Sunday, 24 January 2010

The bigger they are, the bigger the impact?

There is a significant movement, at grassroots level, whereby individuals are making decisions to pursue a particular aspect of sustainable environmentalism and then blog about it to encourage and help others, and to act as a source of information so that others can join in. It doesn't mean they are totally going green because, in an extreme consumer society, like those we live in, that would probably be a bridge too far. Putting oneself out a lot - denying oneself various things - would be pointless if the vast majority carried on regardlessly trashing the planet. If one is a campaigning environmentalist, one will get the odd clever-clogs snarking that you can't be very green if you have a car. They miss the point that one campaigns for alternatives to the car so that just about everyone can free themselves of car dependence.

Being a hero is all very well , but the majority have to fall in line or there is no point! Up until the point at which systems are brought in that enable the majority to automatically "do the decent thing", the pathfinders will necessarily have to be more dedicated and endure more than the usual amount of fuss that life throws at us to show the way.

The following individuals are heroes. They go beyond normal effort in pursuit of their targets. If they success in converting sufficient numbers of others to at least want to follow in their footsteps, they will be creating an increasing market pressure on manufacturers and suppliers to green up their act, redesign their methods and products, and generally to operate in a sustainable way. This then, in a snowball-down-a-mountain way, will make it easier for the heroes to recycle everything effectively; to reduce their residual waste yet further and reduce the embodied carbon footprint of the goods and services they buy. The easier it gets - the less dedication it takes - the more the general population will join in exponentially

Three great examples that I regularly monitor are:

THE RUBBISH DIET where “almost Mrs Average” (Karen) asks herself -“can an average person really create Zero Waste?”rubbish diet logo  The challenge was set and during the week 10-17 March 2008, this mother in Bury St Edmunds gave it a go. She only threw out a plaster. Now she runs a regular blog about the subject and is frequently invited onto radio shows and is featured in articles in the press. Here’s a sample post explaining her general principles, although there are tons more.

---------------------------------------------------------------------- is a website run by “Mrs Green” (aka Rachelle Strauss) with her family “Mr Green” and “little Miss Green” regularly featuring. myzerowaste Some of the videos on the site are pretty funny with Mrs Green sniping gently at Mr Green. Again, it is about a family’s efforts to reduce or eliminate their household waste. These were initially just personal targets but have expanded to the point where both website/bloggers contact manufacturers and lobby to make the products and packaging that we buy more recyclable or re-usable. Bravo!

Here is a cartoon from their mission statement


And this is a link to their very busy and informative blog


Further afield we have the heroic Beth Terry at Fake Plastic Fish in the U.S. who is trying to eliminate all plastic waste from her life - indeed not to use plastic at all - in California!!


This website came about because she saw film of the horrendous plastic garbage “gyre” in the Pacific ocean and decided not to contribute. Again she now has lots of media attention.


So, why did I call this post “The bigger they are, the bigger the impact”?

Did I imply individuals making an effort can’t make much of a difference? That only large moves are worth it? Not in a million! The three individuals I have highlighted have made a difference not only in their own lives but also by blogging about it online, whereby they act as a source of information and encouragement to many others. They might have started out “small” but they’re rapidly getting “bigger”. Suggestions they make are taken up by readers and pressure on manufacturers is slowly but surely increasing.

Every single person may be only a drop in the ocean but never forget that the ocean is only made of drops. The more “drops” willing to choose the path towards zero waste, the more manufacturers will alter their designs and processes to reflect that, and the easier it will become for people to reduce waste. It's hard right at the start but it gets rapidly easier as time goes by.

That still sounds a bit idealistic, along the lines of “if everybody was nicer to each other, then wouldn't it be a wonderful world?” but wait! Hard evidence follows, that is rather under-reported in the main stream media, that shows some of the biggest "collections of drops" around are taking up the same challenges and winning.

The story that sparked off this whole post was about how the Subaru car plant in Indiana set itself a zero waste to landfill target and achieved it!

The Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA) manufacturing plant in Lafayette, Indiana, became the first auto manufacturing plant to achieve a zero landfill status. None of the plant’s manufacturing waste goes into a landfill, because all of it is recycled and reused.

Here’s a 7 minute Youtube video – Subaru Sustainablity Story – that is inspiring stuff. They did it because it was right, and the groundswell of popular support for zero waste initiatives certainly got through to these chief executives. A small but growing number of drops had an effect on at least one manufacturing sea of drops.

