Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Building a business from a Green foundation – Green and sustainable innovation as a driving imperative

Posted in social networking and business, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on September 23, 2010

This is my sixth posting in a series on building a business from a Green and sustainable infrastructure (see Business Strategy and Operations, postings 74, 80, 82, 85 and 87). The fourth installment in this, Building for Green Products and Services switched from consideration of business infrastructure per se to discuss products and services, and building them Green and sustainable from the core on out. Number five in this, Green and Sustainable Context and the Green Marketplace focused on connecting the perhaps seemingly distinct perspectives of Green and sustainable from inside the business, to Green and sustainable as viewed and understood in the marketplace. This posting picks up on both to draw connections between them and I would do so with a focus on a particular type of product and a particular environmental challenge that individual businesses can ignore or develop to meet. The general product category here is household detergents and particularly dishwasher and laundry detergents – with and without phosphates.

First some background: Mother Nature is the great recycler, and essentially every basic component of life and of the environment in general that you can find on Earth gets recycled. The time frames may be vast, but everything recycles. And I focus here on the essential nutrient building block cycles. The carbon cycle comes immediately to mind, though there are similar cycles for a great many other basic building blocks including nitrogen and oxygen, and the essential trace elements that go into living organisms. Phosphorus and phosphates derived from them are also recycled, from living organism and back to the surrounding environment and back into living organisms again. And this brings me to a second major organizing process, and one that serves to limit population sizes and maintain ecological balance – the law of the limiting factor. Phosphates constitute the essential building block for life in aquatic ecosystems that is usually available in the lowest level, acting as a break in an otherwise continuing trend towards growth. So populations of algae and other aquatic organisms expand outward in size and density until they exhaust available phosphate resources and can only continue to grow in a rate-limited manner as phosphates are recycled back into availability through processes such as eutrophication.

This creates stable ecosystems with populations of the various species represented held in homeostatic balance and with population shifts and fluctuations that tend to self-correct. But what happens if a pond or other aquatic ecosystem is flooded with a new and expanded source of phosphates? You quickly see algal blooms develop and the population densities of these and other organisms skyrocket. And if this balance is thrown off sufficiently, phosphates cease to be the limiting factor and the next in line is often oxygen dissolved into the water and rendered bio-available as a result. And the result of that is a mass die-off and large-scale eutrophication that completes the process of rendering that pond anoxic and no longer habitable. And this is where household detergents enter this story. It was discovered that adding phosphates to these products meant cleaner, brighter cloths, and cleaner, more spot-free dishes and phosphates were very inexpensive additives. Manufacturers saw phosphate additives as a great new avenue for creating cost-effective and profitable new value propositions that the marketplace would love – and buy and insist on having.

The only problem here is that these new products, soon standard to the market, began to show themselves to be ecologically unsustainable and anything but Green. And the challenge became, and continues to be one of finding alternatives to phosphates that do the same job in these products and at least as effectively, but that do not enter into these basic cycles the way externally provided phosphates do and disrupt them.

But simply finding a substitute that is not used under normal circumstances by living organisms and switching to that may create whole new problems – and the lesson of heavy metal contamination comes in here.

Under normal circumstances, only minute and essentially immeasurably low concentrations of bio-available lead or cadmium are found in the environment. When these levels spike to measurable and even very significant concentrations, some organisms can adapt. Plants that live on mine tailings can and do develop mechanisms to isolate and sequester otherwise toxic elements in specialized inclusions in their cells, to limit their impact. But novel to the environment metals and other contaminants can and do serve as chemical mimics, and can and do incorporate into biochemical pathways where other, more expected and evolved-for elements would normally go. Any novel to the environment alternative to phosphates has to meet the test of not becoming an ecological toxin in the manner of heavy metal contamination. And the problems of synthetic hormone analogs in certain plastics and their degradation byproducts demonstrate that this problem does not just mean elemental level contaminants – complex molecules can get recycled and incorporated in as toxins and related problems too.

• So an effective, sustainable alternative to phosphates in detergents would have to work as effectively and as cost-effectively as the phosphates they replace if it is to capture a sustaining and significant market share. Some people will wear dingy cloths and eat off of plates that do not look fully cleaned for the greater good but many will not, and the key word here is sustainable – user and marketplace sustainability.
• And any such additive alternative needs to be ecologically sustainable too, and it has to address and account for a variety of potential long term problems in doing so.

So this posting, using phosphate additives as a working example, is about innovation for Green and sustainability and the need to understand the larger systems that our products and services will exist and function in, and throughout their lifecycles. Note that the environmental sustainability issues that phosphate additives raise here all develop after the product has been used and flushed away in the rinse cycle. This means development of new products and value propositions that are Green and sustainable in use but it also means Green and sustainable in production, transport, logistics and throughout relevant supply chains and in after-use whether this involves human-directed recycling components or not.

Ultimately everything is recycled, and even if that most meaningfully takes place on time frames outside of our usual considerations. That also means the scope and opportunity for Green and sustainable innovation is vast – just like the potential problems and issues that this innovation can address. The Green and sustainable business strives to do this right and from its core infrastructure out, and in its products and services and throughout their cycles too.

I will continue to post in issues related to Green and sustainability and in a variety of contexts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: