• April 6, 2010
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

Required Reading: Sustainability Is the Ultimate Business Practice

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If nature can do it, why can’t businesses? That’s the question Gregory Unruh sought to answer in his new book, Earth, Inc. The manuscript attempts to examine, identify, and replicate the genius behind a system that’s succeeded—and sustained itself—for 2.5 billion years: the planet’s biosphere. In his recounting, Unruh isolates the five steps that businesses must follow if they hope to achieve incremental success in sustainable profitability—and CRM spoke with him in particular about the mother (nature) of all invention. 

CRM magazine: How did you find yourself headed down the environmental path?

Gregory Unruh: In my first job out of college, I was an environmental engineer helping high-tech companies like Apple and HP clean up...toxic spills and contamination. [I soon realized that when] trying to clean up contamination, you can never get it all back in. It’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. The problem is that a small amount of toxic waste can be really dangerous. So I got away from remediation—cleaning up the mess—toward eliminating the mess from happening in the first place.

[I was frustrated] hearing companies talk about sustainability as a journey and not a destination. The problem with that kind of analogy is that it [implies it’s] sort of a long, endless journey, when really we know exactly what sustainability is—we only have one model. It’s an incredibly innovative production system, producing very sophisticated materials, organisms, and information-technology systems—that’s the biosphere. It’s been operating sustainably on this planet for 2.5 billion years. How can nature produce these really sophisticated products like [human beings]? Constantly evolving and innovating, nature produces materials that make our most-advanced products look like child’s play. An ant, for example, weighs just a fraction of the weight it can carry.... How can nature do advanced production like this, and still be sustainable, and not cause environmental degradation? What are the principles that account for sustainability in the biosphere? Can we translate them—simplify them—for companies to embed into their processes so that sustainability disappears as a business concern? A spider doesn’t get up in the morning and ask, “How can I be sustainable today?” Business leaders shouldn’t have to either.

The book fundamentally came out of research I was doing on companies that were trying to create a cradle-to-cradle, closed-loop interaction system. I wanted to understand the steps that allow us to be profitable. From that evolved the idea of what I call the five biosphere rules—the five principles that help us understand the sustainability of the biosphere in easy-to-implement terms for business people.

CRM: What approach was missing in order to communicate this to the enterprise? 

Unruh: There was this idea of building what I call a value cycle. We often think in terms of a value chain: a linear process of taking raw materials—manufacturing them into products, passing them off onto customers—that go back into the environment. In nature, that’s not how it works—it’s not a value chain, it’s a value cycle. When a bird dies, it’s broken down and turns into a flower or tree, then into a chipmunk. Telling people to go make value cycles without telling them the intermediate steps wasn’t going to work. So that’s how we came up with the five steps. Step One allows them to make the transition easily, in the least destructive way, to produce a profitable value cycle. That was the point: What are the practical steps you need [to take] to create this type of production system? A very clear, step-by-step explanation didn’t exist out there.

The ultimate goal here is to embed sustainability and make it a standard business practice. You start with one—it’s set up in such a way that, after you complete that one, you create cost reduction and profitability opportunities that then provide the momentum you need to move forward.

CRM: Building success with success?

Unruh: That’s right. That’s the way I tried to lay out the book. 

CRM is incredibly valuable and will be very important in making the closed-loop mission come true because once you produce a product in the field you’ve selected, you want to get it back for use in the next generation. The tools you have enable you to understand the customers, understand how they use the product, and manage that installed base of customers and materials. 

Your customers are buying the product, but they also become the suppliers of raw materials for the next generation of your products. You’re deepening and developing a much more interesting relationship between the company and the customer. The boundary between the two becomes blurred—and that’s a great role for CRM technologies and tools. 

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