Sustainable Future Worth Investing In

Author Paul Hawken proposes a new industrial revolution.

The term "industrial revolution" has been used several times throughout history. First referring to the 18th century period in Great Britain that saw a shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, it has been used several times since, even to describe the giant technological advances that have shaped today's economy. Unfortunately, each of these revolutions has resulted in processes that have exhausted the earth's natural resources and harmed its living systems. At the recent annual meeting of the Industrial Environmental Assn. (IEA) in San Diego, environmentalist, businessman, and author Paul Hawken called for a new industrial revolution, one that would lead to the restoration of Earth. Best known for his book, The Ecology of Commerce (1994, HarperBusiness), Hawken says industry must strive to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future. Industry also must help create a radically more productive and sustainable economy, where manufacturing's true costs are considered. "The free market never internalizes external costs," says Hawken. While Hawken speaking at an IEA event could be compared to a minister preaching to his choir, his luncheon speech seemed powerful enough to challenge even the most faithful followers. "All living systems are in a rapid rate of decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating," he says. "Nothing we have done has slowed the decline of living systems." Additional statistics about soil depletion and shrinking forests added to the impact of his message. Despite the grim reminders, Hawken says there is reason to be hopeful. Humanity has always responded in times of crises and invested in change. "Our problems either spell the end of this civilization, or the beginning of a new industrial revolution," he says. Indeed, the challenges are great for industry, but the brainpower exists to pursue the processes needed for a sustainable economy. While designing for the environment and implementing ISO 14000 standards are worthwhile steps, companies must become more efficient and stretch their goals to new extremes. "The great myth about our industrial society is that it is highly efficient," says Jim Hartzfeld, senior vice president at Interface Inc.'s Interface Research Corp., Atlanta, at an IEA conference session. "[The U.S.] system is only 2.5% efficient." Hartzfeld, whose company's goal is to become the first sustainable corporation, says that to be sustainable, industry needs to accomplish the following: create systems that produce no waste, use renewable energy, close the loop in manufacturing processes, use more energy-efficient transportation, educate suppliers and customers about sustainability, and redesign commerce so that prices accurately reflect products' true costs. Making these things happen will not be easy, and it will not happen quickly. Critical to their outcome will be the leadership of every company's top executive. At Interface, CEO Ray Anderson has taken an aggressive leadership role. Inspired after reading The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson vowed to make his company a restorative enterprise, one that puts more back into the earth than it takes out. For Interface, a company that produces carpet tiles made from petroleum-based products, the challenge is great. The next industrial revolution not only will require executive-level commitment, but also the willingness to invest in a radically different future, one where the goal not only is to reach sustainability, but also to try to undo the damage that two centuries of development have brought. With the Year 2000 drawing near, there may not be a better time to make corporate sustainability the driving force in all organizations. As companies such as Interface have learned, it not only is a profitable approach, but also the right thing to do.

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