1 April 2014 — Extended interview: The Fifth Estate often hears that sustainability is a naff term, people have green fatigue and business needs to find new language for these concepts.
So when we were presented with an email saying green and sustainability had become taboo words with corporates and we needed to move to “blue”, it was met with an extended eye roll.
Should it matter what we call the concept? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and all of that. But, according to Dr Martin Blake, former head of sustainability for UK Royal Mail and founder of Blue Australasia, a company that aims to promote “the blue economy” being launched in Sydney tonight [Tuesday], it’s not just a rebranding of the same concepts; the blue economy is a completely different, more complex, better functioning and much needed replacement for green, which he says is well past its used-by-date.
Why green needs to go
“If you look at the history of the green agenda, it started back in the ’60s, and prior to that if someone accused you – and I use the word in the pejorative sense – of being green, the only interpretation you could make from that statement is that you were naive, as in green behind the ears,” Dr Blake told The Fifth Estate.
“The emergence of the green movement came along and it was in response to big corporations doing bad things to the planet. And quite rightly at that point in time, the activists – and they were mainly activists – were highlighting the issues and putting pressure on corporates to ‘do less damage’.”
This is the important discriminator of the green paradigm, Dr Blake says: to make things “less bad”.
“So it’s linear, it’s transactional, and when you can no longer make things less bad – because diminishing returns set in – you end up with it being, simply, ‘less bad’.
“Even from an investment perspective, people will invest in environmental solutions such as energy savings programs until the payback periods are not short enough, or the return on investment isn’t big enough, then they’ll say, ‘That’s as far as we’re going,’ and you end up being less bad.”
Dr Blake says we’re now hitting the buffers of how far the green economy can take us.
For the built environment, once we do our lighting upgrades and implement energy saving technology with an attractive enough payback period we’ll stop. The result will be a better performing building, but is it anywhere near the dream of the net positive buildings we’d like to imagine for our future?
This is why we need a new approach, Dr Blake says, one that isn’t predicated on only making things less bad.
“Even the activists will say, ‘We can’t get traction any more,’ because people generally have what I’ve heard described as ‘green fatigue’. So that’s not me saying anything. That’s coming from people working in charities and NGOs – that there’s a malaise, that this green fatigue has come about because people are actually disappointed in the green agenda being able to do anything other than make things less bad. And as we’ve seen with climate change, there are those who would say that it hasn’t been made less bad quickly enough, or in a magnitude that is going to have any significant order of impact.
The blue economy
The term “blue economy” was coined by entrepreneur and founder of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives Gunter Pauli. His 2010 book The Blue Economy: 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs, was originally intended as a report to the Club of Rome, the think tank responsible for The Limits to Growth report.
It works by designing or restructuring business processes so waste from one product can become an input into a process that can create revenue. Based on 21 principles, Dr Blake says the blue economy is a “win-win-win” approach that leads to jobs, increased social capital and a society more in balance with the natural environment.
Some sources in the sustainability domain, however, have told The Fifth Estate they see little difference between the blue economy and concepts such as the circular economy, and because there is more awareness around the circular economy, it will probably be a concept corporate Australia will be more amenable to.
Dr Blake sees the blue economy as an all-embracing term, however.
“The blue economy is capable of embracing the circular economy, concepts like cradle-to-cradle; all of those would fit under its overarching umbrella.
“So the philosophy is systems thinking, so something in the manufacturing arena – something like circular economy, industrial ecology is another term often used, cradle-to-cradle – all of those can have their place and add value to a blue economy overview.”
Like a butterfly – same, but different
The blue economy, Dr Blake says, is a metamorphosis of the green agenda. He uses the term metamorphosis deliberately. Taking the example of a butterfly, it goes from egg, to larvae, to pupae, to butterfly: “the DNA remains the same, but it actually evolves through that lifecycle into more sophisticated levels of being”.
“So I think the metaphor of metamorphosis is a very good one to describe how the green agenda has metamorphosed and emerged with the DNA of wanting to do things to improve our planetary lifestyle and wellbeing, but it’s a more sophisticated approach,” he says.
“But it stands on the shoulders of the green economy, the green agenda. And one isn’t on the blue side denigrating the green. It’s just the next generation; it’s the next version.”
The two are fundamentally different, however.
