© Earthly Gains Ltd 2017-2018
This page contains recent blog articles written by members of the Earthly Gains team or its associates.

Can business solve the material problem?

by Martin Gibson (October, 2017)

I have spent much of my career helping businesses to use materials more efficiently and continue to deliver outcomes for their customers. This is good for the businesses, because they spend less on materials, and good for the environment, because using less material means that environmental impact is reduced. I had always assumed that if businesses were resource efficient it would drive our economic systems to be more efficient, resulting in fewer materials being consumed. We could all have a high quality of life while living within environmental limits. There are some good indicators of how this might be possible. Work on Environmental Kuznet Curves  suggests that as economic prosperity increases environmental degradation rises and then declines. A related trend shows that countries that follow the development of other countries have lower peak environmental degradation.  So perhaps we can be efficient to keep the peak as low as possible and then consume even less as the economy matures. Dematerialising the economy is possible and lower material use in a developed economy does not mean lower standards of living. So why the picture of a big stereo system at the top of this blog? The answer is it gives a good example of dematerialisation of a service. I like to listen to music. I don’t care how it is delivered as long as the quality is good enough. When I was young, we had great big stereo systems and lots of records. This added up to a lot of material. Compare that to today, where an mp3 player or phone and headset can deliver a similar listening experience. Much less material is involved. Alas, these assumptions about dematerialisation have been shown to be rather optimistic. Professor Christopher Magee of MIT presented a fascinating lecture at the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford giving details of his research into material use. He and his team have looked at global use of 98 materials. They found that material use is a function of technological improvements, population growth and increasing affluence. For 57 functions that were studied in detail, material use increased even as technological improvements reduced the amount of material needed to deliver them. So, for many activities, it seems improved technology is leading to greater material use. This seems to be mainly because more people then make use of the technology as it becomes cheaper. So what can businesses to do reverse this trend and the resulting increase in environmental impact? First, continue using resource efficiency techniques. They will continue to give cost and environmental benefits. Next, look for truly disruptive approaches that deliver the outcomes that your customers need with minimal material use. If the change is big enough, material use will decrease. Finally, lobby for a trade system that ensures that environmental damage is paid for by those doing the damage. This incentivises improvements and means that cost of environmental damage is shared more equitably. At the moment, much environmental damage is paid for by governments and insurance companies, which means that taxpayers and anyone with insurance premiums picks up some of the cost. Oh, and we all lose as the quality of our environmental decreases. Technological advances could help us fulfil our needs with less environmental harm but, for many technology areas, this is not happening. The ability to do more with less is leading us to use even more material with a consequent increase in environmental impact. Businesses that can help overcome this conundrum will be true leaders in sustainability. Please get in touch to discuss how resource efficiency can help your business.
© Martin Gibson, trading as Earthly Gains, 2017
This page contains recent blog articles written by members of the Earthly Gains team or its associates.

Can business solve the material

problem?

by Martin Gibson

(October, 2017)

I have spent much of my career helping businesses to use materials more efficiently and continue to deliver outcomes for their customers. This is good for the businesses, because they spend less on materials, and good for the environment, because using less material means that environmental impact is reduced. I had always assumed that if businesses were resource efficient it would drive our economic systems to be more efficient, resulting in fewer materials being consumed. We could all have a high quality of life while living within environmental limits. There are some good indicators of how this might be possible. Work on Environmental Kuznet Curves suggests that as economic prosperity increases environmental degradation rises and then declines. A related trend shows that countries that follow the development of other countries have lower peak environmental degradation.  So perhaps we can be efficient to keep the peak as low as possible and then consume even less as the economy matures. Dematerialising the economy is possible and lower material use in a developed economy does not mean lower standards of living. So why the picture of a big stereo system at the top of this blog? The answer is it gives a good example of dematerialisation of a service. I like to listen to music. I don’t care how it is delivered as long as the quality is good enough. When I was young, we had great big stereo systems and lots of records. This added up to a lot of material. Compare that to today, where an mp3 player or phone and headset can deliver a similar listening experience. Much less material is involved. Alas, these assumptions about dematerialisation have been shown to be rather optimistic. Professor Christopher Magee of MIT presented a fascinating lecture at the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford giving details of his research into material use. He and his team have looked at global use of 98 materials. They found that material use is a function of technological improvements, population growth and increasing affluence. For 57 functions that were studied in detail, material use increased even as technological improvements reduced the amount of material needed to deliver them. So, for many activities, it seems improved technology is leading to greater material use. This seems to be mainly because more people then make use of the technology as it becomes cheaper. So what can businesses to do reverse this trend and the resulting increase in environmental impact? First, continue using resource efficiency techniques. They will continue to give cost and environmental benefits. Next, look for truly disruptive approaches that deliver the outcomes that your customers need with minimal material use. If the change is big enough, material use will decrease. Finally, lobby for a trade system that ensures that environmental damage is paid for by those doing the damage. This incentivises improvements and means that cost of environmental damage is shared more equitably. At the moment, much environmental damage is paid for by governments and insurance companies, which means that taxpayers and anyone with insurance premiums picks up some of the cost. Oh, and we all lose as the quality of our environmental decreases. Technological advances could help us fulfil our needs with less environmental harm but, for many technology areas, this is not happening. The ability to do more with less is leading us to use even more material with a consequent increase in environmental impact. Businesses that can help overcome this conundrum will be true leaders in sustainability. Please get in touch to discuss how resource efficiency can help your business.