In her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, author Janine Benyus suggests that because nature has spent the past 3.8 billion years engineering systems and processes that work symbiotically in their environments, it should be the standard from which to assess the "rightness of our innovations." Biomimicry (from "bios," meaning life, and "mimesis," meaning to imitate) imitates or takes inspiration from natural models to create designs that solve human problems. Increasingly natural systems are being disturbed and irrevocably altered by human activity. Nature-inspired designs offer some of the most hopeful solutions for ways and products that can help us live more sustainably. In the past, our inability to understand many aspects of biology and interconnected systems may have been excuses not to follow nature's lead. However, developments in observation techniques and understanding of biology at cellular and subcellular levels have allowed us greater access to the science of the natural world than ever before. Researchers, designers, engineers, architects, and even economists are studying how organisms and ecosystems work and applying that thinking to useful products and services. Nature-inspired designs are already being used with varied applications including packaging, adhesion systems, transportation, and energy production.
Principles of Biomimicry
Nature runs on sunlight. Nature uses only the energy it needs. Nature fits form to function. Nature recycles everything. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature banks on diversity. Nature demands local expertise. Nature curbs excesses from within. Nature taps the power of limits.
Questions to ask of innovations inspired by nature:
- Will it fit in?
- Will it last?
- Is there a precedent for this nature? If the preceding questions were answered in the affirmative, then the innovation or product design should also adhere to the principles of biomimicry.
Here's an example of biomimicry that you have heard of: In 1948, after a walk in the Alps left him covered with thistle spurs, Swiss- born electrical engineer George de Mestral was inspired to develop a useful product. De Mestral examined the annoying barbs under a microscope and saw that tiny plant hooks were able to take hold of fabric and animal fur. Patented in 1955, Velcro (with hook and loop fasteners) is now a multimillion dollar business and an efficient way to fasten fabrics and other materials.
Cradle to Cradle
In their seminal 2002 text, Cradle to Cradle (North Point Press), William McDonaugh and Michael Braungart proposed that products should be designed so that after their useful lives are over they can provide "nourishment" for something new. McDonaugh and Braungart don't categorically denounce commerce or industry. Instead, they see flawed design models rather than consumption as the most pressing problem. McDonaugh and Braungart advocate more intelligent and ecological design as a solution for sustainable prosperity.
Cradle to cradle principles are guided by the notion that in the natural world waste equals food and that there is no reason for human activity to be inherently wasteful and destructive. McDonaugh and Braungart argue that using the term "recycling" to describe the current system of recovery and reuse is somewhat disingenuous. They suggest that the contemporary industrial model is essentially a cradle to grave approach. We "downcycle" rather that recycle. With each subsequent use we produce lower grade material until we are finally left with unusable waste that can only be incinerated or stored in landfills. "Unless materials are specifically designed to ultimately become safe food for nature, composting can present problems as well. When so-called biodegradable municipal wastes, including packaging and paper, are composted, the chemicals and toxins in the materials can be releasedinto the environment," according to McDonaugh and Braungart. Instead of focusing on the difficult task of reusing (or recycling) materials not initially designed for a second and third life, McDonaugh and Braungart suggest that we are in need of an industrial re-evolution in which we will eliminate the concept of waste and instead design products and systems that can provide nourishment for something new at the end of their useful lives.
Cradle to Cradle in Use
Using cradle to cradle principles, people and industries couldproduce the following:
- Buildings that, similar to trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water
- Factories that produce effluents that are drinking water
- Products that, when their useful lives are over, do not become useless waste but can be tossed onto the ground to decompose and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for the soil or that can return to industrial cycles to supply high-quality raw materials for new products
- Billions, even trillions, of dollars worth of materials accrued for human and natural purposes each year
- Transportation that improves the quality of life while deliveringgoods and services
- A world of abundance, not one of limits, pollution, and waste
There are economists, environmentalists, and scientists who argue that respecting the environment and being socially responsible can actually increase a company's profitability. Natural Capitalism (Little Brown and Company, 1999) by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovings, and Hunter Lovings is full of tangible examples of how businesses can thrive by achieving a balance between life and commerce. Natural Capitalism introduces the idea that we are entering a new phase of industrialism, characterized by the loss of living systems, emerging scarcity, and the need to begin valuing natural capital. The authors suggest that appreciating living systems for their tangible worth will require a reevaluation of traditional assumptions about capitalism. To enable people, governments, and businesses to value all capital, including natural capital, Hawken and the Lovings suggest the implementation of four strategies.
- Radical resource productivity slows resource depletion, lowers pollution, and provides a basis to increase worldwide employment with meaningful jobs.
- Biomimicry reduces wasteful output of materials; can be accomplished by redesigning industrial or biological lines.
- Service and flow economy is based on the flow of economic services that can better protect the ecosystem services upon which it depends.
- Investing in natural capital works to reverse worldwide planetary destruction through reinvestments in sustaining, restoring, and expanding stocks of natural capital.
"Best practices" is a phrase that appears often in this book, yet it is not a concrete term that can be used to describe a specific set of standards or objectives. Instead, it is a pragmatic way of referring to production and business practices that attempt to choose the best environmental and social options for the moment. Technology, processes, and materials constantly evolve so what is considered best practices today may be merely passé in five years or even six months. This publication does not attempt to quantify a perfect set of standards, instead we encourage designers to investigate a range of materials and processes and adopt those that most closely fit their level of commitment and the production requirements.
The Problem With Green Washing
As more consumers begin to make purchases based at least partially on a company's values, it can be tempting for businesses to hype their commitment to environmental or social causes simply in the hopes of bettering their bottom line. Green washing is a concern for both the savvy consumer and committed activists, with the latter worried that consumers who feel burned by green companies may turn their backs on an evolving industry. As early as 1995, Jon Entine wrote an article for the Utne Reader titled "Green Washing" in which he expressed concern that the dramatic increase in "cause-related marketing might lead to green practices being replaced by green washing." Entine suggests that transparency, openness, and honesty are the ways to combat green washing and are the qualities that customers should look for from the brands, products, and services that they use. Entine's advice from more than a decade ago still holds true today. The best weapon against green washing is informed purchasing, coupled with knowledge and curiosity. Look for companies that report their activities transparently in every sector of their businesses and have plans for how they will increase their social and environmental initiatives in the future.