Sustainability – Are We Just Going Round In Circles?

May 12, 2017

Ever since Sustainable Development became “a thing” with its definition in the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’, we’ve been trying to take actions designed to make our modern life sustainable.


Individuals, companies, organizations and governments have all made positive sounding statements and tried to move towards this sustainable place. In 2015 the United Nation’s presented 17 goals, the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are a terrific set of targets that we can readily accept and aspire to meet.

But are we getting there? Or are we just going round in circles?

The reason for the question is that thirty years after the Bruntland definition, despite a lot of goodwill and well intentioned activity, we are still nowhere near sustainable.


There’s a hard fact that most organizations have yet to come to terms with. Namely, you can’t become sustainable just by eco-efficiency actions, reducing, avoiding and minimizing use of materials, energy and water.


Eco-efficiency may help reduce the negative impact of a particular product or process and that’s important to do, but it doesn’t change the underlying design and in the end you are still unsustainable, just less so than before.


Fundamentally, we have to change the design of the operating system in which we are currently stuck. The linear take, make, use and dispose flow of products needs to be replaced with safe, sustainable biological and technical cycles of products and materials in a circular economy providing good lives for people.


The Cradle to Cradle® design principles  are a pre-requisite for a sustainable circular economy.


This need was very clearly evident on a recent trip I made to the island of Aruba to talk about the notion of a safe, sustainable Circular Economy at a meeting organized by the Americas Sustainable Development Foundation (ASDF) held at the University of Aruba.


Hosted by ASDF’s founder, Kevin de Cuba, I was able to see first hand how unsustainable the linear flow of goods and services is on the island. A population of about 100,000 people is supported primarily by 1,000,000 tourists per year visiting each year. Almost everything needed to support these 1,100,000 people has to be imported.


This means there is a growing (even overflowing) landfill and virtually nothing is designed to cycle and be reutilized. Instead of the materials arriving on the island becoming an asset, they are doomed to be liabilities.


Even the local newspaper printing the daily news for locals and for those who flow off the cruise ships onto the island can see they don’t have a sustainable basis of operation. Honestly, it was a mixed blessing to later see some of the locally caught fish being sold and wrapped in old newsprint.


On the one hand, the paper was getting another use! But on the other hand the paper and inks were never designed for this use, so there’s an underlying design question still to be dealt with.


I am heartened that there are dedicated people on the island who have the skills and experience to make the needed changes happen. ASDF, MBDC, and partners of the Circular Economy Platform of the Americas have access to the knowhow to help shepherd the change to a circular economy on Aruba and many islands across the region.


We know how to design paper and inks to cycle safely in the biological cycle. We know how to make compost on an industrial scale from clean biological source materials. There’s a need for indigenous healthy compost for the many landscapes on properties all over the island.


We can do this, the question is will we? Significant progress in meeting, even exceeding the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals can be made when we apply safe, circular economic models. On the island of Aruba, the UN’s Centre of Excellence for SIDS’ office is also actively promoting ways to become more sustainable.


Together, with the right designs and the right materials we can design and use technical and biological nutrients which meet the Cradle to Cradle® design requirements for a safe and sustainable circular economy.


Intentionally going round and round in safe cycles may be just what we need after all!


Ken Alston

CEO, President Consulting & Education



Cradle to Cradle® is a trademark of MBDC.



[1] This blog post was extracted with permission of the author from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry website (MBDC)

[1] Ken Alston is CEO and President of Consulting and Education Services at MBDC. As CEO, Ken works closely with MBDC's co-founders William (Bill) McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart to help further the adoption of the Cradle to Cradle® design paradigm to achieve circular economies. Ken holds an MBA from the Henley Management College and a Bachelor degree in Applied Chemistry from Brunel University, United Kingdom.


© Copyright 2017 Americas Sustainable Development Foundation (ASDF). All Rights Reserved.



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The Circular Economy Platform was founded in 2016 by the Americas Sustainable Development Foundation (ASDF) as part of its broader ambition to facilitating the transition toward Circular Economy in the Americas.

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