09 July 2009

toilet paper for thought

I've wanted to do this for a while, so here I go.

There is the toilet paper, sitting on a roll next to you in the bathroom, patiently waiting to do what it does best and be flushed away. Simple, serene.

It's a staple of our lives, toilet paper. Where would we be without it, after all?

For something as ubiquitous as toilet paper very little thought is applied, outside of finding the best deal, desired quality, or the highest recycled or certified wood content. Yet even this simple product can be a source of insight. All we need to do is conduct a simple life cycle analysis (LCA). This is an inventory of all of the inputs required to produce a product, from the moment they are involved until the product achieves its end state.

For toilet paper, this starts with wood. Wood must be cultivated and harvested. Let's pretend for a moment that it's naturally occurring wood, like the old days (mostly). Nature has done most of the hard work. But it still takes money (which we will assume for all steps but only as a way to summarize the other inputs) and several laborers, large machinery and fuel for them, ropes and other tools, and time to harvest the wood. Afterward, the wood is processed in a mill, which also requires those inputs but also electricity--probably coal, oil or natural gas. It also has to be transported from the harvest site, requiring yet more machinery, fuel, labor and time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the wood harvesting and processing company.

Next, the wood is transported to the toilet paper plant--machinery, fuel, labor, time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the toilet paper company, paid to the harvesting and processing company.

The wood is pulped and formed into paper, requiring labor, machinery, energy and time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the toilet paper company.

The paper is placed on cardboard rolls which have their own similar creation process somewhere else, but let's draw the line at the toilet paper there. Machinery, energy and time are used to create the toilet paper rolls. Labor and time is much less intensive due to mass-production machinery, but the machinery and energy inputs have become much more intense. To a business this saves money since labor is very expensive (time = money largely because labor is involved, I suspect) but energy and its side effects have increased. There is no free lunch, not even a mechanized one. In any case, the cost of these inputs are borne by the toilet paper company.

The paper is wrapped in plastic. Again, the plastic has been created by a manufacturing process, though it is a bit different than the cardboard rolls. The wrapping of toilet paper is also likely mechanized, using machinery, energy and a little labor and time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the toilet paper company.

The paper is boxed into shipment containers, probably cardboard. More machinery, energy and time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the toilet paper company.

The paper is placed on palettes and moved onto shipping trucks. Labor, Machinery, energy and time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the toilet paper company.

The paper is distributed to resellers around the world. Labor, machinery and energy are used to accept and organize the orders. The cost of these inputs are borne by the toilet paper company. Then trucking and shipping companies deliver the toilet paper around the world. Labor, machinery, fuel and time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the shipping companies and reimbursed by the toilet paper company.

The reseller then sells and ships the toilet paper to supermarkets and other vendors. Labor, machinery and energy are used to accept and organize the orders. The cost of these inputs are borne by the resellers and the toilet paper company. Then trucking and shipping companies deliver the toilet paper to the vendors. Labor, machinery, fuel and time. The cost of these inputs are borne by the shipping companies and reimbursed by the resellers.

Here's where you come in.

You buy the toilet paper. It takes money of course, but it also takes your time, fuel to get there (be it gas, energy or food), and time. You bear the cost of these inputs, paid to the store, the gas station, the bus company, or the bike shop--just not necessarily at that time.

You use the toilet paper. A few moments of time and it is done. One flush and away it goes. That was easy. Your part is now complete.

The toilet paper gets flushed into the sewer system. Much labor, time, energy and machinery was put into place to create the sewer system. It took labor, machinery, time and energy to put your sewer tank in place as well. And a little tiny bit of all of this work can be attributed to this act, along with the energy and water required to flush it.

The toilet paper decomposes in the sewer system. It becomes food for bacteria.

It's likely that you have not thought about the act of using toilet paper as this massive chain of events. That's because you just buy it, use it, and flush it. This is my point. Because you do not clearly participate in or front the costs of any of these other steps, you most likely do not consider them to be part of the toilet paper procedure. And yet without each one, the toilet paper would not exist.

