Let's talk about your butt—specifically, what it's sitting on.
Chances are, your chair is an unholy medley of polyvinyl chloride and hazardous chemicals that drift into your lungs each time you shift your weight. It was likely produced in a fossil-fuel-swilling factory that in turn spews toxic pollution and effluents. And it's ultimately destined for a landfill or incinerator, where it will emit carcinogenic dioxins and endocrine-disrupting phthalates, the kind of hormone-mimicking nasties that give male fish female genitalia and small children cancer (or is it the other way around?). Now, envision what you might be sitting on in 2016. Actually, never mind: Office-furniture outfit Haworth already built it. It's called the Zody, and it's made without PVC, CFCs, chrome, or any other toxic fixin's. Ninety-eight percent of it can be recycled; some 50% of it already has been. The energy used in the manufacturing process is completely offset by wind-power credits, and when the chair is ready to retire, the company will take it off your hands and reuse its components.
Unsurprisingly, Haworth is motivated by more than woodsy altruism. "Haworth fundamentally believes that by being sustainable, you can be more profitable," says its president and CEO, Franco Bianchi. The lumbar-pampering chair isn't cheap to produce—nor, at $700 to $1,100 each, particularly cheap to buy—but the company believes there's money to be made at the sweet spot where quality meets environmental consciousness.
In isolation, the story of the Zody is a font of warm fuzzies. But if the world is to avoid ecological catastrophe over the coming decade (Sorry, did we say "ecological catastrophe"? We meant "multiple, overlapping, mutually reinforcing ecological catastrophes"), it's going to require more than benign furnishings. What we need is nothing less than another industrial revolution—a wholesale conversion of the familiar model of brute-force resource- and waste-intensive industry to a model that mimics nature in its fecundity, flexibility, and efficiency. And quickly, please.
That Sinking Feeling
Last year, more than 100 citizens of the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu permanently fled their seaside village because a succession of strong waves and storms threatened to swallow it up. These unlucky folks and their counterparts on other low-lying islands and buckling shorelines are involuntary trendsetters, the world's first climate-change refugees. And according to the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University, they may be joined by as many as 50 million other environmental refugees by 2010.
If you're under 40, experts say, you're likely to see the end of cheap crude oil in your lifetime.
The same fossil-fuel addiction that drives climate chaos also fouls the air and dangerously distorts foreign policy. And things are only going to get messier: Experts differ on exactly when we're going to run out of cheap crude, but the consensus is that if you're under 40 (and particulate pollution doesn't kill you early), you're likely to see it in your lifetime.
In the meantime, billions more people will be lining up for whatever's left. By 2050, the global population is expected to hit 9.2 billion, up from today's 6.5 billion. That means the world is adding a Dallas a week, and some of the fastest-growing spots on the planet—think China and India—are those most rapidly upping their per-capita demand for natural resources. We're razing rainforests, wiping out thousands of species, slurping up a dwindling supply of fresh water, and contaminating virtually every living creature with a witches' brew of more than 70,000 synthetic chemicals. In fact, because toxic chemicals tend to drift northward and accumulate in Arctic food chains, the breast milk of some mothers in Greenland now technically qualifies as hazardous waste.
Sound grim? Don't just sit there crying into your phthalates. There are options—choose one!
The first is an old standby: doing nothing. Resource wars will break out, environmental refugees will swarm the globe, people—mostly poor people—will starve from drought and be wiped out by intense storms. The world's rich will survive and probably prosper (they tend to), but wealth disparities will skyrocket, presumably at a significant cost to global political stability.
A second option: Educate the world's population to the point of enlightenment so we all accept that we can live with much less, materially speaking. The rich get poor, the poor stay poor—voluntary simplicity, worldwide. Ahem.
Let's talk about the third option, then: the next industrial revolution.
Reuse, Recycle, Rejoice
For decades, environmentalists have scolded the world's industrialized societies, warning that they must grow less, consume less, slow down, sacrifice. Human nature being what it is, that message found a rather modest audience.
But a group of big thinkers has emerged in the past decade to put a new twist on the green dream—people like William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Amory Lovins, Janine Benyus, and Paul Hawken. Rather than taking ecological principles primarily as moral prohibitions, they suggest, why not see them as design challenges? Why not aim to build a democratic, market-based civilization of prosperity and plenty that puts humanity in a nurturing, rather than omnivorous, relationship with the ecosystems it inhabits? Far from utopian, they say, it's largely achievable in the next decade or so—and would ultimately cost far less than our present trajectory.
Architect McDonough and chemist Braungart, authors of the landmark book Cradle to Cradle, contend that every material used in the manufacturing process should ultimately either biodegrade harmlessly or be reusable with no loss of quality (unlike today's recycling, which is actually downcycling). This radical model entirely eliminates the concept of waste, including pollution; or, as they put it in their book: Waste equals food.
