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Published: August 26, 2005

 
 

Materials Witnesses

Although members were always conscious of U.S. federal antitrust laws, those laws specifically focus on price-fixing; there hasn’t been an actual federal case related to materials pooling since at least the early 1980s. The real threat is more visceral. It’s hard enough to talk openly and honestly with people from other industries about the differences, say, between shoe leather and car-seat leather; to reinvent industrial society and eliminate all potential toxins would require almost unimaginable openness. Manufacturers and suppliers alike would have to entrust competitors with some of their most carefully held secrets.

Making Progress
For this reason, conversations in the Materials Pooling Project often took on the precise and labored formulations that you might expect at high-tech standards-setting meetings (which, in a way, these gatherings were). At one SoL meeting, Ford product development team member Sibel Koyluoglu showed an intricate flowchart she had created to track the multiple conversations required to reconcile the needs and priorities of her own company — design specs from her team, the marketing department’s concerns about brand image, and the engineering group’s multiple schedules — with the needs and priorities of the other companies in the consortium.

“We weren’t just tackling Ford’s system,” she recalls, “but all the system interactions that you see as you take this on as a group. For example, the technical talk about chrome specifications led us to talk about the motives customers have in buying our products. We had to understand the requirements of our products and then work our way back through the material standards and the material chain to reach the point at which we would find commonality.” Though sometimes difficult to maintain, these are also the kinds of conversations that lead to moments of genuine accomplishment: Starting out to reduce the solvents used in a welding process, one might end up redesigning the process so no solvents at all are needed.

Most environmental problems transcend corporate, industrial-sector, and political boundaries, and thus a whole-systems orientation is required to deal with them. As with many other cross-boundary endeavors, the project’s momentum depends on the enthusiasm of its participants, which in turn depends on the increased ability it gives them to manage all sorts of cross-industry and cross-platform endeavors in the future.

And the implications go beyond this one project. Corporate environmentalists like Michael Braungart and William McDonough are calling for nothing less than an in-depth revolution in industrial infrastructure. Generating financial results is hard enough, but translating this kind of ideal into day-to-day practice requires a highly sophisticated degree of managerial competence. Many companies have this level of competence, but they don’t often exercise it, in part because they don’t give themselves permission to take the kinds of risks that corporate environmentalism requires. And there’s also a longer time horizon involved. Some observers might argue that the Materials Pooling Project is a failure because it hasn’t yet realized its promise. But initiatives that require so much collaborative experimentation and learning, particularly when more than a dozen companies are involved, can reasonably take months or years to show tangible results.

Maybe the Braungartian future, in which all industrial waste output becomes an input somewhere else and all materials are free of hidden toxins, is worth pursuing precisely because it’s so comprehensive. In a world where energy and materials technology breakthroughs are seemingly on the horizon, with nanotechnology close behind and global climate change looming as a potential threat, the Materials Pooling Project provides a useful way to learn to deal with the next round of challenges. The obstacles aren’t primarily technological; they stem from the natural reluctance that corporate people have to participate.

 
 
 
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