Difficult nit-picky types might snipe here "only one manufacturing sea? – but surely there are oceans of industry out there?". What would you say if one of the biggest “oceans” out there was to commit to sustainability and zero waste? That would be a huge driver for change. A huge retail ocean demanding that all of its suppliers adopted sustainable environmental practices would be a gigantic victory for the movement that started with the voices of the individual “drops”. N’est-ce-pas?

Step forward Walmart, the world’s largest public corporation by revenue. Walmart is not usually flavour of the month environmentally or socially and has attracted lots of flak for its employment practices and the way its giant economic clout can rip the heart out of smaller businesses – link to wiki article about criticism of Walmart.

However, two years ago, they came out with a rather remarkable sustainability strategy. This built on earlier work that had led arch greenie website Treehugger to say that - “It's Getting Harder to Hate WalMart”.

At Walmart’s sustainability summit in 2007, the main event was a speech by CEO Lee Scott in which he stated in no uncertain terms that Wal-Mart is in this for the long haul, and expects its suppliers to be in it for the long haul too. Scott pointed out that while his company is aiming for zero waste and 100% renewable energy, this still only accounts for 8% of its footprint, and that WalMart must green its supply chain if it has any chance of becoming sustainable. This is a very remarkable insight (for a corporation) that one's environmental responsibility does not extend solely to the energy etc that one's corporation uses directly but also to the footprint of the suppliers one deals with and their energy and materials choices too. Incredible.

Walmart has colossal influence on its suppliers, who jump to their every word, which has often proved a bad thing in the past but it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Every other retailer just might have to tag along now “the boss” is going green.

Walmart announced its sustainability index last July which will evaluate every WalMart product's environmental impact throughout its entire lifecycle, and will condense the data into an easy-to-understand rating for shoppers. Choosing Green will get a lot easier. If any company wants to supply Walmart, they will be forced to be greener or lose the business.

Here’s a link to a 90 minute Walmart DVD entitled Sustainability 2.0 which they sell (for $1) or you can watch it online free. Walmart is working to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy, create zero waste and sell sustainable products. Included are strategies for energy efficiency, making waste profitable, developing sustainable packaging, upgrading manufacturing, reducing product energy intensity, offering affordable fair trade and organic products, addressing environmental trends, designing lifecycles, solving network problems and engaging associates in sustainability.

Here’s an up to the minute link suggesting that Walmart are actually fulfilling their pledge about renewable energy as they announce three new solar energy installation projects in Southern California.


So, in conclusion. To all those who never do anything because they feel like they’re just an insignificant drop in the ocean – remember that enough drops moving together make an unstoppable tsunami…


Disclaimer – Subaru or Walmart haven’t given me anything at all to write about them positively – it’s just that some things need to be shouted out louder than they are.



Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish said...

Nick, this is a fantastic post. Thanks for including Fake Plastic Fish.

It's funny you should write a post today about the significance of individual action because that was the exact topic of a talk I gave yesterday at a conference called Rethinking Plastics 201. (

I meant to record my talk and post it online, but I forgot to push the "Record" button before I started. Instead, I think I will transcribe -- to the best of my memory -- the talk I gave and post it on Fake Plastic Fish for tomorrow.

You are absolutely right about the reasons that individual action is important. And I have some more reasons to add!


Hi Nick - what a great blogpost. The Subaru video is very inspirational. It's amazing that a manufacturing plant hasn't sent anything to landfill since 2004. You are right about the small drops in the ocean and that even if one person inspires just another and that person influences changes in another ...and so on...the results will be incredible. Thanks so much for the mention. It'll tweet a link to this post when I'm on Twitter later. Best wishes, Karen

Nick Palmer said...

Until people who think like us are in the majority, the commercial pressures on suppliers of goods and services will tend to favour those who are part of the unfortunate status quo that we find ourselves in.

The chief executives, and their planning teams, need to be confident that "the future" will be as we see it - it often doesn't seem to be enough that our vision is "right" - the way economic success is currently measured favours the short term "smash and grab" approach that ignores long term consequences.

Corporations need to be able to see that the ground rules of the game will change and that they will need a new strategy to stay in the game. The more of us there are - both "big" and "little" - the faster the snowball grows...

No matter how difficult it may be for them they will have to sink or swim.