More likely, the case is that you needed to clean up after yourself. Toilet paper is the solution that you have available. But it is by no means the only one. A bidet sprays a little bit of water and is used to the same purpose. Some metals and porcelain, machinery, labor, energy and time were used to create it, much like a toilet. Then someone ordered it and placed it in the bathroom. The only input of the action required is a little bit of power and water, whereas the toilet paper required a huge amount of labor, machinery, energy, fuel and time to manufacture, organize, store and deliver. It did not just appear out of thin air, therefore all of the inputs must be considered even if the moment the product is actually used is very brief. The toilet paper is equivalent to the water coming out of the bidet, not the bidet itself.

What we need in the first place is the service that toilet paper provides, not the toilet paper. There are a lot of products acting as services in this way.

Are they necessary?

Something to think about.

01 July 2009

pressure headaches from a climate of change

Today I read a New York Times column by Thomas Friedman with the Nike-esque title Just Do It. He was referring to voting for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill that was just passed by House of Representatives 219-212, and is headed to the Senate.

This bill furthers investments in renewable energy and assigns a more realistic cost to fossil fuels to reflect additional unseen costs related to carbon emissions. These fuels and their production have always been subsidized because they were seen as vital to economic growth. The cost of the carbon credits will be determined via auction, and the profits will go to furthering renewable energy projects. Over time the amount of available credits will be reduced.

So the free market, not government, will decide what that additional cost should be, at least to the extent that it is allowed to. To the chagrin of many environmentalists, the fossil fuel industries themselves will have billions of dollars of carbon credits given away to them, artificially lowering the value of all credits to begin with. If anything, the government is guilty of keeping the cost of these credits artificially low.

Friedman's approach to the column was this. He described the cap-and-trade energy bill as:

"...too weak in key areas and way too complicated in others. A simple, straightforward carbon tax would have made much more sense than this Rube Goldberg contraption [me: Yay Rube Goldberg machines!]. It is pathetic that we couldn’t do better. It is appalling that so much had to be given away to polluters. It stinks. It’s a mess. I detest it..."

Then he said to get it passed anyway because it:

1) Will be the first comprehensive American attempt to mitigate, and therefore legitimize the threat of, climate change
2) Will change the paradigm of business to seek out the least-cost and low carbon option, thereby making buildings more and appliances more efficient and helping to preserve forests in the Amazon, and
3) Would have been stronger and more effective without the many compromises accepted to get it passed at all.

However, Friedman then goes on to express dismay at three groups--the Republican party en masse, inappropriately referring to them as the party of "sex scandals and polluters" for their environmental indifference, Obama for staying on the sidelines while Congress dukes out the particulars, and young Americans for getting on Facebook instead of literally getting into someone's face, as if he had no idea what social networking has done for politics in this nation. Look in the White House.

It appeared that someone peed in Mr. Friedman's corn flakes. Extreme = bad. Black and white = bad. This is uncalled for.

As you might expect, this column had a very large percentage of negative responses, but the distribution was not uniform. In particular, there were more climate change deniers and people who have either never heard of Factcheck.org and Snopes.com or who think them to be part of the liberal news cabal than I figured even read the New York Times in the first place.

Upon further thought, I realized that Friedman was so worked up about this bill because to him it must feel like man is about to land on the moon for the first time after years and years of grassroots progress toward that goal, but Republicans are bemoaning the additional tax burden, the President stands aside as Congress fights over continuing the funding, and young Americans are all out surfing obliviously. Friedman was so wrapped up in the magnitude of the moment that he went black-and-white on his readers.

I completely agree that passage of the W-M bill would be a momentous event. It's hard to express how big, but I'll propose the acceptance of the world being round for comparison. Friedman came close to capturing the magnitude of this event but then he got too emotional, downgraded into partisan hackery, and got flamed for it.

To be sure, many of the comments were also hackery. However, some of them did have great points. For one, two of the concessions--dropping the required emissions reductions to 17% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, and giving away carbon credits to fossil fuel companies--were necessary because the Appalachian and Southern United States depend heavily on coal as both a fuel and an economy, and they prefer to research clean coal and sequestration.

Some of these states are Democratic, which made for very strategic bargaining. Likewise, some states with no problem backing alternative energy industries had Republicans vote for it, creating unlikely allies. This is more of a bipartisan issue than many, precisely because it has so many economic implications. Friedman has little ground for grouping all Republican party members together on the issue.

