I don’t think S.C. Johnson necessarily had me in there to promote sustainability to its customers. In fact, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and other Fortune 50 companies come to us primarily to talk about innovation. They’re interested in the way that we study adaptations in the natural world; they’re looking for clues to completely rethink products and processes.
For example, we’ve worked with wastewater treatment experts from Carollo Engineers, a Phoenix firm that designs public-sector projects, trying to figure out a better way to recover freshwater without huge inputs of chemicals and energy. There are plenty of natural desalinators, for instance: human kidneys, mangroves, marine iguanas, and certain freshwater fish that can survive in the ocean. In 2001, we spent seven days in the Galapagos Islands snorkeling with water purification specialists to study how nature filters.
S+B: Corporate interest in sustainability is rising. What do you think is driving that? Customer demand?
BENYUS: It’s complicated. I can think of half a dozen reasons, of which market demand is certainly one. The industry that came to biomimicry first was architecture and commercial interiors back in the mid-1990s. Their clients wanted to make a credible claim to being socially responsible. Similarly, Interface first got involved in sustainability because their commercial clients wanted “green” offices. You also see growing interest in green buildings from the same consumer base that has gone to alternative medicine and organic food.
Regulation is another important factor. Since the ’70s, a lot of environmental laws have mandated phased-in restrictions. Now those latter phases are coming into play for implementation, and they’re making it expensive to be dirty, to be hazardous. Dealing with solvents, for example, is getting very costly. But if you completely flip the industrial paradigm and conduct chemistry in water, which is what life does, you don’t have to buy the sulfuric acid. You don’t have to worry about workers’ safety while the solvent is on the floor. And then you don’t have to dispose of it. Green practices are saving companies from all kinds of legal and regulatory trouble.
Sustainability is also saving companies money. By becoming green, you basically practice lean manufacturing. You’re creating less waste to dispose of, thus saving your company money.
Institutional investors like CalPERS are starting to push, too. They are focusing on sustainability because they want to make sure that their clients get a return 20 years from now. They want a safe bet, and for big money investors, “safe bet” increasingly means clean; it means investing in companies that are proactive about dealing with environmental and health risks. In other words, the investors want to make sure that the companies where they put their money are here for the long haul and will not be sued into extinction. Insurance companies are taking the same approach. Reinsurers are saying, “Hey, I’m not going to insure you unless I’m sure we won’t find ourselves in another situation like DuPont’s with Teflon.” [In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory board ruled that one of the chemicals used to make Teflon — perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — was a likely carcinogen. Soon afterward, the chemical company paid $300 million to settle a lawsuit from residents living near DuPont factories in Ohio and West Virginia.] No insurer wants to have to have the liability 20 years from now for problems caused by some chemical that we now suspect as being harmful to biological tissue. Similarly, banks are beginning to consider a company’s commitment to sustainability when they make lending decisions.
A Different “Biotech”
S+B: The technology industry has long found design inspiration in nature. Is nature an easy model for industries to follow?
BENYUS: Yes and no. In computers, the bio-inspired work has generally taken place on the software side. You see it in neural networks, in software that acts like an immune system, and in genetic algorithms based on natural selection that are used to optimize code for designs. Software is moving closer and closer to the biological model: It’s becoming more self-aware, self-reliant, and self-healing.