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No Such Place As Away

As businesspeople, we need to strive to be just as efficient in handling waste as nature is.
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My grandfather was the hardworking son of an Eastern European immigrant, the sort of entrepreneur who built America's industrial base in the middle of the last century. He and my father owned and ran a shoe factory in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, called the Pittsfield Shoe Corporation, and it was located on the banks of the Suncook River. The factory employed a lot of people, it produced a good product line--and it was a polluter.

But I knew nothing of that. When I was young, I loved to watch the colored water--one minute red, another yellow, still another green--gushing out of the factory into the river. To me, the wastewater was beautiful. Only later did I learn that the Merrimack, into which our little river emptied and whose banks were crowded with shoe factories, was the tenth most polluted river in the United States. I had to face the fact that our family business, of which we were so proud, was a part of the problem.

The shoe business was slow to seek a solution. Part of the reason was cut-rate foreign competition--how could an embattled industry stay afloat if it was being forced to spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to reduce its impact on the environment? But that attitude, understandable if shortsighted, explained only a portion of the industry's inertia. The rest traced to the sheer disbelief of the shoe business's leaders. How could a little wastewater, they wondered, be worth such a fuss?

In those days, you understand, America felt so huge, and its distances seemed so expansive, that people believed their garbage somehow melted into the landscape and disappeared--that it simply went "away." You could throw it "away," flush it "away," and if you had a tailpipe or a smokestack, even blow it "away."

It sounds odd from today's perspective. It's as if "away" were some mythical, Oz-like place where all waste, trash, and associated ugliness could be disposed of without consequence. And we threw stuff away until it was piled higher than the fence around it, or killed the fish, or put a haze on the horizon.

It has taken us a shamefully long while, but at last we have learned that there is no such place as "away." The fact is, the planet Earth is a closed system. Whenever and wherever a light switch is thrown, a puff of smoke or some type of pollution is created where the power is generated. We may not see it, but it's there. My trash washes up on someone else's shore--or fouls their groundwater--just as surely as distant air pollution follows prevailing winds to my valley.

Think how far we've come, yet how far we have to go: Today, we find it laughable that anyone ever believed the world was flat. We marvel that it took Christopher Columbus's voyage of discovery in 1492 to disprove it once and for all. What's it going to take for the last stubborn few to accept that the idea of "away" is a myth worthy only of flat-Earthers? We've already seen medical waste washing up on beaches, even after it's been taken miles out to sea. We've long seen birds struggle to free themselves from plastic six-pack rings stuck around their necks. It's simply delusional to think there is--or ever was--such a place as "away."

Every day, in everything we do, we are having an impact on the planet. If it's true for individuals, and it is, then it is certainly true for businesses. Any business owner or leader who doesn't see this is willfully blind, but that's not all. He or she is turning down the largest and most lucrative opportunity of this young century, which is to reduce or eliminate industrial waste. The companies that figure out how to do business with little or no waste are going to reduce their costs, boost their profits, and win tremendous public support as they do it. I fully intend for Stonyfield Farm to continue leading in this pursuit, and I want your company to be my competition.

There are people out there who excel in designing waste out of (and, I might add, profits into) a system--more and more of them every day. But if you're looking for real creativity and efficiency, you don't necessarily have to retain a consultant. You can learn a lot simply by paying attention to how nature handles waste. In nature, there is no waste--period. Every by-product of every process fuels or catalyzes some other process. Decomposed leaves feed mushrooms and fertilize wildflowers. Tiny insects feed on fungi that would otherwise overwhelm a tree. Old beaver dams provide spawning zones for fish. It's just amazing how efficient nature is, once you start paying attention to it.

As businesspeople, we need to strive to be just as efficient in handling waste as nature is. Ideally, each company and each process should be able to boast that everything that doesn't go out to the consumer goes back to the Earth. Any system that delivers less than total efficiency should be regarded as broken.

That last sentence sets up a high hurdle. But it also represents a very hopeful goal. What it says to us is, waste is inevitable--but dealing with it need not be an insurmountable obstacle to processes or products. If nature handles it, somehow we can, too.

And here's the really cool thing that we've discovered at Stonyfield. Attacking waste has been highly profitable. Every time we've made an investment in reducing waste, it has paid excellent returns. This is also true of our investments in renewable energy and other climate-friendly initiatives. I have captured many excellent examples in my new book, Stirring it Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hyperion, 2008), but more supporting anecdotes come to me every day. I look forward to sharing these in future posts.