My personal thought is that the representatives favoring this bill are the ones who saw waste regulation coming years ago and acted early to change their constituents' economic situation by incentivizing the growth of new industries and talent. Those representatives were also likely bombarded by "no tax hikes" arguments at the time, but were outnumbered by residents who had a values structure that did not simply revolve around protecting their next paycheck, but future paychecks as well. Now their states host the few growth industries that the United States currently has. They are leaders of the new economy, and they should be rewarded for their bold and risky strokes to gain competitive advantage. It is free market evolution at its finest.

Since both Obama and our government representatives were voted into office after the recession (just to remind bitter Republicans out there), and since House members did not simply vote on this bill along party lines, I presume that the majority of the country agrees. It appears that most of us can indeed envision a positive, clean, and competitive economic future for the United States and are willing to invest in it. And while we evolve, the signals that we are sending to the rest of the world couldn't be clearer--we are moving past oil dictators and doing something about our pollution habit. It is leading by example, and the laggards will know that their time is rapidly approaching.

But there continues to be a nagging question in my mind. Since we're not all on the same ground to begin with, why are we trying to mandate aggressive federal standards when we know that certain regions of the country are unable to meet them? I am for a national mandate to reduce carbon emissions, but not one that is unfair to those who, while they could have conceivably changed their paths sooner, obviously had less viable options than those in the vicinity of geothermal, hydro, or other energy sources.

The answer is a sad one: aggressive standards are what are needed to slow climate change. The original levels set were in accordance with scientific models predicting what would have to happen to stave off the unthinkable.

Believe it or not, I am very much for smaller government. This country is too big, geographically and ideologically, to have one comprehensive policy on much of anything. I believe that the federal government is there for setting a national baseline and spreading resources to poorer areas so that all states can remain productive and happy. I recently realized that this resource acquisition for states is what has been derisively referred to as pork all this time. According to my history notes, it is the very thing that Senators are elected to produce for their states. I guess that leaves them more time to read bills, then.

Despite what I feel about government staying out of the nooks and crannies of this great country, it's clear to me, as it is with Mr. Friedman, that we must now commit ourselves to some long-lasting changes in our energy future. I believe that we are about to do just that with this bill.

This transition to a low-carbon economy is obviously complicated, and anyone who says otherwise likely accepts credit cards. The Waxman-Markey bill is not perfect, but I believe that individual states will do what they have always done and pursue more aggressive goals to further their own competitive advantage.

In the end, it's still up to a free market solution.

By the way, if you are also feeling poisoned from all of the uninformed rancor being spewed about this bill on the internets, please enjoy this fairly even, if self-hating assessment of a complete reading of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill by Alan Durning of Sightline.org. note: Alan's June 10 article was revised on July 10 to account for the extra ~480 pages added between his original post and the passage of the Waxman-Markey Bill by the House, so this is a new link to the updated version.

29 June 2009

everything in a pint of ice cream

another oldie, from 23 August 2005. My affinity for Ben and Jerry's remains unchanged, but I think the "all-time high" gasoline was something like $2.30 at the time.

This is the kind of thing that garnered me a "Most Likely to Start a Cult" award from my own MBA classmates.

I want to write everything, but it won't fit.

If I didn't have to take the time to nail down a series of words, sometimes coherent, expressing the way I feel and what I think, my thoughts would be much more accurate. It's the same thing being a musician, when the only tangible elements of a vast creative landscape in ones head are squeezed out like an empty tube of toothpaste. Musical inspiration came largely from capturing something the moment it was made--the "record everything" maneuver--or going with the flow of a new idea, leaving mounds of unexplored ideas trapped behind in the recesses of the mind. It's kind of like that. Just picking a subject to write about is a pain because that ignores all of the others.

And they're all connected. That's what I do with myself, figure out how they are all connected. How do you write about that? With an example, maybe.

Suppose you were inclined to head to the local mart and pick up a pint of the supreme ice cream of ice creams, Ben & Jerry's. If you're me, you would choose the Coffee Heath Bar flavor, whose exact name I forget. So you hop in the car, drive X miles to the mart, pick up the B&J, and head for home. Simple enough.

So what has occurred? You have traded money for a good--stuffs, product--pretty common. What else happened?

For one, you drove your car to the mart and back. It consumed some gasoline, a little oil, spent time travelling on the highway, parked in a space at the mart, used more gasoline and oil, spent more time on the road, and ended up wherever you park it.

