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It’s the environment, stupid.

Without the environment and the natural resources it provides, our food system would collapse and society as we know it would not exist. With this in mind, our systematic destruction of the natural world beggars belief.

Why is this happening?

There are many complexities involved in answering this question, however I believe there are a few, almost simple, reasons for this utterly insane phenomenon.

  • We are too disconnected from the actual environmental impact of our everyday decisions.
  • Our economic model does not treat the environment finite, and as such, a cost. In fact it often actively rewards the destruction and exploitation of our natural resources.

Given there is no way to accurately and continuously measure the impact of the things we produce and consume, it is almost impossible to tackle these causes. It is thus esoteric and unless we tackle that, this will not change.

Let’s explore these one by one and hopefully you will see why I believe that addressing these is absolutely fundamental to reversing the looming environmental collapse.

The Environmental Impact Disconnect

When you buy a product in a store you consider whether it is in the price range you are comfortable with and is it of the quality you want. The financial element especially has a clear assessment - you either can or can’t spend the money.

However, on the whole, we do not have a good way to understand the environmental impact the product we want to buy has on the environment. High damaging products will thus continue to be purchased, and the demand will ensure that the manufacturer will continue to produce it. 

Economics in action.

The same situation is also true at product design time, when a product is formulated.  Ingredients are selected to achieve a certain taste and nutritional targets balanced with the costs to manufacture the product.  A rigorous set of approval stages need to be passed for the product to start being mass produced and sold.

At present, this design or product life cycle workflow does not include environmental impact as a core consideration, as the tool and systems make this visible to the designer.

These are just two examples of our disconnect with our environmental impact, where if we were able to connect this to these processes and habits would ensure we factored this into the decision making process and thus drastically reduce the impact of these product life cycles.

The “Growth at all Costs” Economy

Our economic model incentivises growth at almost any cost.  Businesses, countries, trading blocks, all measure economic output as the key metric. None of them take the environment, the very natural resources that underpins it all, into account as a finite resource, cost, or factor of any kind.

This means that decisions often treat these resources as infinite, with no thought to understanding and preserving the environment. In fact, in many cases the opposite is true - subsidies and other economic means are in place which actively cause an increase in this over use.

If this does not change, hope of preserving, let alone restoring, nature is a lost cause.

A number of new economic models, such as those which take planetary boundaries into account, are being advocated to replace the mainly GDP based systems in place today. These approaches and frameworks make a lot of sense, however one key area that is missing is how this is to be realistically measured, accounted for, tracked and delivered.

Relying on business to do the right thing is an option, but it is simply not how economics works. The incentives will dictate what companies, teams and individuals optimise for, and this will never change. The system needs to be adjusted, the incentives changed.

The Level Playing Field

Overly dictatorial systems do not allow for systems to ensure the most optimal outcomes. However, when a change is needed, a catalyst that forces the system to make changes is often a real game changer.

In the context of rebalancing our economic model to properly account for environmental cost, policy that forces a level playing field through a required transparency regime of the environmental impact business have is such a catalyst. This would need to be for everything, ground up including manufacturing and the entire value chain.

The effect this would have is to kickstart businesses investing in this area, initially due to the required transparency, but very quickly this would become an area of differentiation for businesses, and those that are perceived as better, will ultimately survive and thrive.

All we need now, is to be able to measure and reduce environmental impact at scale, consistently for everything, at a cost that businesses, consumers and regulators can afford.