Green gamechangers grasp ‘give and take’

Sensemaking / Green gamechangers grasp ‘give and take’

WWF’s online bank of alternative business showcases changing attitudes to resource use.

28 Nov 2011

WWF’s online bank of alternative business showcases changing attitudes to resource use.

Some of the boldest critiques of big business are coming straight from the top. Should we be surprised? No. Leaders grappling with today’s economic and ecological challenges are among the best placed to see that the road ahead won’t lead to long-term success. In the words of BSkyB’s CEO Jeremy Darroch: “If you simply chase growth for the sake of it, without thinking of the broader impacts, ultimately, that is not going to be sustainable.” Or as Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, presents the challenge: “We need to grow responsibly, we need to grow differently.” The search for new ways to do business is on. Expect to see a proliferation of ‘transformation’ plans, following the likes of Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, who means “to fundamentally lower [the] impact” of the DIY giant.

But are today’s big hitters our best hope? They could be, but while mainstream pioneers are looking for new ways to succeed within natural limits, WWF has identified some exciting new contenders with the potential to change the game.

“Peer-to-peer lending and leasing is growing rapidly”

So, what are these radicals – some start-up businesses, others new alliances – doing differently? And what can the incumbents learn from them? For a start, new businesses and services are overturning the assumption that growth depends on producing more stuff. Businesses can cut their use of natural resources dramatically by harnessing the value of the things we, as individuals or communities, already own. Take peer-to-peer lending and leasing of goods and skills, facilitated by the likes of Ecomodo and Zilok. Anyone can sign up online in a matter of minutes, and offer to share household goods or skills with colleagues, friends or neighbours. So now others might benefit from the fondue set you use once a year, or the kite you never have time to fly. Or you could offer to be a cook for an evening, or give the odd language or music lesson, perhaps. And you choose whether, and how much, to charge. The facilitating website simply takes a small cut from the fee, at the expense of the borrower.

It’s a clever model, bypassing the natural resource inefficiencies in most ‘buy and sell’ deals, from manufacture to sales to distribution. Some high street retailers are eyeing the idea with interest, but they are yet to make the leap. In time, we might even see partnerships emerging between peer-to-peer enterprises and retailers.

Another innovation is around ‘open loop’, where one business’s waste becomes another’s resource. The UK’s National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) pairs organisations that produce waste with ones that can put it to effective use. Founded by industrial solutions company International Synergies, it has brought together council recycling officers, housing associations, waste contractors and SMEs to identify opportunities for collaboration. Trevor Knipe, one of the company’s directors, calls it “speed-dating for wastes”. The possibilities he sees range from turning expanded polystyrene packaging into insulation, to converting old mattresses into bedding for cows. The NISP methodology is being replicated across the globe, from Hungary to the Chinese industrial zone of Tianjin.

WWF has also found that new business is breaking away from fossil fuels. It is becoming increasingly evident that organisations and goods could be powered entirely by renewables by the middle of this century with today’s technology – and consumer demand is rising to the prospect. But some cutting edge players are looking even further. Not content with merely reducing their environmental footprint, they have ambitions to restore natural and social resources. Take Ecuador, where the Fund for the Protection of Water (FONAG), a private mercantile trust, is collecting payments from downstream water consumers to pay for watershed management, conservation and access to water upstream. The scheme’s success has sparked plans for ten other water funds in the region, as well as in Peru and Mexico.

If these green gamechangers have one thing in common, it’s the readiness to ask seemingly simple questions: what can we fairly take, and what can we give in return?

Dax Lovegrove is Head of Business and Industry at WWF.

To browse WWF’s online bank of green gamechangers and read its new report on the top 50 innovators visit:
For interviews with leading CEOs, visit:

WWF-UK is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: iStockphoto

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