Strategic Environmental Consulting Limited (SEC)

Resource scarcity: Why don`t we act even when it is in our best interest?


From academics, policy makers, local government to miners, manufacturers and retailers - we will all be needed to complete this journey. But how do we work towards a more resource responsible future?

Gareth Kane’s blog on resource scarcity made the pitch for that issue to reach a tipping point in our collective consciousness in 2014. He referenced all the big numbers and asked us to look to the future, where life is highly unlikely to be rosy. But just as the State of Green Business 2014 report shows us, we might know a lot of what to do, but that does not mean it is easy to get us as a species to do it in practice.

The study of why don’t we act when we have knowledge of our best interests compares responses to many issues; from health management to climate change. All it seems comes down to the same dynamics. What is the span of time we can keep in our heads, the level of motivation we have to ignore immediate gratification and invest in a new behavior and whether we can really envisage what that ‘better’ future looks like?

Okay so you are a sustainability professional but like all humans we have the same tendency to want to put the duvet over your head and not think about grim and dire predictions. Bar a few gloomy adolescent years most of us don’t want to imagine what disaster looks like every day of our lives. Instead we need to see the benefits, feel the incentives and have a positive belief system in place. So we collectively need more than fear to get us to act and change. So how do we find that narrative on the resource agenda?

I suspect the answer lies in your particular audience. For some concepts of fairness might work – the opportunity to create the products and services that allow all nine billion of us to lead healthy, interesting and fulfilling lives? Unilever is using this storyline for bringing hygiene products to new global communities. Call to vanity perhaps? Are you smart enough to find new technologies to deliver the benefits of intensive use of resources, not simply more pretty but short-lived stuff that ends up in the bin? Surely that’s would be the ultimate design challenge for the Apple brand to master.

Or is your mission to create a more democratic and resource efficient future, with what we might call IKEA proposition applied to all aspects of life? For others getting better financial value for those that own resources might work – so we all see our waste as a feedstock for someone else’s business model. So both producers and resource users must benefit not simply the converters of materials; extraction and rework will have to see more shared value.

So the “my junk is your feedstock and I want paying for it” logic should make the economics of waste more interesting. For some splendid humans just knowledge of their resource footprint is motivation enough to conserve because their impacts. Do we have the metrics to inform them? Supply chain challenges abound in delivering this data.

Policy makers and strategists will probably need to pick and mix from all of the above. When you have permission to start, we can start innovating but it requires a higher level of change than the traditional product redesign mandate. We need new business models based on new offers, new channels to bring those to market (Apps for the circular economy please) and probably new materials to deliver a new resource efficient circular economy.

Working with the natural world to operationalize the promises of a bio-based economy must be part of that, but efficiency gains are also important. That task stretches from getting the packaging right (have you used 100% of what was bought) to getting real savings from the control of demand and ensuring disposal at end of life. We are promised the internet of everything, so will the fridge know where to go to be recycled? Will markets and retailers provide recycled materials as the new normal?

To keep our technological world functioning beyond 2050 frankly all opportunities must be engaged, everyone will have to be offered better options. The response must come from all parts of the value chain of human life. From academics, policy makers, local government to miners, manufacturers, traders and retailers - we will all be needed to complete this journey.

Like all journeys we start with the first decision - to start, even if I do not know the final destination I must be excited enough to leave the house and get about my business. Fear and gloom cannot drive us to a ‘duvet day’ instead we must be braver and believe in ourselves and our species enough to adapt our way of living towards a more resource responsible future. We have to create a new style of life that we all want to live. This is certainly one sustainability journey we will all have to take so please join the bus.

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