The Slow Housing movement?

The Mother Nature Network features a slideshow of ten of the world’s smallest homes.

From energy expenditure to building materials, living in a smaller house is one of the best ways to reduce your ecological footprint. Giving up the luxury of space and living more minimally isn’t always easy, but it does come with a few perks: fewer possessions, bigger skies and open spaces! Plus, a smaller house makes it easier to cozy up to your loved ones. Here’s a reminder that bigger isn’t always better: 10 of the tiniest homes in the world.

Reduces your housing expenses too – giving you time, flexibility and further footprint reduction possibilities.

Sustainable Brands 2010: “The Power of AND”

[originally published on]

“The opportunity to make our planet smarter is both real and measurable on one hand, and truly inspiring on the other.” – Sam Palmisano, CEO, IBM, quoted by Lee Green, VP Innovation, IBM at Sustainable Brands, Monterey, California, June 2010

For us, this captures the Sustainable Brands 2010 conference in a nutshell: the sustainability efforts most likely to succeed are those that are both robust and data-driven on the one hand, and joyful, surprising, delightful and principles-driven on the other.

Sustainable Life Media and its flagship conference Sustainable Brands, founded by KoAnn Skrzyniarz in 2007, brings together the brand, design and sustainability communities to catalyze sustainable innovation.

SustainAbility has been a part of the Sustainable Brands community since its early days: executive director Mark Lee serves on the advisory board and has given plenary presentations at the event the last three years, and team members Chris Guenther and Preetum Shenoy have both participated in the conference. This year, Jennifer Biringer facilitated a panel organized by Patrin Watanatada on “Restoring ‘Places and Faces’ to the Global Value Chain”.

Below are the seven key themes we heard at this year’s conference. The first three are perennials – they are why so many of us believe strongly in the connection between sustainability and brands (see, for example, our Five Principles for Sustainable Brands) – while the last four are more recent insights, reflecting lessons learned by brands along the way.

  1. What we value as a society is changing – and the brands that respond will be the brands that win.
  2. Sustainability is (really) good for brands.
  3. Brands are (really) good for sustainability.
  4. Sustainable brands connect supply and demand in innovative ways.
  5. Sustainable brands meet consumers where they are.
  6. Sustainable brands “create the crowd.”
  7. Sustainable brands rely on lots of data – but not too much.

Read on for more on each of these themes…

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The end of cheap [insert global resource here]

Two years to the week after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the new Basel III global financial regulations are out (what’s that?) and the British Bankers’ Association complains on behalf of consumers everywhere: “This means the end of ‘cheap money’!”

Well. That is a good thing, is it not?

Remember what’s at the heart of our global environmental and social challenges:

  1. Our key resources are too cheap – be they food, oil, money.
  2. Our systems are too good at separating reward from risk – be it here and now, over time, through geographies.

Are there insights to be gleaned for other sectors from  how financial regulators conceptualize and try to manage these issues? The financial system represents our economy at its most abstract and quantified, so it’s fascinating to think about, anyhow.

Basel III raises the Tier 1 capital requirement, which means that banks will need to hold more common equity to buffer against unexpected losses, which essentially comes down to this: more skin in the game. And more protection against financial crises, and, apparently, good things for the economy (at least as measured through GDP – see explanation from finance blogger Felix “Shedding No Tiers” Salmon).


…the danger of New York City cycling is due to mindset: cyclists behave and are treated like pedestrians, but are moving many times faster and in the road – also, loving the term “bike salmon” for a cyclist who goes the wrong way up the street and generally ignores traffic laws with abandon (Felix Salmon)

…sustainable consumption = shared consumption (Joel Makower, Collaborative Consumption, McKinsey Quarterly)

…“#Wherewereyou: WaPo puts the humble hashtag to work” – on journalism as curating, and the semantics of Twitter’s hashtag (Nieman Journalism Lab)

…(short) URLs are the new cookies: “whoever owns the shortener sees the engagement between the audience and the content, no matter where it happens” (O’Reilly Radar)

…is Google design overly data-driven? what about principles? (Co.Design)

…Tom Friedman on why the United States “is #1(1)” – its problems are incremental, American leaders don’t ask Americans to sacrifice, Americans don’t sacrifice on their own, and as for global leadership, “After you” (NYT)

…human beings were designed to pulse – sound tips from the Energy Project on how to get more done, be happier, and be better to your loved ones (

Better Place: The Very Model of a 21st Century Enterprise


Photo: With colleague Jennifer Biringer, test-driving the Th!nk EV at Better Place’s Palo Alto headquarters back in June.

Many of us at SustainAbility have a big sustaina-crush on Better Place, the start-up working to build the infrastructure for electric vehicles—charging stations and battery packs—in cities around the world, and its founder Shai Agassi. (Our biggest Better Place fan, Gary Kendall, has contributed to their blog here and here, and the urgent need to transition our systems away from oil is a recurring theme for our team—see most recently Jeff Erikson’s blog on the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.)

But what’s a crush without a little analysis? Here are seven reasons why we think Better Place is one of the best examples of a 21st century enterprise out there.

1. Better Place started with an urgent social need, is moving rapidly to bring a solution to market, and is doing so by prototyping around the world. First, Agassi started with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal for his country: no less than independence from oil.

Says Better Place Australia CEO Evan Thornley in an interview on CNET’s CarTech blog: “[When Shai Agassi was coming up with his initial white paper] he went through the stages of ‘how can we run a country without being dependent on oil?’… We’re a mission-driven organization; we want to get the world off oil. There’s nothing good about it: fighting over it, paying for it, running out of it, or polluting the atmosphere with it.”

