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You Say You Want A Re-Evolution

Evolution too slow? Revolution too costly? It may be time for re-evolution; pursuing improvements in a controlled and measured manner by learning from the mistakes of others.

Most people admit that it is going to take decades to completely mainstream some greener and more socially responsible industries such as renewable energy and alternative fuel vehicles. Oil, coal and other non-renewable resources are very integrated into our way of life, sometimes in surprising ways (such as petroleum being an ingredient in products that people do not associate with oil such as clothing, carpeting, canned food, detergents, makeup, lip gloss, etc.)
Important and significant efforts are being made to make existing businesses and industries more efficient. And make no mistake, small changes such as converting to more efficient lighting and automatic climate control systems can and do have a huge impact. This re-evolution of our existing economy is critical.
At the same time, we’re seeing how many countries are finding it far easier to build a new ‘green’ infrastructure than to dismantle, convert and change over from existing systems. Rather than cutting the wire, as more developed nations are learning to do, entire communities are leapfrogging from having nothing to the latest technology and connecting without plugging in.
Several years ago I was traveling through Morocco and I noticed that people were skipping entire technological steps. Television satellite dishes adorned traditional houses that had no visible connection to the power grid. The homes were powered by a combination of solar panels and generators.
By 2009, fully a quarter of American households had abandoned their land lines and relied exclusively on cell phones. But in countries like Tanzania, the vast majority of people - 97 percent – had access a mobile phone by 2005, while only 28 percent had access a landline phone at all.
In Africa one in 11 people has a cell phone, three times the penetration of land lines, enabling people in remote villages to find out  things like crop prices, get medical advice, etc. Today more than half of the people in the developing world are cell phone subscribers.
By finding a different, shorter and more efficient path to the same quality of life and standard of living as we enjoy, these developing nations not only speed progress, they also have the opportunity to learn from the lessons that have marked progress in the past.  
The true re-evolution can and must avoid labor abuses such as the poor factory safety standards that resulted in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City causing the death of 146 garment workers or environmental practices that fouled rivers (such as Ohio’s Cuyahoga) to the point that they spontaneously combusted or the unfettered and unfiltered emissions from coal-fired factories and power plants that have polluted our great cities.
Of course, these problems still persist in places and certainly the world has not completely learned the lesson of past abuses and mistakes. At the same time, the developing world has shown a remarkable inventiveness that not only casts hope on their progress, it offers opportunities for the developed nations to learn from their experience dealing with scarcity and increase our own use of alternative raw materials and recycling used products from the end of their lifecycle rather than relying on virgin materials for many of our products.
As a global community we have a tremendous opportunity to allow the developed nations of the world to learn from the practices in emerging economies while those countries learn from the mistakes of the past to build a cleaner, greener, safer future for us all. That would be truly transformative, without the destruction, damage and upheaval usually associated with revolutions.

John Friedman is Sustainability Manager at WGL. Prior to that, he headed corporate responsibility communications for Sodexo worldwide. He is an award-winning communications professional and internationally recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years' experience in internal and… [Read more about John Friedman]

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