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New Views of Sustainable Commerce

A review of Earth, Inc., by Gregory Unruh.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Earth, Inc.: Using Nature’s Rules to Build Sustainable Profits

By Gregory Unruh
Harvard Business Press, 2010

In Earth, Inc.: Using Nature’s Rules to Build Sustainable Profits, Gregory Unruh, director of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, takes the ecological principles that make the earth a sustainable biosphere and applies them to the business world. It is, Unruh writes, a how-to book for achieving corporate environmental sustainability, the key to which is five rules for reshaping our current linear, “take-make-waste” value chains into value cycles in which a selected number of resources are constantly reused. He suggests that there are numerous benefits for businesses that implement these “biosphere” rules.

The five rules are materials parsimony, power autonomy, value cycles, sustainable product platforms, and function over form. The author explores each in its own chapter, explaining how it works in nature, what implications it holds for business, and how firms have attempted to apply it in practice.

The rule of materials parsimony, for example, is inspired by nature’s ability to create a vast range of organisms with limited resources, the so-called CHON palette of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. This limited range of inputs means that the components of organisms can be endlessly recycled. The implication is that businesses should be using green screens, a technique for systematically eliminating toxic elements in the supply chain in favor of those that are recyclable. Unruh offers several interesting examples of companies that have done this, to their (and our) benefit. There is also the cautionary tale of Polyamid 2000, a large recycler set up in Germany to extract valuable nylon 6 from discarded carpet. The venture foundered when the company was overwhelmed by a huge diversity of waste carpet materials that yielded far less nylon 6 than it had expected.

In scanning the numerous benefits of following each rule that Unruh lists, some readers will become concerned as to exactly what the rules are. The author acknowledges that the rule of power autonomy, for example, is really an ideal, rather like the political goal of energy independence. But if these are ideal goals, then the lists of benefits become a lot less compelling. It also explains why there are no drawbacks or downsides listed — ideal goals don’t have any. The stories, on the other hand, are much more compelling. For example, UPS saved millions of gallons of gas by cutting the number of left turns in its routing system; the gas the company saved from reduced idling time as drivers waited to turn left on busy streets more than compensated for the extra miles driven.

Thus Earth, Inc. is less a how-to book than an idealized portrait of how an environmentally sustainable corporation might look and act. Its objectives are worthy, but it may cause some philosophical confusion. The rules Unruh offers are outputs, not inputs. That is, they are the results of natural processes, not the causes of them. This leads to the same problem that U.S. companies had implementing lean production systems in the 1970s and ’80s. They struggled because they mistook the outcomes of the system, such as effective quality circles and vibrant suggestion schemes, for the inputs that made them work — the underlying philosophical tenets of lean manufacturing. If companies attempt to emulate Mother Nature, one suspects that similar implementation traps await.

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