I don't suppose I need to mention that gas prices are at an all-time historical high (not the "real" price, the actual cost compared to inflation--that peaked in the early 80's), and chances are quite good that you spent more in gas to get the ice cream than you did to buy the ice cream. You also converted that gasoline into three times its weight--pretty nifty, eh?--of emissions, notably greenhouse gases. And, you added another car to the roads, which contributed to the congestion that was already there. At the store, you parked your car which doesn't really affect anything, but someone built the parking lot or provided the space for that to happen. And when your car is not there, the space is a 5' x 10' plot of paved over real estate that no one's doing anything useful with.

Now, how about the ice cream? It came from somewhere, and in this case it happens to be Vermont. Since the chances are extremely good that you are not in Vermont, it had to be driven by a refrigerated truck from Vermont to the store. If the ice cream was being stored somewhere else in the meantime--not too likely with ice cream--the truck had to move it between multiple locations. This truck also creates three times its fuel's weight in emissions, may very well travel thousands of miles, and most likely gets worse mileage than you. If I was to price out the actual amount of fuel/emissions used to transport your container of ice cream, the proper way to do it would be to the total fuel/emissions by how many containers of ice cream, and everything else, there were in the truck--something people who tell you that your food travels half-way around the world does not bother to do. After dividing it up between all of the other ice cream/bananas/coffee, it's probably a 10,000th or 20,000th of that.

Anyway, the ice cream has traveled from Vermont in a refrigerated truck however many miles, using X pounds gasoline, emitting 3X pounds emissions.

Still with me? Hang on...

What about the ice cream itself? Ben & Jerry's has gone out of its way to use local items in its food. In this particular case, the coffee B&J use in my own addictive concoction comes from South America, but is Fair Trade coffee--a fancy name for paying someone what their coffee is actually worth. Crazy concept, huh? But how did you think that products made somewhere else cost less? Because the sellers aren't being paid what the product would be sold for if it was purchased in America!

Anyway, B&J does what it can to use fair trade products, local ingredients, recycleable containers, and milk from non-RBGH cows (which I won't go into here, but RBGH is nasty stuff), all of which you would call sustainable practices. This means simply that the practices can be continued indefinitely--which you would think was another obvious concept, but you'd be wrong. However, for B&J local can mean brownies from New York City, still quite a haul. So there is more travel involved there.

Now, what I do is look at all of these components and try to figure out how to reduce all of the expenditures that have taken place here: gas and oil usage, emissions production, time loss, road congestion, and so on. This is a complex mess. But, there are simple concepts that enable me to look at it differently and see how things could be improved.

For starters, if you remembered to get the ice cream when you got all of your other groceries, you have saved yourself the trip. This saves you gas and oil, emissions, time, and congestion, though we usually tend to notice time and road congestion the most, with fuel and oil rapidly creeping up. What else?

How about if you rode a bike or a bus instead? Sacrifice some time, but gain gas and oil, emissions, and maybe congestion if you have bike paths or take the sidewalk. The bus was already going there anyway. But think--if you don't take the car, you don't need a parking space--or as large of one. If twenty-five people did that, you'd only need half the parking lot, the space of another decent-sized building--or a small park.

You could, if you were in a position to do so, move close to the store. Then you could just walk or bike and not drive at all. Not that difficult for us city folk, but more of a long-term investment.

This is where it gets more interesting.

Suppose (and this is a big one for me as well) you instead chose the local ice cream, made twenty miles away at the local dairy plant. What have you saved? Its share of the gas, oil, emissions, and time that the truck spent on the bringing the ice cream from Vermont. You have also saved its share of the extra gas spent to refrigerate it, and the congestion on the road--but you can't really tell the difference on that one unless you cancel a whole truck. As far as all of the components in the ice cream are concerned, you'd have to check with the plant. But you can see that there are more impacts than someone would usually think about.

When people buy local organic food, there is often a premium. This premium represents a lot of things--it could be buying local ingredients at real, rather than discounted, prices. It could be paying adequate wages to the employees. And it could be because they are engaging in sustainable practices--making sure that the land and energy used is replenishing itself. This usually means less production, to keep up with natural processes.

Now, suppose a small store selling locally-made products moves in a few blocks from where you currently are. You could walk there, pay a slight premium, and go home. You only directly see the money, but you have in fact saved yourself gas, oil, time, congestion, product travel time, product refrigeration time, and you've boosted the economy of someone a few miles away, not a few states away. I don't know about you, but to me that's a tradeoff I am willing to make--though recently I've tried to just not buy the ice cream in the first place.

