16 March 2014

Sustainability's unintended consequences

In the insurance industry, there is a concept called 'moral hazard', and this articulates one of the unintended consequences of being insured - an insured person tends to take more risk than if they were uninsured (as the initial [financial] consequence has been externalised to the insurer).

In sustainability, corporations and regulators hope that their initiatives will have an exclusively positive impact, and of course, in most cases, they do. But, lurking beyond every corner, might there be an unintended consequence? Proactively thinking about these isn't easy, but might just help create a better long-term service, experience, or regulation...

Below I've outlined some examples where there might be unintended consequences - some are well-documented, some less so, and hopefully all stimulate some thinking.  Here we go...

Jevons Paradox

Jevons Paradox, or the related 'Rebound Effect' is an elephant in the room for energy efficiency.  Put simply, as things become more efficient, there is generally an increase in consumption. So, from an environmental aspect, unless regulation intervenes, technological advances in energy efficiency may cause a net increase in emissions.  For example, imagine in your home, you upgrade your boiler - it's now burning fuel more efficiently to heat your home. However, as you are aware of this, you might find yourself having the heating on for a little longer, or the thermostat up a degree, as it's "much more efficient than it used to be".

The EU tailpipe emissions legislation has transformed the automotive industry, and coupled with more local regulation like congestion charging in cities, has meant manufacturers are creating ever more efficient cars, and/or new powertrains which have a significantly reduced environmental impact. However, now a tank of petrol/diesel lasts so many more miles, might you find yourself using the car more, or perhaps driving a little less carefully?


In most countries, the electricity grid is powered by a variety of sources of energy, often including a mixture of fossil fuels, some nuclear, and renewables like solar, wind and hydro-electric.  New kids on the block like fracking are also entering the ring as a potentially viable fuel source (its significant water use continuing to be an under-reported consequence).  As the proportion of renewables increases, could we reach a tipping-point where people think they can use energy 'guilt-free', ironically increasing consumption of the remaining fossil-fuel sources?

The lifecycle environmental impact of a product starts from the extraction of raw materials, through its usage phase, to disposal.  Renewables like solar panels and wind turbines of course have a positive usage phase - they generate 'carbon-free' energy.  But, it's more complex than that.  They rely on rare earth metals, and there is energy used in their manufacture.  And as energy storage (via batteries) becomes mainstream, it's important that their lifecycle is also considered.

Collaborative Consumption

Collaborative consumption promotes access of ownership, meaning that for physical goods, they are shared between multiple users, and either owned by a third-party, or perhaps by one of the participants (peer-to-peer).  The environmental benefit superficially is clear - if I share a power tool with my neighbour, that's one less power tool being manufactured, saving on its embodied carbon, transportation and disposal.  The more participants sharing the product, the greater the savings.

However, although trust is a key tenant of collaborative consumption, and works well when setup by/within the community, will everyone treat someone else's belongings as if it were their own?  For example, if you rent a car, might you drive it a little more recklessly than if it was your own?  Might you be a little less careful with someone else's power drill, especially if it was insured?

WEEE and the Circular Economy

The EU WEEE Directive enforces that suppliers have responsibilities for handling electronic waste ('eWaste').  This is, superficially, terrific news, as it supports the circular economy, with its desire to ensure that the materials used in the production of materials are reclaimed and reused at the end of their life.  However, there is another scenario, that without needing to feel guilty that waste electronics are going to landfill, people feel more relaxed about spending money on gadgets and disposing of them.  This will erode some of the sustainability benefits, as people may buy more gadgets, rather than less.  The same challenge may exist for any crude 'take-back' schemes...

3D Printing

3D printing has been latched onto by the world of sustainability, and I'll be honest, I've never really understood why!  Sure, in prototyping and R&D, I can see it being a more efficient way to produce early versions of products, and in a world where people can genuinely produce spare parts for a broken product (without invalidating a warranty), there may be advantages.  However:

  • 3D printing can allow for personalisation of products, something which will no doubt be very popular once 3D printing becomes mainstream.  But having something personalised means there's less likely to be a secondary market for it, so once it's finished with, it might end-up in landfill, rather than a charity shop. [UPDATE June 2014: here's an example of a proposition from Asda]
  • 3D printing is hard to get right - it's not like sticking a piece of paper into a traditional printer. I'd imagine a lot of waste products, from printers which aren't calibrated correctly
  • I expect most things which are made with 3D printers at home are novelty items, with dubious value, and a limited timeframe of interest from the recipient. 

Green marketing

As we scan the shelves and racks of our favourite retailers, you will see more and more items which claim to be 'green' in some way, hoping to attract the conscientious consumer.  Of course, for the 'converted', this is great - it can mean they're able to buy more sustainable products, from washing powder, to waterless jeans.  The reality though, is that there are still those that have a pathological hate for green, and any 'big brother' institution that tries to ram such messages down their throats.  It's important to remember this, and make sure they aren't alienated - the real success of course is making their purchases more sustainable, perhaps without them knowing it!

Be careful what you measure...

Sustainability and CSR concern themselves with a wide range of issues, with a barrage of measures to help navigate this complexity.  Environmental impact might be measured in terms of carbon, waste, water, energy, or biodiversity, whereas the social side may include poverty, unemployment, literacy rates, disease levels, etc.  There's a real risk therefore of unintended consequences, where focusing on just one or two of these measures may have a negative impact on another.  For example, flying roses overseas from Kenya might seem to have a negative environmental impact (flying = bad), but it's more complex, as Fairtrade roses mean a fair wage for local workers who spend this income in their local economy.  Yet, on the other hand, in the Rift Valley, there's a huge concern with irrigation taking away from the fishing economy, and the valuable biodiversity the lakes provide.

So, in summary, sustainability initiatives are critical, and they're already having a huge success in reducing society's impact on the earth.  But it's always worth taking a step back, and just wondering if lurking beyond a corner is an unintended consequence...

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