoft's Windows!
Shaw Industries is one business that has used these rules in the manufacture of carpet tiles. It uses a small palette of specially developed non-toxic carpet fibres and backings which can be endlessly recycled and reused without ever losing performance or functionality. The company has developed an integrated production system that takes carpet at the end of its useful life, separates out the consituent materials, and puts them straight back into the manufacturing process. This prevents 300 million pounds of carpet going to landfill each year and reduces the company's use of petroleum (which must have been a source of satisfaction when oil hit $100/barrel!).
Using the Biosphere rules has enabled companies like Shaw to rethink the buyer-supplier relationship. As previously manufactured products become the raw materials for new products, Shaw has created a reclamation network to match their distribution network. With their customers being both the buyers of the company's products and the suppliers of its input materials, they have an excellent opportunity to build closer relationships with their customers and increase the proportion who become repeat buyers.
The Biosphere's success is based on employing the same small range of raw materials over and over again using the same general-purpose platform. In a world of limited and increasingly expensive resources, Biosphere rules are probably the best guidelines we have for building sustainable business success.