And that's just ice cream. I think about manufacturing plants at this point. Fortunately, so do the companies that own them, because it has become obvious that any waste produced at any point in the production process is wasted money--it represents materials, product, and labor that has been paid for but not used. So you see now that sustainable practices are merely more efficient practices. The trick is then to picture how an ideal process would work, instead of how to merely improve upon the current one. An ideal process produces no waste at all. Usually this is done by reducing all the waste that one can, then reusing, selling or recycling the rest. Nobody's perfect, but

26 June 2009

absolutely relative

I just read Marc Gunther's Greenbiz blog entitled Wal-Mart's Big Problem: Climate Change.

The good: Wal-Mart is greatly reducing its carbon emissions relative to sales
The bad: Wal-Mart continues to grow, more than offsetting its emissions reductions

Wal-Mart contends that its absolute growth is probably better than alternative, because of the less-efficient sales of other vendors that it is replacing. I suppose they have a point. My initial reason for not liking them many years ago, now proven to hold true for various other industries that we now own as well, is that they were too big to begin with and caused a lot of societal damage as a result of their problems. Still, if Wal-Mart must grow then at least it is growing more efficiently.

Gunther also took the liberty of including a few graphs from Wal-Mart's website:

Holy chartjunk, Batman. Edward Tufte died inside when this was released. I know there are a bunch of cool options in Excel and most other analytical programs, but please stay away from them!

sustainability marketing green sustainability marketing...

I chalk this one up to the Rube Goldberg machine that was built where the limits of reasonable human understanding and retention meet marketing.

This morning I was perusing the news when I read the curious headline 'Sustainability is the new "Green"' in my Google search email. It was an article detailing Aberdeen Group's findings about marketing sustainability. In addition to the rather uninformed headline, they state that businesses around the world have decided that 'sustainability is not synonymous with "green" or environmental initiatives.'


I love consulting, and consulting firms. Consultants hold the power to come into an organization and innocently state truths that people in the organization know but cannot say, have said and can't get any support on, or have completely missed. But they also have the characteristic of not knowing the inner workings of the organization, so they have to kind of pick it up as they go. They adopt some organizational buzzwords, which is often switching one out for another, like using "strategy" instead of "game plan" or "path forward". They identify how to structure their messages so the findings are relevant to the company strategy. They also identify potential mine fields to avoid when they go about reporting said truths. But there is only so much time that they can spend on this. The result is that they end up having a 'profound naivete' feel to their reports.

Consultants are extremely valuable, and this is backed by the fact that they continue to be paid well. Outside observations and research can be pure gold. But sometimes the way their communications come across is just weird. The fact that businesses have drawn a distinguishable line between 'sustainability' and 'green' may be a direct result of many, many occurrences of this phenomenon with marketing consultants.

Sustainability is striving to remove all generators of 'waste' in human society, to streamline, simplify or remove the Rube Goldberg machines we built on top of nature's perfect, if emotionless, zero-waste system. Waste is not only physical stuff that we no longer see value in, it is also wasted money, wasted time, wasted labor, wasted productivity, and so on. It is anything that cannot be used for anything else.

After Al Gore put out 'An Inconvenient Truth,' marketers finally decided to go along with this 'trend' en masse and tried to figure out how to market the infinitely complex product of sustainability using conventional methods. Simplification was necessary, so they approached it in chunks: organic, local, recycled, renewable, and eventually, green. Perhaps assisted by the association of the color of trees and plants which was entirely overused in umpteen thousand ads during this time, consumers gradually recognized the term 'green' as a label under which all other sustainability concepts could be filed. As far as they understood them however, 'sustainability' was largely limited to an environmental context.

By this time, organizations who had been using the 'green' marketing label for years in the renewable energy, permaculture, organic, sustainable building, and other leading industries had learned to avoid the term because it was too vague and had become a way for folks who didn't want to hear about sustainability to nail down and invalidate an idea using technicalities. Like 'sustainability' had worn out its welcome before it, 'green' was poisoned and had to be replaced with something more sophisticated in order to retain its potency. Bob Willard found it.

