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Extended Producer Responsibility Meets Extended Producer Opportunity

April 16, 2015

Multiple human-caused threats to the biosphere are the overarching challenge of our time. I’ve written before about the fundamentally different approaches of those who believe that solutions can be achieved within our capitalist economic system (for example, by designing products to be more efficient or reusable) and those who believe that a lasting solution will require deeper changes to growth-based economics and consumerist lifestyles.

An equally fundamental question is whether sustainability can be achieved primarily through corporate innovation, or whether government action is key.

In Systems of Survival (1992), Jane Jacobs explores these approaches as two fundamental syndromes, or moral systems that undergird modern Western civilization. Through the device of an extended dialogue, Jacobs describes what she calls the Commercial and Guardian moral systems. The Commercial system is based on trading which in turn relies on competition, innovation and voluntary actions. The Guardian moral system is based on the need to defend communities and territory. It values responsibility, tradition, and enforcement.

Jacobs concludes that both moral systems are essential for healthy societies. We get into trouble when institutions in one realm attempt to take on functions of the other realm. She calls these “monstrous hybrids.”

Businessman holding globe image via shutterstock.

Businessman holding globe image via shutterstock.

What strikes me in discourse today is the dominance of the Commercial syndrome’s tenet that voluntary actions by corporations operating in the free market will be sufficient to produce and scale solutions needed to sustain the Earth’s biosphere and our way of life. Some even say we can thrive.

The Circular Economy, The Natural Step, Cradle-to-Cradle, and Biomimicry are all based on the Commercial syndrome’s focus on voluntary corporate innovation as the path to sustainability.

  • In the 1990s The Natural Step (TNS) came from Sweden and became popular in the US when adopted by Paul Hawken and Roy Anderson. TNS is still operating; their motto is “accelerating the transition to a thriving world.”
  • In the 2000’s, the Cradle-to-Cradle vision was developed by the German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect Bill McDonough. They introduced the concept of industrial products as technical and biological “nutrients” and proposed that the nutrients should be kept separate and be designed to cycle endlessly.
  • Also in the 2000’s, Biomimicry became a popular design principle. The Biomimicry Institute was founded in 2006 by the American natural sciences writer Janine Benyus and has grown to include educational and for-profit consulting work. The current ED of the Biomimicry Institute, Beth Rattner, came from the Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was founded by its namesake in 2010, in England, to develop and promote the Circular Economy Their primary audiences to date have been business and educational institutions. (China issued a “circular economy” plan in 2004, and the phrase “circle economy” has been in use for some time. (See a “brief history of the circular model” here).

iStock_reduce-reuse-recoverEach of these visionary concepts is based on profound analysis of what it takes to sustain life and thrive. While each focuses on intelligent design, cradle-to-cradle and biomimicry are more focused on designing physical products and processes. The Natural Step has a broader vision of creating a “movement” guided by experts and consultants trained in TNS principles to transform existing organizations and create new ones; however, most of the targets in their strategic plan are in the corporate sector.

The Circular Economy meme is unusual because the word “economy” has broader connotations than product design. Although the focus of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been on corporations and educational institutions, the phrase was picked up by governmental and NGO entities in the European Union in the last two years.  A “Circular Economy-Zero Waste” package of policies was proposed by the European Commission in June 2014. Despite the fact that the proposed policies focused more on increasing traditional recycling than on upstream activities, the package was withdrawn in early 2015 under business pressure. Now the Commission says it will reintroduce a package by the end of 2015.

I have long been attracted to the visions expressed by the cradle-to-cradle, natural step, biomimicry, and now circular economy memes. And I understand that Traders are better at innovation than Guardians.

But I have likewise felt that it is naïve to think that these visions will flourish in a political vacuum. Strong government is needed to define and defend the public interest, to play referee, prevent free riders, set standards and outcomes, and provide enforcement in order to ensure that the public interest is served.

Jane Jacobs had it right. Too often political debate pits government activism versus the free market, and the essential role of Guardians in enforcing rules and regulations is overlooked. The Guardian role is needed to create space for private enterprises to do what they do best: innovate to solve problems.

The policy of extended producer responsibility must acknowledge and foster this Guardian role as well as the Commercial role in a balanced way. We need extended producer responsibility policies to foster extended producer opportunity.

Originally published at Upstream