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Natural Capitalism at Ten

Industry is finally catching up
By Cam Burns

Ten years after its release, Natural Capitalism is clearly still a thriving notion.

Today a wide range of companies use the four principles of “Nat Cap” to boost operational cost savings and stretch manufacturing resources.

That sentiment was expressed by five industry leaders—Ray Anderson, PaulHawken, Janine Benyus, Carl Bass, and RMI’s Amory Lovins—during an RMI2009 plenary session at the Westin San Francisco Market Street Hotel. (Watch video)

Hawken kicked of the discussion by noting that natural capitalism essentially falls under the umbrella of biomimicry (imitating the natural world in human-made systems).

Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, reflected on his decision to send his Entropy carpet design team out into the woods to consider how nature made floor coverings. The modular carpet tiles, which mimic the randomness of nature, revolutionized the industry.

But it was Benyus, whose ground-breaking work with biomimicry was laid out in a 1997 book of the same title, that caught the crowd’s attention by describing her recent visit to six communities that want to become centers of biomimicry commercialization.

“Biomimicry is happening in all sorts of places in industry,” she said, noting that certain self-cleaning paints, glass, tiles, and fabric finishes are now designed based on the lotus plant’s leaves.

Two things excite her most about the movement to incorporate transformational design into industrial processes. “One is the profusion of good ideas and the other is the ability of the Internet and technology to spread them quickly and get them into the right hands,” Benyus said. “There’s no time like now to get them out.”

Bass, CEO of Autodesk, said that the key to getting people to design more efficient products and systems was to offer the right information—exactly what he’s been doing with his software. “There’s huge leverage for changing what’s going on in designers’ heads when you change what’s on the [computer] screen,” he said, noting that “…people who do buildings and infrastructure—their world has changed.”

Hawken noted that today, resource productivity, one of natural capitalism’s four premises, is a no-brainer. “That’s where the money’s lying on the floor,” he said. Hawken added that, at Walmart, for whom he recently consulted, company employees were as well-versed on the finer points of waterless urinals as any urinal specialist at an NGO.

“We’ve seen a lot of this stuff going on,” Lovins said. “It doesn’t make the news but it is enormously encouraging when you see what kind of leverage it has.”

“Natural Capitalism’s” 10-year anniversary edition will be published in the UK by Earthscan in the coming months.

Cam Burns is RMI’s Senior Editor.

--Published October 2009