Bob Willard, a 20+ IBM career man who had an epiphany much like Ray Anderson's of Interface, made a new career out of explaining how to talk to the business world about sustainability after his initial experience using the term in a board room. Business is constantly striving to maximize the value of its business assets, and dislikes vague, unactionable concepts like sustainability. Willard figured out that sustainability should be referred to as 'asset management' because ultimately sustainability is about maximizing the value (monetary and otherwise) of every asset (money, capital, labor, time, and so on). For proof, he cited the company Arthur Andersen. As it turned out, 90% of the accounting firm's 'assets' were not their employee talent or services but their trustworthiness. It wasn't on any balance sheet, but it single-handedly sunk the company once Enron's malfeasance revealed Arthur Andersen's manipulation of accounting numbers. Willard's approach offered a way to quantify sustainability concepts and directly measure their impact on company value. In Willard's simplicity, he had defined the true essence of sustainability in digestible terms.

So, after the bleeding edge of sustainability marketing and communication had shed terms like 'green' and 'sustainability' in favor of sophisticated, business-class language like 'asset management,' regular consumers were finally getting a handle on the concept summed up with the term 'green.' As that was happening the bandwagon effect kicked in, and greenwashers of various degrees looking to capitalize on the success of the new branding jumped on board and corrupted it. Networks of (mostly) third-party auditors developed, reviewing products and claims. Now there are so many facets to sustainability that thousands of these auditing groups are out there, saying different things as we try to sort it all out. It's very tiring.

The days of the term 'green' as a viable, reliable concept are numbered, at least from the perspective of the business world. As the article notes, businesses have pressed forward with their asset-based value creation, which, as Bob Willard promised, has proven "dramatically" effective, and have decided that they're okay with the term sustainability after all. But to them sustainability has nothing to do with 'green.' 'Sustainability' is business-grade asset management while 'green' is consumer environmental stuff (that these same businesses are presumably selling to their customers) and there is a clear difference between the two.

Ain't marketing grand?

So now we get to watch marketers come up with another name for the same concept to keep it hip and new. Meanwhile, having the headline suggest that 'sustainability' has replaced 'green' as the hip new trend is just irresponsible. Or profoundly naive.

25 June 2009

cooling computers and heating buildings to save energy

This morning I read about this CNET blog about a water-cooled IBM supercomputer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich being built to use its surplus heat to heat the university's buildings.

Essentially (and simply), this is reusing energy. This concept is generally known as cogeneration, or reusing energy to power something else--normally heating something from the waste heat from another process.

This project is expected to cut down additional energy to heat the building to the tune of 85 percent reduction of the computer's carbon footprint, about 30 tons annually at best. I suppose it depends on whether it is busy contemplating the cosmos or pulling down Sudoku games from the internet as to how much it will actually save.

When something as obvious as using waste heat to heat something else is big news (again), you know you're in a Rube Goldberg machine. As the comments dictate, many of us have experienced this phenomenon in our cramped bedrooms with our desktops of old. Heck, the single incandescent bulb in the kitchen of my last Ithaca apartment used to heat my bedroom directly above during the long, cold winters. The apartment had the insulation of an open window, and it's interesting to think of how much our energy bill was cut down during the three-hour dinner time window of my roommates and myself.

It could be pretty straightforward to implement this concept in building design... why are kitchens not placed under bathrooms to heat the floors? Why is the excess heat from refrigerator coils not used to heat water on the way to the sink? But more importantly, why are homes in heat-prone areas given black roofs that absorb heat, or those in colder areas given white or shiny ones that deflect it? And why are buildings not correctly directionally sited (small windows on the north, large windows on the south with deciduous trees to block heat and allow in winter sun) to save massive amounts of energy? Siting houses correctly is understood to result in around 40% energy reduction needed to heat and cool the building. Suburbs with sinewy streets make the prospect of efficiently citing homes nearly impossible.

Though some of these are obviously harder to pull off than others, it's pretty staggering to think about the energy savings that could be achieved. It seems like 50% or greater energy savings wouldn't be that difficult.

Something can always be done to mediate bad design, of course. Pipes can be weatherized and insulation can be beefed up. At winter time there's the towel along the base of the doors or an extra layer of plastic on the windows. But it's really about redesigning so those fixes are not even necessary. As McDonough and Braungart put it in Cradle to Cradle, we don't want less bad design, we want good design.