“The reason being that the overarching paradigm is not Newtonian science,” Dr Blake says. “It’s systems thinking. So it’s based on non-linear approaches. It’s based on a holistic view of appreciating systems, understanding their interaction then deriving system interventions that do not then deliver unexpected outcomes.
“You can actually transform the systems in ways that you wouldn’t with a single linear approach. Because when you take a linear approach in a complex, adaptive system – which is what we live in, even if you talk about the economy, that’s a complex, adaptive system – you will almost without exception have unintended consequences. Some of which you might be lucky; you might go, ‘Oh, that’s good! How did that happen?’ but very often it’s a bit like introducing cane toads to deal with cane beetles.
Green can lead to poor built environment outcomes
The Fifth Estate has heard many examples of this within the green building industry: a range of technologies put into buildings that are then given high green certification, and even higher praise, only for us to later hear from the owner that nothing works as intended and the actual performance is, well, subpar.
Green buildings, Dr Blake agrees, are a classic example of linear approaches applied to complex systems, with associated unintended outcomes.
With tools like BREEAM and LEED, he says, people tick the boxes and say, “I want a platinum building,” and they will put in the technology “without considering the fact that the technologies, while individually might do some useful contribution, but when you mix them and blend them, some of them will be antagonistic and deliver very suboptimal outcomes at a high price”.
“There are buildings in the UK – very, very expensive buildings to build with all of the gizmos and technology – but when you look at the actual lifecycle assessment of how efficient that building is, they’re bloody appalling,” Dr Blake says.
“And there are many, many examples of where that linear approach brings suboptimal outcomes.”
There are, however, certification standards that attempt to employ more integrated, holistic approaches to building design, such as the Living Building Challenge.
The green economy has had its day
What’s the catalyst for moving to the blue economy?
Dr Blake says the movement has gained traction through “disappointment with the green economy”.
“The green economy has had its day. It served a purpose and served a very valuable purpose. And I grew up as an advocate of the green agenda, and I also, like the NGOs and the charities and many others, now say, ‘Well it’s not fit for purpose anymore.’ There’s got to be a better way. Our knowledge and understanding of complexity, and the interaction of complexity, requires a more sophisticated approach.
“In some ways it doesn’t surprise me that the openly stated enemies of the green movement would be able to highlight its impoverished outcomes, because the model is tired.”
But wouldn’t the same critics of a green economy be critics of a blue one?
“I think where people have railed against the green movement often is where it either has the unintended outcomes, or is more expensive, or it’s being driven by the wrong agenda,” Dr Blake says.
“Let’s face it: some of the things we’ve done in the past in the name of green haven’t been particularly brilliant, and have had disappointing, suboptimal result. If it’s carefully thought through and you construct ‘win-win-win’ scenarios, which is what a blue outcome should be, where people are rewarded in terms of jobs, the economy does well, the environment does well, communities do well, and it doesn’t harm anyone, it would be difficult to know where they would come from.
“I suppose the vested interests, who may say this disrupts the status quo, may have some issues, but for me that’s just Darwinian theory at work. If their time has come and their vested interests are no longer viable, then it’s time to adapt or die, really.
“For me, I’m a very firm advocate that the next level has to be based on holistic thinking and systems rather than linear systems and incrementalism. Transactional approaches to [sustainability challenges] don’t work. Every time you look at this linear approach in a complex system you’re going to be disappointed.”
Case study: Bulmers
A concrete example of how blue economy thinking can transform business is Bulmers Cider.
“You know this story has a happy ending because it’s around and available,” Dr Blake says.
Back in the mid-’90s, Bulmers was facing liquidation; they were insolvent. Diageo, a multinational drinks company, was pumping out alcopop drinks at low cost, creating a challenge for Bulmers and their artisan cider.
Bulmers was going bankrupt, so it called together a group of experts to transform the business.
“There was not much to do in a transactional way, because the business process was so simple. They’d already done anything they had,” Dr Blake said.
The had orchards, picked apples, took them to be pressed in a cart, pressed them, fermented them then bottled to sell.
One of the people Bulmers invited to help was Gunter Pauli.
Another guest was Amory Lovins, an American physicist, environmental scientist, writer and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which works to foster efficient and sustainable use of resources.
They started going through the business process step by step.
They started with planting trees and growing apples. The next step was picking the apples. Then following was pruning the trees. They then paid a contractor to prune the trees. Next they piled up the prunings between the trees. Then they set fire to them.
