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Earth, Inc.: How to Turn the Biosphere Into a Mentor

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Tuesday April 13th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Biomimicry is a great design discipline for making cradle-to-cradle products, but it’s also a handy tool when it comes to developing sustainable businesses, explains Gregory Unruh in his new book, Earth, Inc., out this month on Harvard Business Press.

The book describes how business leaders can learn from nature’s way of getting things done, sustainably. “We know exactly what sustainability looks like because we interact with a sustainable production system every day,” Unruh writes. “Refined through billions of years of trial and error, our sustainability model is the Earth’s biosphere.”

Unruh, who is the director of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management and professor of corporate governance/ethics at Thunderbird School of Global Management, formed the thesis for his book through studying the ways that companies were developing sustainability strategies. “Common threads began to emerge,” he writes. “But these threads were not just shared by businesses that were profiting from sustainability. They were remarkably similar to the principles that make the biosphere sustainable.”

Unruh writes about many companies, from Clorox to Lexmark to Coca-Cola, that have tried—and sometimes failed—to trade in their old business processes for more systematic and sustainable ones. And if you’ve read more than a couple green business books or case studies in the past, these stories won’t be news to you. But what makes Earth, Inc., interesting is the committed path Unrue takes to drawing parallels between business systems and natural systems.

He spends the bulk of the book taking business school conventions and models and putting them through a kind of biosphere filter—the value chain becomes the value cycle, for example. And he draws out the economic good sense of power autonomy—that is, cutting ties with conventional power sources and cultivating in-house power systems that allow businesses to generate and scavenge enough energy to operate as close to a closed-loop system as possible, a la nature.

Of course, there are limitations. And in the end, the biosphere model will remain just that, a model. Unruh notes the many areas where nature is simply better at sustaining life than businesses will ever be at sustaining business. “Nature’s increasing returns are possible because of the biosphere platform’s ability to simultaneously exploit economies of scale, scope and knowledge,” he writes.

Unruh says he wrote the book for managers who are already convinced on the business case for sustainability. “Once you are convinced, what should you do?” he asks. “The biosphere rules are nice step-by-step actions.”

Those actions include strategies for selecting appropriate material suppliers as a means of improving product lifecycle, but also to make sure the materials hold long-lasting value to the business. “The best way to do this is to begin thinking about the products in the hands of your customers as a resource deposit that the company will mine at a future date,” he writes.

Having worked in environmental remediation as an environmental consultant in the 80s—trying to figure out ways to clean up toxic messes produced by large corporations, including Shell, Chevron, HP and Apple—and later partnering with William McDonough to co-found the Center for Eco-Intelligent Management, Unruh pulls from experiences on both sides of the sustainability divide.

“We can’t literally copy nature, so I try to translate it to what business people do,” he says. “A lot of the work was done by visiting companies, seeing operations and interviewing executives. I studied most of the companies that tried to adopt cradle-to-cradle and asked them what the steps are and how do you that cost-effectively while also generating a profit.”


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