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What Downsizing Taught Me About the Circular Economy

Claudia Baldwin

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This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

The sale of your childhood home is an inevitable rite of passage for many adults, and it’s often preceded by the obligatory and exhausting task of taking responsibility for all of your stuff. Not just the items deemed worthy of moving between increasingly adult apartments, but the childhood art projects, stacks of yearbooks, questionable prom dresses and inherited heirlooms that have conveniently waited behind the rarely opened doors of childhood bedrooms.

I wasn’t surprised when my mom announced her plans to downsize and sell the home we moved into when I was 7 and my brother was 9. As an independent adult, it’s felt increasingly unreasonable for me to have a childhood bedroom within 10 miles of where I live, and for my single mother and her dog to remain in a home built for a family. So after the final holiday season in the home where I grew up, it was time to begin the belabored process of saying goodbye: not just to the space, but to the abundance of stuff.

There are over 300,000 items in the average American household.

While that number would have previously sounded hyperbolic, I’ve touched, considered and intentionally dealt with every item that I own over the past month. At this point, it sounds about right.

There are over 300,000 items in the average American household.

There is a stratification of stuff in many homes. On the surface, there are the items that we actively or passively interact with on a daily basis: what we use and what we see. The next layer is hidden in drawers and behind cabinets, used weekly, monthly or maybe once a year. Finally, there are the items squirreled away into some nook or cranny. Just as squirrels lose about 75 percent of the acorns they bury, so too do people and our belongings.

With a combination of hindsight, emotional distance and the pressing reality that everything must go, during the cleanout process I continually asked myself, “What was I thinking?”

A cassette tape of “A Night in Terror Tower,” from the R.L. Stine Goosebumps series and a staple of the Phipps family road trips of my childhood. Stacks of mix CDs, from the avoidant proclamations of high school affection to the dozens with Sharpie-scribbled titles such as “middle school party hits!” and “jamz.” A first-generation iPod mini with gray buttons that made me feel oh so cool on the school bus.

Sentimental? Certainly. But also collectively rendered functionally obsolete with today’s technology.

What was I thinking holding onto these items for so long that they no longer serve a purpose in my life?

For many that live comfortably above the poverty line, we have the option to avoid thinking about all of our stuff. The average U.S. home has tripled in size in the past 50 years and one out of every 10 Americans still rents an offsite storage unit, making it easier to avoid engaging with what we own.

But even when we are confronted with the task of decluttering and downsizing, anyone who has been through this process will agree: it’s exhausting. Balancing the emotional weight of each item, assessing the cost-benefit of economic potential and tactical burden of dealing with the “give” pile and managing the guilt of trashing items that could be recycled in a specific context, but finding the right place to do so would be untenable.

Success for the circular economy won’t be defined by identifying the best place to recycle 2 dozen VHS tapes or donate 10 binders.

There’s a reason Marie Kondo rose to prominence.

Throughout the process I couldn’t help but reflect on how it felt like a microcosm of the circular economy. Most of us have bigger fish to fry than tediously identifying the highest and best use of hundreds of thousands of items. We have deadlines, limited energy and a lack of expertise. Value is subjective. Sure, there are new tools and platforms to help enable the decluttering process, but many are still limited in scope and in scale.

I have a new, visceral perspective on why the UL zero waste to landfill certification requires more than 90 percent diversion and not 100 percent. A surfeit of existing stuff not designed for its next life, paired with a lack of recovery infrastructure, means that perfection is unattainable.

The process has reminded me why we focus on systems change and not individual actions. The path to a circular economy isn’t built on each family making hard choices when they downsize. Success won’t be defined by identifying the best place to recycle two dozen VHS tapes or donate 10 binders. What’s most important is to consider impact and scale; to design better products and systems for future homes to one day manage with greater ease; and to consider changing individual relationships to consumption in the first place.

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Environment

Episode 327: Meet Carbontech Startup Air Company

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 29:34.

WEEK IN REVIEW (3:45)
FEATURES
Turning carbon into value (18:55)

Gregory Constantine, co-founder and CEO of Air Company, talks growth plans for his startup — a leading carbon use company specializing in consumer goods such as vodka and fragrance made from air.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “And So Then,” “4th Ave. Walkup,” “I’m Going for a Coffee” and “Let That Sink In.”

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To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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The Sustainability Scorecard, Reviewed

Claudia Baldwin

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A version of this article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

I was invited to read a new book and interview one of the authors. As someone who has long enjoyed reading books about sustainability, it was very flattering to be sent a copy of a new book, “The Sustainability Scorecard,” by Paul Anastas and Urvashi Bhatnagar, and asked to provide my thoughts in a review.

