The Vector of Progress

My interest in clean tech stems from my love of the environment and my interest in the technology and personal and business practices that can help protect it. If you are just tuning in to the question of how to limit our harm to the environment, you will eventually be confronted with a couple of big questions.

How Do You Know You’re Doing Good?

Determining which of two actions is better for the environment can be harder than it looks. I’ve heard of studies showing that, for example, that the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine imported to the East Coast of the U.S. from France is higher than that of a bottle sent from California, despite the fact that California is closer.

A new book by sustainability guru Joel Makower has many examples of spurious environmental claims made by consumer product manufacturers, such as “photodegradable” Hefty plastic trash bags that deteriorate over time if exposed to sunlight and oxygen, which they never are in a landfill.

It is difficult for consumers to assess environmental claims. And it can be difficult for companies to undertake environmentally friendly initiatives when they run the risk of consumer backlash. (Makower relates the story of Levi’s, which was quietly experimenting with integration a small amount of organic cotton into its products. They wanted to keep it quiet lest they draw attention to the fact that they are big cotton users and industrial cultivation of cotton creates substantial environmental stresses.)

If you consider how difficult it is to do good for the environment (without causing unintended negative consequences), you might think it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try.

Will Any Action Be Enough to Make a Difference?

The challenges facing society in grappling with environmental ills are daunting. If you consider how much needs to be achieved in order to slow or reverse the trend toward devastating global warming, for example, you might think that it’s too late to have an impact and that the cost of trying is wasted money.

Makower cites a 2004 paper that enumerated a set of goals that its authors said would have to be achieved over the next 50 years in order to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and avert environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, the simultaneous achievement of those goals is so challenging as to make success seem just about impossible. They are:

  • Double the fuel economy of 2 billion cars worldwide from 30 to 60 miles per gallon (though there are only 850 million cars on the planet today)
  • Decrease car travel for 2 billion 30-mgp cars from 10,000 to 5,000 miles per year
  • Cut carbon emissions by 25 percent in buildings and appliances
  • Cut elecricity use in all homes, offices, and stores by 25 percent
  • Replace 1,400 large coal-fired power plants with gas-fired plants
  • Increase solar power 700-fold from current levels to displace coal-fired power plants
  • Increase wind power 80-fold from current levels to produce hydrogen for cars

Why Bother?

With these challenges, why should anyone bother doing anything to try to minimize his or her harm to the environment, especially when many environmentally sensitive choices seem to increase costs?

And even if you are persuaded to pay more to reduce your impact on the environment, how much more should you pay? The value of averting global catastrophe might be beyond measure. But how much of the cost to do so should my company bear? Why should I bear the cost of reducing carbon emissions today if the world will never in aggregate reduce enough to make any difference?

Pursuing Broader Benefits

The magnitude of the challenge and the uncertainty of the environmental payoff is is why advocates of pro-environmental strategies look for benefits greater than just environmental ones. Well-designed sustainability strategies pursue multiple returns on the investment in sustainability to increase the probability of a good payback for those investments. Such returns may include:

  • reducing costs
  • increasing quality
  • increasing efficiency
  • building good will with customers, partners and employees
  • greater efficiency
  • stimulating innovation, development of new technology, new markets

It’s definitely possible to achieve several of these objectives in tandem with environmental ones. Dell, whose sustainability reporting I recently looked at, is just one company that trumpets its success in doing so, touting reduced electricity use, packaging waste, and substantial cost savings along with reduced environmental footprint.

Aligning With the Vector of Progress

With such large environmental challenges, we may not be able to see perfectly how we’ll achieve our environmental goals. But it’s important that companies and individuals at least take teps in the right direction. The march of technological progress, which has transformed so many areas of business and life, will accelerate our environmental progress too, as long as we’re pointing in the right direction, as long as we are aligned with the vector of progress and can therefore harness that progress. It’s useful to consider Moore’s law–the phenomenon of relentless and rapid increase in the power of integrated circuits, that has has transformed science fiction into reality in a generation.

Consumers can do their part but business is where innovation happens at scale. Business need to take the lean in harnessing the vector of progress.

Business is where innovation and scale happen. Business has to lead.

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One response to “The Vector of Progress

  1. Pingback: Policy Innovation Lags Clean Tech Innovation « Green Research by David Schatsky

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