Courtesy Paul Anastas

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 is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

Many people are struggling with how to balance their life with their work—what are your thoughts on how sustainability addresses those issues?

We're hearing so much about work-life balance. At some level, that's not how I think the issue ought to be framed. There's only life and what we are seeking for in all of our endeavors of life is fulfillment, to meet our needs in ways that are fulfilling and purposeful and meaningful and to take care of ourselves and the people that we love. By crafting this idea that work is something different and fragmenting my work life, my health life, my leisure life. No—it's life.

And one of the things that's critically important about having sustainability as part of your life is that you are achieving fulfillment, aligning your values with where you spend your time, where your sources of revenue come from. It's alignment. This is the big word. It's alignment of all of the different aspects of your life. If all of those are elements of sustainability—it can be the environment, but it also can be justice, it can be fairness, it can be long-term care—what you're talking about is making sure that every minute of every day is aligned with the fulfillment that you're seeking.

So many people have created a 'work life' that honestly they're ashamed of. It doesn't support their values. They don't want to tell their kids what they do, because it's not aligned with what they're trying to teach their kids that good people do. And sustainability is really about redefining how it is that you decide to spend the hours that we have in our lives.

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 for 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 is to 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. And we will waste about a third of our energy just in transport alone. The way that we grow and distribute our food.

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.

If we added up all of the purified fresh drinkable water that is created in the United States that we put through to make sure it's purified for drinkability, we flush more of that down the drain than is necessary to quench the thirst of the entire continent of Africa. 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, or is it in ways that make good business 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.

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. If I were to go through those key principles one by one, it would take me a semester to do that. But basically I could boil it 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, because they're believing that what they're doing is what they're telling their investors, their customers, their clients. 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. Nobody is intending to do that harm. That is not their purpose. That's not their intent. 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? That's the process people go through, that's the evolution that people take.

What's an example of a shift that an organization has made that is anchored by that sort of approach?

At the top of the metaphorical mountain has to be Patagonia. Patagonia lives, eats, and breathes this. It was a realization that came long before many others, but it was a realization and a shift. I really take my hat off to the leaders of Patagonia. I'm sure you're aware of the iconic full page ad in The New York Times saying 'Don't buy this jacket.' That was saying so much about not only the nice, warm, fuzzy bunnies types of sustainability, it was a commentary on everything from production, consumption, economic models, who you're responding to in order to be viewed as a good company, the way we market, the way we think—there are layers to that. That thinking is what the leading companies are doing, some quietly and behind the scenes, some more overtly.

I worry sometimes that Patagonia is an example of one, a solitary exception to how businesses generally operate. Do you think that approach is really being applied more broadly within businesses?

Yes, but not systematically. There is no doubt that it is easier for a privately owned company. It is much easier for a family controlled company. It is easier for a smaller company to do these things systematically, and we should ask ourselves why. There's a lot of reasons, but a lot of it comes down to the perversion of the fiduciary responsibilities of public companies. This is a whole other tangent that we could go down: court findings of a hundred years ago when the Dodge brothers sued Henry Ford and determined that Henry Ford had an obligation to his investors to make money. That spread, pervaded everything. It became not just that you have a responsibility to make money, but it started to metastasize to you have to make money immediately, in the next quarterly report. You have to constantly please Wall Street analysts. That kind of short-term thinking, rather than long-term sustainability and resilience, is antithetical to sustainability and to the long-term resilience of a company.

What are you most excited about in 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. You can make a luxury vodka that is winning prizes all over the world for its taste. Now a rational person would say all the vodka in the world isn't going to make a dent in climate change. That was never the purpose. The purpose was to capture people's imagination that if you can make a carbon-negative vodka by using CO2, then you can use CO2 for all kinds of things. It becomes easy to imagine that it can become a sustainable aviation fuel. The Air Company just won a NASA competition to make rocket fuel, aviation fuels, and to make building materials to do these things.

So this idea of turning great civilization-wide problems into tremendous opportunities and productivity and performance and function, that's what excites me.

So if you capture CO2 at the point of emission or from the air, then you could use it for these commercial purposes?

Exactly. You're changing the driver to making it valuable so that you do want to capture it so that you can actually make money from the capture and transformation. So, yes, there's a driver now to capture at the point of release or capture it in whatever way.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.