Carbon—From Enemy to Resource
What does sustainable business have to do with climate change? Our global economy today was built on cheap fossil fuel energy (carbon stored in the ground), which has fueled a never-ending thirst for more and more energy to keep it going and growing. While many point at business as the evil destroyer of the planet, I do not. I believe growing business is natural—everything in nature is growing; it is our natural order and drive. That said, I do believe that business must reinvent itself as a force for environmental and social good and take the lead on climate. As Ray Anderson, founder of Interface Carpet, asks: “What is the business case for ending life on Earth?”
As product designers, creatives, engineers, and purpose brand marketers we have a unique seat at the business reinvention table. Like, artists, we can inspire a new way of seeing the world, like Picasso, Frida Kalo, and Leonardo DaVinci have done. We are in a new age of enlightenment— a design renaissance that is going to blow our minds. Are you ready? I am.
But, before we get to where we are going with new ways of thinking that are different than our current thinking (a requirement noted by Albert Einstein), we need to understand where we are now. Climate change is not a matter up for question, it’s a matter of how bad. But we can’t freeze up and stress there. We cannot afford to and are bigger than that. There is a lack of communication between the people who are creating a new future and the citizenry who are steeped in guilt and powerlessness. As usual, good news is not news so the masses don’t hear about it. So, we consume and feel guilty, we recycle the cardboard cover of a bouncy house and feel just a bit better. But our goal cannot be to feel “less bad”! (thank you, architect and sustainability thought leader, William McDonough, for that insight).
The conventional doom and gloom feeling and story about climate change is that it is a problem of burning fossil fuels for electricity and transport. While true, that is not the entire story. What it misses is the fact that a 3rd of global carbon emissions come from the chemistry of stuff. The biggest carbon contributors in the world of stuff are: Cement (think: buildings), steal (again think: building/auto’s), and plastic (think: every other product made on this planet). The things we love every-day are designed and manufactured to off-gas CO2.
What if I told you that the new way of thinking (thank you, Einstein) that will save us are already here. It starts with changing how we think about carbon.
Carbon molecules, while vilified today, are the building blocks of all living things, including humans. Us. Big carbon-based molecules are how life stores the energy of the sun. How can we make the carbon molecule good again, life producing?
Let’s take the lead from Interface Carpet and “design with carbon in mind.” In doing so, we ask the question: What if we could take carbon out of the atmosphere when producing every-day things? What if we could build our homes and make the clothing we wear so that they sequester or store carbon? Think about that a minute.
Product design to sequester carbon isn’t science fiction. It’s happening right now all over the world.
Here are a few examples:
- Take Interface Carpet, they are the company that created the carpet squares we all love. Their company-wide sustainability philosophy is a “commitment to running our business in a way that reverses global warming and creates a climate fit for life.” Wow, what a goal, what a sense of purpose! Interface is so far ahead of most companies, thanks to founder Ray Anderson, that they have already achieved 100% carbon neutrality across their manufacturing and operations world wold. Now, they are on to the next big sustainability program called “Climate Take Back”, which so far has resulted in carpet that sequesters carbon. This Climate Take Back program pushes their designers to change their way of thinking—from how can we create products that are less polluting (less bad)—to thinking about how carpet can be designed to be net positive; to restore the planet.
- 2. Take Charlotte McCurdy, a Yale and RISDE graduate. She designed a raincoat made from marine algae and sequestered carbon.
- 3. And, what if I told you that art could clear the air and sequester carbon? Scientist-inventors Anastasia Neddersen and Alina Adams do just that. They design art that sequesters carbon. They started the company Artveoli to design and manufacture wall art that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen, like plants do (sounds like biomimicry, doesn’t it?).
Designing things to sequester carbon is a market-driven solution to climate change.
Carbon neutral product design is a revolutionary act. This market-driven solution (not to mention creative solution!) by-passes policy and politics. It gives us hope. Breakthroughs like this are happening all over the world inside companies and universities in research institutions, in biology and chemistry departments, right now.
In closing, the time is now to take bold, positive action. America was built with a pioneer spirit, let’s continue that legacy and show the world what is possible through a sustainability/climate plan that includes climate sustainable business innovation and incubation.
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