Lovins, a sustainable-energy expert and head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a green think tank and consulting firm, is similarly fixated on eliminating waste—especially wasted energy. He estimates that preventable energy loss costs the global economy more than $1 trillion a year and argues that efficiency is the most affordable energy source in the United States. In a 2004 book, Winning the Oil Endgame (partly funded by the Pentagon), Lovins and his RMI crew lay out a market-centric strategy for weaning the United States off oil over the next couple of decades through efficiency efforts and the strategic use of existing technology. Net savings to the U.S. economy: $70 billion a year by 2025.
Green Is Green
Lofty and appealing ideas, these, but what's actually happening on the ground?
To begin with perhaps the most ambitious example: As part of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, McDonough's architectural firm is designing and overseeing construction of entire city districts in China. Some 400 million rural Chinese are expected to migrate to cities over the coming decade, and the government wants urban centers to absorb the influx with minimal ecological impact. The goal is to create dense urban areas that generate more power than they consume through smart building techniques and solar technology—a high-profile demonstration of cradle-to-cradle principles, if it actually happens.
To date, though, McDonough has made more concrete progress with corporate clients, including BASF, Nike, PepsiCo, and Ford Motor Co., which famously commissioned the architect to oversee a top-to-bottom overhaul of its historic River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
The past few months have seen blue-chip companies tripping over themselves to go green.
In fact, the past few months have seen blue-chip companies tripping over themselves to go green. General Electric vowed to improve the energy efficiency of its operations by 4% a year and double its revenues from relatively clean products to $20 billion by 2010. Wal-Mart, which has contracted with Lovins and RMI for advice, has unveiled plans to double the fuel efficiency of its new trucks, cut greenhouse-gas emissions from existing stores by 20%, and develop a model green store. Energy giant BP just unveiled a new alternative-energy division, which it says could produce $6 billion in annual revenue by 2015.
Whole Foods announced in January that it would buy enough wind-power credits to offset energy use at all of its U.S. stores, and Starbucks, which said in 2005 that it would buy wind energy to meet 20% of electricity needs at its U.S. stores, is this year adding 10% postconsumer recycled content to its ubiquitous paper cups. That should cut the need for new tree fiber by more than 5 million pounds a year, the company says. Even McDonald's is shooting to get its first green-building certification for a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.
These heavyweight corporations don't need a windmill to see which way the wind blows. And their sheer size means that even tentative, incremental efforts have the potential to move markets. But the most ambitious, inventive ideas are bubbling out of more agile, adaptable small and midsize companies.
Take outdoor-clothing maker Patagonia. Ten years ago, it led the pack in switching to 100% organic cotton; now it's asking folks to return their old Capilene underwear (yes, they'd like you to wash it) to be recycled into new garments.
In a similar vein, Hartmann & Forbes, which makes handwoven window coverings from sustainably grown grasses and bamboo, just launched a program to take them back at the end of their useful lives. Q Collection, an upscale furniture maker, outflanks competitors by eschewing formaldehyde, polyurethane, and flame retardants. GDiapers are made of reusable cloth with flushable, compostable inserts. IceStone is a glossy countertop material of recycled glass and concrete.
Perhaps no other area is seeing as great a flurry of development as clean energy. Solar cells are shrinking, wind turbines are getting more efficient, and hydrokinetic energy—from the natural movement of water—is being tapped as never before. Energy company Energetech, for example, is teaming up with desalination company H2AU to develop technology that harnesses wave power and uses it to make ocean water drinkable. A prototype in the waters off of Port Kembla, Australia, last year beat expectations; a full-scale version could power 1,400 homes a year, at a competitive cost, or produce 260 million gallons of potable water—with zero emissions.
There are thousands of others, small firms and startups creating nontoxic, modular, recyclable products; modeling more efficient production; reducing their pollution. As in any new wave of innovation, many—perhaps most—of these companies will fail, but each will add to the expanding store of practical wisdom.
Flushable diapers and fancy chairs notwithstanding, we will never recover the thousands of species lost, the old-growth forests and Appalachian mountaintops leveled, or the lives cut short by poisons and pollution. There is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to guarantee at least some climatic disruption.
The real engine of environmental progress will turn out to be not government action but imagination and entrepreneurial spirit.
The European Union and U.S. states and cities are picking up some of the legislative and regulatory slack, but at the national level here, action to address these problems has been anemic at best and counterproductive at worst—a collective failure of will that could come back to haunt us. But if McDonough and company are right, the real engine of environmental progress will turn out to be not government action but the imagination and entrepreneurial spirit of thousands of market-savvy, environmentally minded innovators.
As GE CEO and newly minted eco-evangelist Jeffrey Immelt is fond of saying, "Green is green."
Chip Giller is founder and editor of Grist.org, an online environmental magazine. David Roberts is a Grist.org senior writer.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.