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  • The Science of Sustainability: New Drivers of Change

The Science of Sustainability: New Drivers of Change

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  • By admin
  • Date May 29th, 2012 10:20
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  • As the head of sustainability for Haworth, my responsibilities are to reduce the impact our projects, as well as shifting our business to prepare for a world lacking in natural resources.

    My motivation and passion to create changes at Haworth does not come from news headlines nor carbon disclosure targets. It comes from having spent years in Chinese manufacturing before Haworth, exporting goods for the world’s largest brands from the heart of the then Chinese economy – factories manufacturing for export. This experience left me passionate about creating a connection between consumer demands and what it takes to make our economy go.

    The very definition of sustainability has changed, and this change brings with it new priorities that are and will affect your health and what commercial markets provide.

    To understand these trends, we must first address common misunderstanding about sustainability and look at how sustainability has changed over the past 30 years in the eyes of the general public.

    When did sustainability become a household term and where did it come from as an idea?
    In my job, people send me a lot of pictures of green trees. But sustainability always struck me more like a high school reunion than a forest. The biology and chemistry we swore we would never use again is back, and central to markets and policy.

    Starting in the 70s, the environmental movement was outside of the system, in opposition, and seemingly incompatible with our raging consumption. Agitators pushed for a systems change to society  - for an almost spiritual understanding of mother earth. In the 80s, the concept was often lost in the bull markets of the decade. In the 90s, we had increased demand from developing markets and cheap ‘stuff’ from China. There seemed to be no chance of changing how business operated for the sake of the earth.

    Then math and physics helped bring ‘green’ in from the cold. Scientists took a long view and came back with scientific data strong enough to change that ‘system.’ The science of climate change and the environment is based on a fundamentally different understanding of time and return on investments. They weren’t looking quarter to quarter, but century to century. That view changed everything.

    In the US, despite stiff opposition from business groups, congress established the Environmental Protection Agency, out of a sense of necessity and based on chemical levels in air and water. They did it despite immediate economic pressure, and they did it for the health of future populations. The hole in ozone layer became a popular term because people’s skin was practically on fire, not because they were worried about the polar bears. Companies and consumers began to protest formaldehyde and lead only after it was proven that it was directly effecting their health. Again, they did it because of current cancer rates.

    Suddenly what was outside the system was being taken seriously because of its new ally, scientific proof. Out with emotional and moral arguments, in with the science and health based ones.  Science made the difference between a fact-based debate and an emotionally charged argument over what is more important, immediate economic benefit or long term sustainability. Scientific evidence showed that we were putting our own health in danger. It was the lynch pin that holds the whole thing together.

    Sophia Mendelsohn is the Head of Sustaianbility, Emerging Markets for Haworth Inc. This is part of a multi-part series on sustainability, trends, and markets. The following segment will look at how science and sustainability have come together to make health a major focus in mass-market products. Following, she will write about the transparency that requires, implies, and what end-users are learning to expect to understand.

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