Credit: Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images
August 15, 2022 2:33 PM EDT

One of our ongoing questions is how workplaces and work practices can be transformed to contribute to reducing climate change. We’ve looked at internal carbon pricing efforts at companies that factor in the carbon footprint of activities such as business travel, and how you can use punch lists to proactively pursue sustainability.

A new book called The Sustainability Scorecard by Urvashi Bhatnagar and Paul Anastas offers a framework for our everyday work, arguing that sustainably designed products and processes are actually more efficient and higher-quality than many current approaches. They propose making decisions by factoring in waste prevention, maximizing efficiency and performance, renewable inputs, and safe degradation.

We spoke recently with Anastas, a chemistry professor at the Yale School of the Environment and director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

For people who are not chief sustainability officers, how can we best integrate sustainability into our everyday work?

When people struggle with what this sustainability stuff is and how to support it, I would say if you don’t have a good understanding of what sustainability is, I’m pretty sure you have a good idea of what unsustainability is. And that’s what we’re doing now. If we took the design framework from 100 years ago, it would have been—either explicitly or implicitly—’How do we create tremendous amounts of wealth for a small sliver of the population while destroying the resources that we use to create that wealth?’ That’s what we ultimately have realized right now.

So if we start thinking about all we have to do in order to support sustainability and what our roles in that can be, we should look for the absurdity.

The absurdity can be found in how we generate, store, and transport our energy, the fact that we’re still burning rocks and goo for our energy. When we look at some of the largest material manufacturers—whether it’s plastics, polymers, ceramics—and you ask what their major product is, the true answer is CO2. It’s not their intended product, but if you ask what you actually make versus what it is that you want to make for so many industry sectors, the product is CO2. Over 90% of all of the materials that go into manufacturing wind up directly and immediately as waste.

So when I say, ‘Look for the absurdities and then you know where to spend your time,’ you just need to look at what it is that your company is doing. Is it doing it in ways that make common sense? Because so many of our business and economic drivers are not aligned to sustainability. They are using flawed and antiquated models, which have carried out that design framework of 100 years ago.

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Sustainability is often discussed in a business context as something that brings additional cost or slows growth. Is there another way to think about it?

Yes. John F. Kennedy was quoted as saying that ‘the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.’ So the great myth that sustainability costs more and things don’t work quite as well is luckily being belied every day. Because what we have is a system that is basically about quarterly reports and about pleasing Wall Street analysts and this short-term thinking. So when we say, ‘Sustainability costs more,’ we are geared toward privatizing gains and socializing losses.

If you look at who is paying the cost for the degradation of our atmosphere, the inability of our natural ecosystems to purify water, purify our air, preserve habitat, preserve biodiversity, those are real costs. If we had sensible economic models, they would make their way onto the Excel spreadsheet. But instead there aren’t even columns on an Excel spreadsheet for the ecosystem services that are being degraded by our common business practices in many places.

How do you make sustainability a key design element rather than being just about compliance and risk avoidance?

You want to look at the 12 principles of green engineering and the 12 principles of green chemistry. Basically I could boil them down to three key things. Right now our society and our economy are based on materials and energy that are toxic, depleting, and degrading of the environment. The green principles are that you want to make them helpful rather than toxic, renewable rather than depleting, and restorative rather than degrading of the environment.

For anybody to argue that waste is a good business model, that is pretty ridiculous. We should recognize that waste is a human-made concept. In nature, there’s no such thing as waste. Every time a waste product is generated an organism evolves to utilize that waste. This concept of circularity, where every bit of material and energy is reused in a way, just makes good business sense.

If you were to go into an organization and try to shift their way of thinking about their business along these lines, what would be the main things that you would say and what would be the main things you would change within that organization?

I actually do this with a lot of Fortune 100 companies. What I’d probably do is start by holding up a mirror so that they actually understand what it is that they’re doing. When I say a company’s main product is CO2, that is not how they think. They’re going to give you a very different answer, even though the reality is their main product is CO2. Or with agricultural processes, they’ll tell you that they feed half the world when 4% of the inputs into agriculture actually make it into someone’s body. Often the main products because of the agricultural runoff are dead zones in the oceans around the world.

So you start off with a harsh reality and with a recognition that nobody actually wants to do that harm. It runs counter to their morals and ethics and they want to change. So then you start saying, ‘What do you want that changed end state to look like?’ You have them outline what some people call sustainability goals. Then when they say, ‘Yes, that’s a vision of what we want to be,’ then you start saying, ‘Okay, but right now all of your measures, metrics, rewards, incentives, and drivers are not aligned with that.’ How do you align all of those things, your performance metrics, your KPIs?

What are you most excited about these days in terms of sustainability innovation or practices?

There are more and more examples of where we’re turning the world’s biggest problems into the world’s biggest opportunities. I’m hoping that 50 years from now, when people look back at the beginning of the century and say, ‘What were the greatest achievements?’ one of them might be that we converted one of the world’s biggest problems, CO2 emissions into a wide range of products, materials, fuels, and building materials. And people are going to make a lot of money from the idea of changing the direction of the vector from problem to solution.

I’m lucky enough to be involved with a company called the Air Company, in Brooklyn, New York. It’s based on some of the research where you split water into hydrogen and oxygen, you take CO2, and you can make ethanol. With that, you can make a luxury vodka that is winning prizes all over the world for its taste. So this idea of turning great civilization-wide problems into tremendous opportunities and productivity and performance and function, that’s what excites me.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of what sustainability says about work-life balance and how common sustainable approaches are in industry.

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