“So immediately, there was, ‘Ah! You have a waste product that you’re ascribing negative value to because you’re actually paying to have this destroyed.’ So Amory Lovins, who is probably one of the world’s best known energy conservation engineers, looked at that in a fairly linear way and said, ‘Oh, you could shred the prunings, turn it into biomass and the biomass could be used to heat the liquid in the fermentation vessels and that would offset some of your energy from other sources and fossil fuels.’
And so the accountants did the arithmetic and found they would still be bankrupt.
“So Gunter Pauli, said, ‘Engineers! Every time we have a waste product you either want to set fire to it or bury it!’”
Dr Pauli informed the group that apple wood was the most suitable material in the world for growing mushrooms.
The UK at the time was experiencing growth in the number of Asian immigrants, and with it an increased demand for shiitake and oyster mushrooms.
He told Bulmers that they had the best substrate to grow mushrooms, so they started growing mushrooms.
A few years later the mushroom business was four times the revenue of the original cider process.
“It absolutely transformed their business,” Dr Blake says.
Around the same time, mad cow disease hit the UK, which had been caused by using animal protein in feed for herbivores. Luckily for Bulmers, the mycelium of the mushrooms broke down the apple wood into a high-protein organic vegetable product, so they also had another in-demand revenue stream.
“So you now see how taking a non-linear, non-transactional approach can transform businesses.”
But is there a use for every waste product?
“I think there probably is,” Dr Blake says. “And if you end up with something that is so intractable, it begs the question of why are you doing the process in the first place, and isn’t there a better way?
“If you look at waste, and give it a different name, it’s actually inefficiency. So what you’re admitting is, is that what you are undertaking is an inherently inefficient process. So getting down to maximum efficiency and zero waste is where you should be headed.
“Under Blue Economy, we don’t go for, ‘Can we reduce our CO2 by five per cent next year?’ What we would do is say, ‘Well, why do you have any CO2? How do you get rid of it? How do you become zero emissions? Using restorative processes, how do you turn a business into being net positive impact?’”
The blue economy in Australia
Dr Blake has founded a company, Blue Australasia, to promote blue economy thinking in the region. He says its purpose is to raise awareness of a different way of conducting business.
“We’d very much like to work on projects in Australia where we can help create outcomes for the common good, where communities are benefitted, where abundance is created in those communities by jobs, social enterprise and this approach to using industrial ecology, creating perhaps cottage industries out of what were previously waste streams; making businesses more competitive and more prosperous and more profitable by turning waste into wealth.
“So, what we’re looking to do is make a difference, both in the awareness and consciousness areas: ‘Let’s use a blue economy solution for that’, and then having been made aware of it and making that choice, then we’ve convened a really potent group of people who are like-minded and able to help turn those solutions into deployable interventions.
Dr Blake says the reception in Australia has already been extremely positive.
“It’s been received as a breath of fresh air; it’s been, ‘Thank god! this is a new way of doing stuff that makes sense.’ And it transcends political debate, because if it’s a win-win-win scenario it’s difficult for it to become a political punching bag.
He says the organisation is now in the process of creating a “blue paper”, which will be a “blueprint for a blue nation”.
“It aims to show how in Australia, areas – not in silos – such as manufacturing, resources, energy, logistics, water, and agriculture, can be dealt with using blue economy solutions to provide an alternative future for Australia that can provide benefits to all stakeholders.
“We will be producing something that you can measure; you can give it to accountants, actuaries, analysts and say, check the maths, check the assumptions, and over a period of time that blue paper will then be published as an alternative to the status quo.”
Isn’t a blue economy, particularly for the built environment, predicated on further technological innovation?
“Future technologies are going to be great but actually we have everything we need now,”Dr Blake says. “We don’t need any silver bullets. What we need to do is stop procrastinating.
“There’s more than enough technology out there. What it needs to do is for it to be woven together in ways that bring solutions that are sustainable.”
However, he admits that future technology obviously has a place in blue economy solutions. As thin film solar becomes cheaper, Australia will have whole buildings acting as solar energy generators, he says, with battery technology enabling smart grids and more decentralised energy production.
The crux of the matter for Dr Blake is getting rid of the notion that making things less bad is acceptable for the sustainability movement.
“If we continue to only make things less bad then we can only accept mediocre outcomes,” he says. “Is less bad what we want?”