The Design Observer Group


Posted 09.26.12


John Thackara

Old Growth


Old Growth
Photography courtesy of Marc Adamus

Here follows the talk I gave last week at the Global Design Forum in London.


Last week I went a restored paper mill in a tiny village in the middle of Sweden. I was there (*) to meet a bunch of people who’ve been given a uniquely challenging task: make the bedroom and bathroom products sold globally by a famous home furnishing giant — sustainable.

When I say that their task is “challenging”, think if it this way. I learned from the Flat Pack Wardrobes – or ‘PAX’ – team, that if you were stack one year’s production of their preassembled wardrobes onto flat bed trucks, the line would stretch, nose-to-tail, from Sweden to Beijing. That’s a lot of wardrobes. And spare a thought for the poor guy in the Beijng car park frantically trying to assemble them all.

These PAX guys are obsessive in their search for ways to reduce the resources used in their products. It’s cause for celebration, they told me, when someone discovers a laminate that’s a few milligrammes lighter, per running meter, than the one it replaces. One of the PAX-men explained their missionary zeal: a milligram here, a milligram there – they really add up by the time you reach Beijing.

I heard similar stories from the mirror team, too: they source three million square metres of the stuff a year. So, too, with the bed team, and the mattress team. They’re all are united in their search for lighter, cleaner, products and materials.

It doesn’t stop with the staff in Sweden. The firm requires each of its suppliers to follow a strict code of conduct — and we’re talking hundreds of firms in over 50 countries. 85 auditors carry nearly a thousand inspections every year — most of them unannounced. If a supplier does not conform – even a big one — they’re out.

The company’s products are only part of the story. Every new store, office, distribution centre, or factory, that the company opens, is located, equipped and operated to be the most sustainable facility of its kind, in the world, at that point in time. 150 of the firms’s megastores will soon be powered by solar panels. Every cup of coffee served in every store is certified organic.

This company-wide effort has been accelerating for 20 years. They’ve taken the lead out of the mirror glass. They’ve removed the chromium from table legs. They’ve taken toxins out of the paint. They’ve replaced the PVC in wallpapers. No more formaldehyde is used in its textiles. The paper in their catalogue is now chlorine-free. They’ve even taken volume out of the mattresses for goodness sake; (they roll them up, to economize on shipping). We’re talking hundreds, thousands of improvements. They’re all recorded on the company’s ‘list without end’.

But there’s just one thing they have not done — and that’s take the keys out of those flat bed trucks. Quite the contrary. The company, which is already huge, is on course to double in size by 2020. The number of customers visiting their giant sheds will increase from from 650 million a year, now, to 1.5 billion a year.

Growth on such a scale is hard to visualize. That line of trucks, stretching all the way to Beijing? By 2020, the line will be twice as long again as it is now. The return line will arrived back to Sweden again. The trucks will be double-parked all over Stockholm. And that’s just the wardrobes.

The senior manager bearing this news put this growth into context for her colleagues.“With this growth we’ll achieve the economies of scale needed to reduce costs” she explained; “we want our products to be available to the many, not just the few”. Growth is needed above all, the manager explained, “to finance the sustainability improvements we all want to make”.

Now there’s a problem with this narrative, and it’s best explained if I talk about wood. The company sells 100 million pieces of furniture every year; it’s thought to be the third largest user of wood in the world. It takes the sustainability of its supplies very seriously. By 2017, it has promised, half of all the the wood it uses — up from 17 percent nowwill either be recycled, or come from forests that are responsibly managed and avoid the excessive use of chemicals and of water.

Wow. 50%.That‘s a vast increase in the percentage of responsible wood in the company’s resource flows. But it begs the question: what about the second half of all that wood? As the company doubles in size, that second pile of wood — the un-certified half, the unreliably-sourced-at-best half — will soon be twice as big as all the wood that’s used today. The impact on forests, of one company’s ravenous hunger for resources, will be devastating.

Together with similar teams in most of the world’s major companies, the committed and gifted people I met last week in Sweden have to live with an awful dilemma. However hard they work, however many innovations they come up with, the negative net impact of their firm’s activities, on the world’s living systems, will be greater in ten years event than it is today.

And all because of compound growth.

This chilling prospect is not the fault of wicked owners. This company has healthy trees almost literally in its blood. Its founder grew up on a farm surrounded by trees. He was born in the same village as Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern botany. His company’s products are named after the lakes, rivers, and bays he knew as a boy.

There’s no way that this man, or the people who work for him, would mindfully do harm to the land they love. The only explanation is that thoughts, deeds, and experiences have become disconnected on a company-wide scale.

Standing outside that old factory, I tried to imagine myself in the founder’s shoes. How would I react when told of protests that my company was clear-cutting old growth forests in Russia? What would I feel about complaints that rare species of lichens, mosses and other plants were being endangered by my company’s activities?

The founder’s first reaction, I surmised, would probably be indignation. He would be indignant at the complainers’ ignorance of all the work doneover 20 yearsto make their products greener. Indignant, too, that the immense effort needed to put certification procedures in place was not being acknowledged.

The founder’s second reaction, I guessed, would be a nagging suspicion that these problems were probably real. The founder would probably reflect that a certification process on its ownin the far-way interior of a dysfunctional statewas unlikely to be effective when so much money was at stake for so many people.

And then? What wood the founder think then?

At this point, I made a mental wishthat that the founder would get angryangry that the company he had built seemed to have taken on a baleful life of its own. I wished that he would say: Enough! Stop the cutting! We’re going to find another way!

That other way would not be all that hard. No need to fire people. No need to hire consultants. No lectures. No training. One simple step would be effective: Give everyone in the company the opportunity to spend time quietly in an old-growth forest. Allow them to experience the natural energy of a living system that has evolved over many human lifetimes. Leave them to discover the diversity of species, and the wide variety of vegetation on the ground. Ponder the slow decomposition of dead wood, and let the realization dawn that dead wood is the life of the forest.

Very lightly, one would help people learn about forestry practices that restore ecological diversity; to respect nature’s timeframe; to experience directly, as does the forest, a connection with the land. Reconnected with the lived reality of the earth’s ecological systems, and its non-industrial time frames, the very idea of destroying the earth in the interests of the economy would become — literally — inconceivable.

(*) I was invited and paid to speak at the seminar in Sweden.