Many of our Circularity Weekly readers are probably familiar with Paul Anastas. A hero of mine since graduate school, Anastas is a deep thinker, a brilliant chemist and an engaging speaker. I was far less familiar with Urvashi Bhatnagar. Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to chat with Bhatnagar over the phone about her book and immediately became a fan. A healthcare executive and population health expert with a keen eye toward sustainability, Bhatnagar brings a different perspective to “The Sustainability Scorecard” that pairs quite well with Anastas.

“The Sustainability Scorecard” provides a simple and straightforward method for identifying where a company currently is on its sustainability journey and a method to track progress. The book proves that sustainability makes economic as well as ecological sense and guides leaders in creating and scaling their own green supply-chain initiative. I’ve read a lot of sustainability books, and this one provides the most practical steps for corporate improvement. According to Goodreads, “Through repeatable, reliable processes that address operating model design and new key performance indicators to scaling, this book is a practical guide that leaders can rely on to make their existing systems more sustainable and profitable.”

What I learned No. 1: Entrenched systems are not so entrenched

To some degree, this takeaway from the book follows quite well on my piece from a couple Fridays ago. We often get the false sense that the status quo is the status quo is the status quo is the status quo (Wait, did I just type that a bunch of times? Whoops, leaving it in because it helps make the point). “Entrenched systems and globe-spanning companies may appear impossible to dislodge,” Bhatnagar and Anastas write, “but consider that none of the top-10 most valuable companies today were on that list in 1990. Many didn’t even exist in 1990. Big changes can happen within only a few decades.” Because of this, we need to overcome the learned behavior that we can’t make a difference because the behemoths in the economy will never change.

What I learned No. 2: The scorecard framework

Bhatnagar and Anastas have provided a straightforward and scalable model for firms to move directionally towards sustainability. The framework focuses on four areas:

Waste prevention
Maximizing efficiency and performance
Renewable inputs
Safe degradation of materials

While these endpoints are largely rooted in environmental sustainability, they also cross over into social wellbeing for workers, fence-line communities and product users — all very important considerations for any sustainability practice.

When I looked at the scorecard, I was struck by how it is simultaneously simple and in-depth. The four high-level goals manage to get to the heart of how to make more sustainable products and processes without overcomplicating things. The authors have developed a data-driven methodology that can be approached whether you are starting your sustainability work (Initiate phase), are down the path but still learning (Develop phase) or are an industry leader that’s been focused on sustainability for quite some time (Maturity phase). The key to this framework, and I think one of the key insights I pulled from the book, is that directionality is important. In other words, set a direction for your sustainability work that aligns with the best science available and start moving. Sure, the pace we are moving is important, but the direction is far more so.

What I learned No. 3: Perfection is unattainable

When I spoke with Bhatnagar about the book, she mentioned this was one of the sticking points in writing and publishing it. There is always a desire within any framework to define the perfect state, to show users how to grab the brass ring. Bhatnager and Anastas argue that sustainability doesn’t have a perfect state. Even if firms can achieve the best score in all areas of the sustainability scorecard (zeros for all categories in this case), there will always be work to do. The work could be remediating the issues the firm has created in the past or pushing upstream and downstream partners to improve their sustainability. In other words, firms should be reaching for perfection, but it should always be getting farther away as the science evolves and shows us what it means to be sustainable as an individual, a company, a nation and a global community.

Overall

When I look at this book and the Sustainability Scorecard as a whole, I am excited for the structure it can bring to corporate sustainability in all sectors of the economy. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the private sector trying to build sustainability programs, I can confidently say that these broadly applicable frameworks are always welcome as inputs to a sustainability strategy.

I’d encourage folks to pick up this book, give it a read and think about how you can apply the Sustainability Scorecard to your own work. If you set directional goals, track data and measure progress, you can ensure you are moving in the right direction. And remember, if you reach for the brass ring and fall, at least you tried.

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Environment

Episode 326: the Heat Index; a Historic Climate Policy Opp

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 44:51.

WEEK IN REVIEW (3:30)
FEATURES
A sweltering European summer (21:05)

James Murray, editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, chats about record-breaking heat waves in the U.K. and Europe are challenging infrastructure and economies, and reshaping the dialogue about climate risk.

Cognizant CSO reflects on climate change and employee well-being (30:20)

Sophia Mendelsohn, chief sustainability officer and global head of ESG at tech services firm Cognizant, addresses the company’s broad ESG strategy and why employee well-being needs to be considered in the context of climate change.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Keeping Stuff Together,” “Not My Problem,” “Snakes,” “Southside.”

STAY CONNECTED

To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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