And Better Place is not wasting any time, as Cisco strategy EVP Inder Sidhu writes in a nice excerpt from his strategy book Doing Both, which argues that pursuing two seemingly disparate paths at once is often mutually reinforcing:

Agassi hopes to move quickly—before the next wave of first-time car buyers choose gas- or diesel- powered vehicles… Over the next five years, Chinese and Indian consumers are projected to buy as many as 70 million vehicles—more than all of the cars that exist in the UK and Germany today.

Most technology startups set out to build advanced products for sophisticated customers in established countries… Afterwards, they typically water down their innovations for sale to customers in emerging countries. Agassi has dispensed with this model and is instead focused on building simple solutions that can be deployed anywhere around the world simultaneously.

2. Better Place is thinking service, not product. Why are service-based business models often a better bet from a sustainability perspective?

Service-based models incentivize manufacturers to make assets that last and to take end-of-life responsibility (think Xerox copiers). They allow many more people to get use out of the same amount of physical assets (think laundromats, or car sharing services like Zipcar, and see Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’s Collaborative Consumption website and book for more examples). And they start with the human need and ask, “How can we best meet this?”

Agassi understands that people fundamentally seek the service of convenient mobility. This insight means that his business model is designed around meeting that need for mobility as effectively as possible, rather than making the current model (liquid-fuelled cars) somewhat better.

For transportation, says Agassi in an interview, what matters is miles:

Oil companies sell miles…at the end of the day [not gasoline]. [Better Place is like] an oil company that has a guaranteed supply of oil at a cost of zero dollars a barrel… I don’t sell the energy—the battery makers do that. I sell the convenience. (Interview by Martin LaMonica, CNET)

And access to a service is often a much better model for the customer than owning the asset itself, say Better Place’s Evan Thornley and Guy Pross in another interview:

Separating the battery from the car is a key to our business. It not only takes that battery [technology] risk from you, but also saves you from purchasing the battery up front, which is a huge part of the cost of hybrid and electric vehicles. (Interview by Derek Fung, CNET)

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On meat, the environment, and data

This is huge. In his review of Simon Fairlie’s new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, British environmental journalist, climate campaigner and long-time vegan George Monbiot looks at the assumptions underlying the argument that eating meat is bad for the environment, and concludes with the author that many of them are false.

I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I’m about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat…

[Current] idiocies [such as feeding grain to livestock], Fairlie shows, are not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model.

Fairlie makes a bunch of points (or, as Monbiot says, “butchers a herd of sacred cows”):

  1. We’re using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. We should be looking not at the conversion rate of feed into meat, but on the amount of land required to grow meat, with the amount of land needed to grow plants of the same nutritional value to humans.
  2. Meat becomes an efficient means of food production if livestock are fed with food for which humans don’t compete – residues and waste for pigs, straw and grass from fallows and rangelands for cows. (Second-generation biofuels, anyone?)
  3. The commonly quoted claim that “it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef… is wrong by around three orders of magnitude. It arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.”
  4. Farmed animals produce about 10% of the world’s GHG emissions – not 18% or more than transport, as the FAO claimed based on such faulty assumptions as saying that “all deforestation that culminates in cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle: in reality it is mostly driven by land speculation and logging,” confusing “one-off emissions from deforestation with ongoing pollution” as well as gross and net production of methane and nitrous oxide.
  5. Many vegetable oils have a bigger footprint than animal fats.

Monbiot concludes by saying that those who advocate for veganism for environmental reasons are better off campaigning for meat, milk and egg-producing systems that are “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” (and, still, eating much less of it than we do).

Important reading, not just for the arguments (and note, I am not saying anything here about veganism as an animal rights choice, which I respect greatly) but as a larger reminder of the thin ice that many of our assumptions skate on, and the dangers of relying too much on data rather than principles to tell us where to go next in this complex world. It makes me think of Michael Pollan’s response to the endless debates over which nutrients and how much in what proportion from where: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Eat vegan if you believe it’s simply wrong to eat meat, otherwise go “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” – which, come to think of it, is a set of principles that makes sense for all forms of production.


  • “The age of nations is over. The new urban age has begun” (Parag Khanna in Foreign Policy, Sep/Oct 2010)
  • “China and India were the biggest economies in the world for almost all of the past 2000 years. Why they fell so far behind may be more of a mystery than why they are currently flourishing.” (A history of world GDP in The Economist)
  • Berkeley prof Michael O’Hare’s welcome letter to his freshman students says: “Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.”
  • Fascinating new search engine “for the past, present and future” from Yahoo! that enables review of old predictions and shows how topics evolve over time (Fast Company)
  • Australia’s New South Wales state gov’t is now discouraging development in certain coastal zones due to sea level rise caused by climate change (GreenBiz)


Why economic language has a lot to answer for

From the Economist’s cover piece on “The next China” a couple of weeks ago:

The strikes, stoppages and suicides that have afflicted foreign factories on China’s coast in recent months have shaken the popular image of the country’s workers as docile, diligent and dirt cheap. … As pay goes up the country’s domestic market will become more lucrative. Foreign firms that came for the workers will stay for the shoppers. China will become more of a workshop for itself and less of one for the world.

There’s been much in the news this year about how Chinese labor costs are rising, but for me this was a good reminder that “labor costs” – even those located in some far-off land – are also people with aspirations and needs.

I happened to read it around the same time as Bob Herbert’s NYT op-ed on how “the carnage that occurred in the workplace [during the recession] was out of proportion to the economic hit that corporations were taking.” How’s this for striking:

At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion. That kind of disconnect, said [economics professor Andrew] Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II… In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Obviously, this is what happens when you think about workers simply as “variable expenses.” I am trying to be a nuanced thinker, but sometimes you just have to get mad.