Business and Sustainable Production

In 1750, few could imagine the outcome of industrialization. Today, the prospect of a resource productivity revolution in the next century is equally hard to fathom. But this is what it promises: an economy that uses progressively less material and energy each year and where the quality of consumer services continues to improve; an economy where environmental deterioration stops and gets reversed as we invest in increasing our natural capital; and, finally, a society where we have more useful and worthy work available than people to do it.
-Paul Hawken, "Natural Capitalism"

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

As mentioned before, the Center for a New American Dream is not anti-consumption. Indeed, some level of material consumption is necessary to sustain a good life – and this is where business fits into the New Dream Puzzle. We need to be sure that goods we consume are produced in a manner that provides quality jobs, revitalizes local communities, and preserves the ecological systems that sustain our children and us.

Unfortunately business is often seen as the primary propellant of unsustainable consumption when it can actually be a primary engine for constructive change. Already there are many businesses working to redesign production processes and products to minimize environmental impact and maximize value. Some are rethinking their product line to focus more on service and less on material goods. Other businesses are redesigning products to use recycled fibers and be reusable, repairable, and durable. Exciting opportunities are emerging in energy efficiency, renewable resource management, organic foods, information management, alternative transportation, non-wood based papers, and organic fibers.(1) Several labelling initiatives, identifying products which have been produced in the most sustainable manner, have been followed by a growing demand for these goods, most notably in several European nations, but increasingly in the United States and Canada. Whatever the industrial sector - financial, technology, agriculture, retail goods - there is an urgent need and opportunity for an acceleration in the production of truly green goods.

Local businesses also play an important role in building a new dream. In addition to keeping dollars in the community and avoiding the hidden environmental costs of global transportation, locally produced goods offer more transparent environmental and human rights records because you can easily trace their source.(2)

Initiatives to redesign products for reuse and repair are music to the ears of the repair industry. That industry has been decimated in recent decades, largely because our economy’s failure to account for various costs of production has led to a throwaway culture where planned obsolescence rules the roost. When a wire disconnects in your four year old toaster, you might consider bringing it to a local repair shop. Assuming you’re able to find one (big assumption), the fix-it guy probably wants a livable wage ($10?) for 20 minutes of fix-it time. Odds are the bigger cost will be the insignificant part that has to be special ordered because the manufacturer discontinued your toaster model two years ago. You compare this to the cost of a new toaster, which was mined from federal lands, assembled by cheap foreign labor, and shipped to your town with subsidized fossil fuel. No contest, you plunk down 15 bucks for a shiny new toaster and toss the old one in the dumpster to be disposed of in a municipally-subsidized landfill. You might hem-and-haw about the waste, but can you really justify paying twice as much to repair the old product?

Germany and other European nations have recently tried to rectify some of these problems with "cradle to grave" or Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies. Companies are responsible for their products’ ultimate disposal as well as, ideally, for the emissions and other hidden costs resulting from the manufacture and use of products. These policies create an incentive for manufactures to efficiently construct products with parts that are easily replaceable, repairable, and recyclable.(3) Companies who thrive on planned obsolescence will no longer be able to undercut companies who "do the right thing." We’ll also see a remarkable recovery of an endangered species – the neighborhood "fix-it guy." 

If you’re involved with exciting projects in your community, please let us know. Otherwise, please continue on the New Dream Puzzle Tour. Next stop: technology and efficiency


  1. More on energy efficiency and renewable energy can be found in the Technology and Efficiency piece. For agricultural innovations, see the Food and Agriculture piece. For alternative transportation,see Transportation and Urban Design.
  2. Check out the Community puzzle piece.
  3. Other policies can be found in the Government and Economic Policy piece.

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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