So why is this sort of collaborated building design not encouraged without legislative leverage? Lack of focus on this particular goal, teams working separately, cost constraints. And yet, with a little bit of extra cost and pooling of efforts, long-term energy costs could shrink considerably, often offsetting the additional upfront costs. But since the folks up front don't get to enjoy those savings there is little incentive to think that way. After all, it is more complicated to build the simpler, sleeker product through collaboration than is for each party in building construction to come in, propose a layout, and go home. This kind of integrated design is still extra credit in many projects, though it's great to see a gathering movement in recent years to pressure development to become more efficiently designed.

Reading about this Swiss supercomputer project gives another glimpse of hope to me that folks do see at least a part of the massive existing Rube Goldberg machine, and that they think it is silly as well.

24 June 2009

the back seat is a lot less comfortable than it used to be

I just read an article from Environmental Leader with the rather distressing title of "Environment Takes Back Seat To Comfort, Convenience." It summarized a survey by The Shelton Group conducted to ask 1,006 American consumers if they would give up a variety of everyday products, many of which are nearly ubiquitous in American life, if they discovered that they were damaging to the environment. These are their summarized results:

Not surprisingly, the answer to most items, which included iPods, computers, cell phones, air conditioners and dishwashers, was less than half or worse. The article proceeded to cast the results in a rather negative light.

Sure, this may come across as bad news at first, but this is America, the most pro-consumption country in the world! It's not like Japan or China issuing country-wide mandates. That's the only way to get an overwhelming response.

But looking again at the statistics, things actually look very promising. 2 out of 5 people would give up their iPod or dishwasher. Almost 1 in 4 people would give up their cell phones. These are not trivial percentages! Sure, only 7% would give up their cars, but what percent of Americans are lucky enough to live both with an adequate alternate transportation system and communities with everything close enough to rely exclusively on it? For better or worse, a car is still nearly vital to over half of Americans, because nearly half still live in rural areas and many more live dozens of miles from their workplace. And mp3 players and cell phones are also largely far from optional anymore, largely because of the rise in alternative transportation that has been seen. It could be far worse. For example, imagine asking folks in Singapore or Korea about giving up their mp3 players and cell phones and see what kind of response you get.

It appears that the American environmental movement is getting a lot of mainstream traction, and aligns with LOHAS ratios pretty well.

20 April 2009

taking green job claims to task

I just read a blog article by Fortune magazine contributor Marc Gunther on Greenbiz.com about green jobs. But it's not what you'd think.

Instead of supporting the full expectations of the green job claims, which have been a major support point of renewable energy development and by extension global climate change action, he calls out inflated claims and makes a point to cite other projections from conservative and, as far as he can tell, middle of the road studies and articles. In fact, the article is called The Phony Green Jobs Debate.

In the article, he hits on two pet peeve points of my own--one, that simple slogans to define complex issues are a great way to lose the real focus and possibly lose the whole issue to prevailing opinion; and two, using over-inflated statistics to advance a cause even though the statistics were sufficient to prove the point to begin with, so even if the cause and predicted outcomes were right it didn't measure up and is still viewed as a failure.

To the first point, Marc calls out the Environmental Defense Fund's recent campaign claim of "Carbon Caps = Hard Hats." The most clear marketing message, however, is of course "Green Jobs." It's become what the renewable energy movement is about. As Gunther notes, it only took one soundbite from Harry and Louise in 1994, "If we let the government choose, we lose," to help kill the Clinton health plan. If people perceive that more green jobs is not what will happen, the entire movement towards renewable energy and global climate change solution is sunk.

To the second point, the projected future green job statistics used by the current administration are very optimistic, and studies from conservative think tanks are--gasp!--very pessimistic. Obviously. The problem, as Marc notes, is this:

"Let's get real: We can't predict oil prices 12 months out. Last spring, virtually no one anticipated the global financial crisis of last fall. And we are projecting the number of green jobs that will be created or lost on a state-by-state basis by a law that won’t take effect until 2012? Who are we kidding?"

In other words, they don't know--no one knows! Both and all sides are using business-as-usual justifications to make green job claims! Another Rube Goldberg machine at work. And yet action needs to be taken so we must act on what we can best back with knowledge.

Folks, let's not fight. There is no black and white here, just like there isn't anywhere else. We really need to focus on the true aim here, which is to create long term stability--energy, economic, military, social, all of the above, not political motives. Global climate change is a lot to digest, but just because we have to take one ton of medication to cure our consumptive disease doesn't mean that we can't take it on a regimented schedule. In fact, we probably can't take it all right now. But the sooner we do, the sooner we will feel better and we can forget about the nasty taste in our mouths.

