Systemic solutions are the only way to avoid future environmental problems
This post is by Tracey Rawling Church, an independent consultant and non-executive director specialising in sustainable business. It is part of our 40th anniversary blog series.
My relationship with Green Alliance began around a decade ago when I encouraged my employer to join what was then the Resource Efficiency Task Force. As a manufacturer of office printers and copiers, Kyocera had long been a pioneer in resource efficiency, having brought to market in 1992 the first – and still the only – range of ’cartridge-free‘ office printers.
The laser printer had been designed according to a ’razor and blade‘ business model, where the relatively inexpensive hardware was an enabler for a lucrative aftermarket of premium priced and over engineered consumables. Kyocera had designed its printers using long life components that could be permanently sited in the machine, leaving toner as the only item that needed to be regularly replaced. I had joined the company soon after, attracted by the opportunity to work on one of the very first environmentally conscious products for the business-to-business market.
No one thought single use plastic was a problem
At this time, the greatest preoccupation in the environmental movement was the hole in the ozone layer and brands with sustainability at their core could be numbered on one hand. Kyocera’s green office printers were launched in 1992 with a major fanfare…to be met with universal apathy. Since nobody at that time recognised the problem of single use plastics (not to mention all the other components of a single process printer cartridge) there was no real demand for a solution. Fortunately, the same design characteristics that reduced consumables waste also brought with it cost savings and the marketing emphasis switched to cost of ownership, where it remained for the next couple of decades.
Meanwhile, a small but growing community of business people saw that needless waste was damaging both the environment and their bottom line. There was demand for guidance on sustainable business that wasn’t being fully met. Our response was to establish the first community interested in sustainable business. Called the Green Card network, it ran an online information service, conferences and awards and quickly attracted a loyal following of like-minded people. It ran for around ten years until organisations like Two Degrees and Green Mondays (later The Crowd) made sustainable business communities their core business, a clear sign that sustainable business was going mainstream.
Green Alliance task forces tackled systemic challenges
At Kyocera, I had been able to make steady progress on several fronts but was still deeply frustrated by systemic challenges that made it difficult to realise the advantages of resource efficient design. It was maddening to see products that had been designed to facilitate disassembly being consigned to shredders by WEEE legislation whose targets were focused on volume collected rather than value recovered. Green Alliance’s Resource Efficiency Task Force was a natural place to explore these concerns, and work with subject experts and peers from other industries to identify potential solutions.
By the end of its planned project term the Resource Efficiency Task Force had conducted some excellent analysis and made some constructive policy recommendations, but there was clearly a lot more that could be done. Its work was continued by the Circular Economy Task Force which pioneered excellent work on the valuation of critical resources contained in tech equipment and their material flows. I remained part of the project until I left Kyocera in 2017 and am extremely grateful for the strong and productive relationships that were formed there and the insights I was able to take back to the business, as well as its undoubted influence on government policy.
There has been a massive upswell in public awareness of environmental issues during the past couple of years, and the body of work that has been created by Green Alliance will help to inform the policy changes that are bound to emerge in response to increased pressure from concerned citizens. It is now finding practical application in the work I do both for clients and as a volunteer on the Reading Climate Change Partnership, where circular economy principles are at the heart of our action plan on resources and consumption.
We need a more joined up approach
Too much previous policy has been unfit for purpose and it will take a much more systemic and joined-up approach to solve today’s problems without creating new ones for the future. As we embark on what may well amount to a total transformation of economic models, industrial norms and consumer behaviours, there is an even greater need for high quality analysis, clear thinking and collaboration which has been the hallmark of Green Alliance’s work.
Green Alliance’s 40th anniversary is a major milestone in shaping an agenda that has matured significantly during that period. Its work has always remained relevant and at the leading edge of emerging thinking. It has been an enormous privilege to play a small part in its endeavours, and I hope to continue to do so for many years to come.