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 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


Janine Benyus: The Thought Leader Interview

The real shift will happen when we see more breakthrough products that perform better, are cheaper, use less energy, and leave the company less exposed legally. Then designers and their engineers will start to learn the biomimicry methodologies. Still, it won’t become the primary methodology; it’ll become one of the tools in their tool kit. When they’re trying to solve a problem, they’ll ask the question, How would nature do this here? And out of that will come products that we can’t even imagine yet.

S+B: Are you seeing any sign that the world’s leading innovative companies are starting to incorporate biomimicry into their tool kits?
Absolutely. I’m working with GE designers right now, and they are inspired by CEO Jeff Immelt’s Ecomagination, a green R&D initiative he launched last year. He pledged to double R&D spending to $1.5 billion by 2010 for research into environmental technologies such as wind turbines, hybrid locomotives, solar power, and low-emission aircraft engines. GE reported that revenues from the sale of energy-efficient and environmentally advanced products and services hit $10.1 billion in 2005, up from $6.2 billion in 2004; Mr. Immelt has said he wants that figure to hit $20 billion in 2010. He’s putting GE’s money where his beliefs are. And as part of that effort, they’ve invited biologists to their design table. They’re serious about investigating biomimetic approaches to innovation.

Wal-Mart is also making progress. I think Wal-Mart realized that the next big wave of innovation and cost savings will be in the arena of sustainable technologies. Their CEO, Lee Scott, decided it was time for Wal-Mart to do with sustainability what the company had done with information-led retailing and distribution — figure it out and perfect it. So in late 2005, he announced three environmental goals: “to be supplied with 100 percent renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain our resources and our environment.” He announced that within the next 10 years, all Wal-Mart stores would use only renewable energy, and in the same decade, they would double the fuel efficiency of their truck fleet. That’s huge.

Further, within the next few years, Mr. Scott wants to give up using PVC packaging in all Wal-Mart-branded products; not only that, they’re going to ask their tens of thousands of suppliers in 70 countries to work to reduce packaging so that at some point in the future there will be “no dumpsters at our stores and no landfills with Wal-Mart throwaways.”

Even before that program is in place, Wal-Mart is going to start giving preferential treatment to the suppliers who have demonstrated a commitment to environmental sustainability, including recent plans to purchase wild-caught fresh and frozen fish from sources certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and to expand their offering of organic foods. That sort of pull going on in the supply chain means change is in store.

When two titans stake their reputations on these big, hairy, audacious goals, the big shift starts to look like it could really happen. I’m aware that Wal-Mart is still a huge company and that it still has work to do in other areas, like store-siting and labor issues, but, along with GE, it’s making sustainability a serious criterion for judging its corporate performance. That was unheard of until now. They almost seem to be inviting their rivals to follow their lead. So we could get into a contest. Who is greener? Who is leaner? Who uses less energy? Who’s more self-reliant? That’s the kind of amplifier effect that could bring about a phase change.

S+B: How will we know when that shift has actually happened?
Keep your eye on how our culture changes. The power of taboo is still very strong, and so is the power of status, and you see them in the kinds of products that consumers lust after and in the kinds of things that people suddenly stop buying. I could imagine a time when you would say, “Oh my gosh, you don’t have a hybrid energy drive in your car?” in the same way you go to some restaurants now and say, “Hmmm, there’s nothing local on this menu.” Five years ago that wouldn’t have happened.

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