I leave you with this quote from Marc about recent green jobs ads, which I completely agree with:

"They're like political campaign ads. They promise something for nothing. They treat the voters like children. They're emotional and not educational. And they're not helping to build a movement around climate change."

These ads, like political ads, are created by marketing firms marketing to real people. They think this is what you will respond to and they go out of their way to make them this way. Marketing is one machine I would love to see redesigned.

16 April 2009

get together

I have an occasional blog that would have belonged here, so I'll be reposting some old ones. This was posted on August 25, 2005 as is. Well, except for fixing the hyphens.

The people who understand the concept of sustainability--that buying local is smart in the long run, that cars don't have to be mandatory pollution machines that kill tens of thousands of people each year, that it should cost more to ship fish across an ocean twice to have it de-boned in China and brought back, not less--need to get together. We need to get together to talk to each other, to help each other understand broader and broader models of sustainability. We need to inspire each other. We need to keep each other up when things look bleak and move in the wrong direction (plenty to be bleak about nowadays). But more than that, we need to make sustainability a movement in this country. We need to make sustainability the new normal. And we have to hurry.

If we count on economic forces to drive the actions that government and businesses make, the quantity and price of the resource in question is what will be the only justification for change - though more and more the voice of customer and the marketing implications of innovation are weighing in. But every time another regulation is passed, or not, in this country the justification is to save jobs and to grow the economy. Not a word about the eminent demise of EVERY RESOURCE that is not sustainably managed. Every one. Just preserving jobs and growing the economy.

And how, exactly, would the acceleration of a new generation of innovation and services designed around long-term sustainability principles cripple our economy? By taking jobs that already exist. By forcing people who have had the same job for decades to be laid off. By disrupting the system already in place. Systems hate that, and are programmed to avoid it.

Can everyone who is not planning on having at least 10 jobs over the course of their lives please raise their hands? Unfortunately for the time being, the era of the lifetime job has come to an end. We as a generation have learned how to play the game of occupational Frogger. When something starts to sink, jump! When something comes along that will move you closer to your life goals presents itself, jump! No guarantees, but a couple free guys if you're lucky. That is the world we live in. I truly pity those further along who have to transition out of their occupational norm and into this strange, Atari-tinged world. But it's here and it's life.

However, nothing quite says long-term stability than sustainable business. That's what it means, after all.

So then it seems that the key to move things along is to ensure that the jobs are transferred out of the old, archaic as I believe we can now call it, product-oriented model into a new, innovative, service-oriented model that doesn't produce products so much as the services that people gain from using them. Say renting or leasing things until you're done with it instead of selling them. A Rent-A-Center economy, except that the renter is responsible for what happens to the product at the end of its life. Every product should be able to be recycled, or used to make a new version at the end of its life. This is the essence of sustainability.

Throwing something away at the end of its useful life is normal, but it's pretty stupid. If the companies that made these products had to pay to do it, they would innovate to save money instead of passing the costs of disposal on to you, the customer. Right now you are paying for that final wasteful end of their resources and energy.

So join up, sign up, make yourself known, and let's get to talkin'.

the first step is realizing it's there

Rube Goldberg

n. a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation. - Webster's New World Dictionary


My name is Daniel Henderson. I think a lot, probably too much. But I try to be entertaining.

Upon thinking of what to call my professional blog, which will be about sustainability, pointing out what isn't, and hopefully helping folks figure out solutions, I thought about what I might use as an analogy for the current state of developed civilization. Simply put, developed civilization uses extremely resource intensive (energy, water, materials, labor, transportation, etc.) procedures to arrive at an end product or service that is often not even really that necessary. A Rube Goldberg machine seemed like a good fit.

There are millions of Rube Goldberg machines running out there, each set up by clever human beings. Unfortunately most of them aren't trying to be a joke, and they are taken much more seriously. They each have their own support structures, legal frameworks, proven precedents, and resistance to change. But from a systems perspective, which I consider sustainability to largely be about, there is ultimately one large machine that is the sum (or perhaps less) of its parts. It is the one in which we all live.

The first step is realizing it's there. The second is realizing what could be.

Welcome aboard...