How Businesses Can Learn From Nature

Nobody manages resources better than Nature! (image source

Sustainability seems to be the buzzword these days. We've all heard about how companies are investing in carbon credits to offset their industrial activities, embark on occasional recycling programmes, or improving their efficiency to reduce their carbon footprint. While such motives are laudable, they often compromise on business profitability, and are seen more like "CSR" investments. Should the economy - and business - nosedive, would companies still be as noble?

To overturn traditional thinking on business sustainability, Gregory Unruh of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management shared that one should adopt a "value cycle" rather than the standard "value chain" in one's business model. The idea behind this is reuse as much material from one's products as possible, and to feed that back into the manufacturing, distributing and retailing process. This should be done in a profitable manner and be so ingrained into business practices that it becomes second nature.

In his book Earth, Inc.: Using Nature's Rules to Build Sustainable Profits, Unruh cited how the biosphere perfected the art of sustainability by using renewable resources to generate life. Almost all living matter goes back into the Earth (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), gets absorbed by plants which are then eaten by animals all the way up the food chain before they die, decompose and are recycled.

What are these "Biosphere Rules" which companies can adopt? They are:

1) Materials Parsimony - This first rule involves reducing and simplifying the types of materials used in products. The simpler and more organically based they are, the better. This not only benefits recycling or reusing plans but help to reduce the problems associated with toxic waste disposal.

2) Power Autonomy - Here, energy efficiency should be considered in the making of products, from the design and planning stages, and not just an afterthought.

3) Value Cycles - This principle involves painstakingly looking at how materials can be continually reused or recycled into new value-added products and not simply downgraded in the product cycle. An example of a company that does this well was Patagonia, which encourages customers to deposit their used performance underwear, and uses its fabrics to be made into other sport apparel.

4) Sustainble Product Platforms - The idea here is for companies to develop foundational product platforms that can be continually leveraged for other uses. For example, Windows and Apple have operating systems that other programmes and applications can build upon, while cars have used similar body designs in manufacturing. It is also about finding commonalities among product, processes and markets.

5) Function over Form - With a focus on sustaining the value cycle, the idea of function over form looks at how companies can move from selling products to providing services to customers in a long-term manner. Body shop does a great job by encouraging consumers to reuse their bottles, but this same principle can probably be applied across many reusable categories. Rather than sell more oil, Castrol used its knowledge of lubricants to help customers use less, rather than more, of its products.

Learn how mother nature does it with Earth, Inc 

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