I first learned about global warming while still in college in the early 1990s. I had enrolled in “Our Home, the Solar System,” a class taught by the famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Enrollment was limited to just 15 students, and to get in I had to write an essay. My rationale was that as a chemical engineer, the class would give me a different perspective from my core engineering curriculum.
For example, chemical engineers learn how to size the height of a smokestack to spread pollutants and lower concentration levels before they reach the earth. Or, as some students put it, “dilution is the solution to pollution.” I suspected that there might be more clever ways to think about mitigating the effects of industrial pollution. Professor Sagan let me into the class and it was indeed eye-opening.
Top-down vs bottom-up
I learned a lot about the problem of global warming in that class. Since then, my career has taken me in the direction of technology, manufacturing, and supply chain management. While the class with Professor Sagan taught me about the problem, my career experience has taught me about ways to address it.
Some environmental topics can be successfully addressed by top-down government policies. The hole in the ozone layer serves as a good example. By banning chlorofluorocarbons, governments have been able to reduce the size of the hole.
The success of this top-down approach can be attributed to the fact that consumers were largely insulated from the ban. Science delivered alternative propellants and refrigerants minus the chlorofluorocarbons. These worked fine, and few people resisted the change.
Other top-down mandates do not fare as well – even though they may emanate from noble aspirations. Why? Because often enough, they directly harm individual consumers and businesses by increasing costs or reducing convenience. The policies may serve the collective good – but because they conflict with many individual desires, compliance is low and, thus, the policies fail.
The simple fact is that Armageddon-like stories about climate change from scientists and government officials do not seem to be turning the tide. From their pulpits, officials proclaim that each and every one of us needs to make sacrifices to save the planet. They want us to forego the conveniences that we have attained through years of scientific and social progress.
While they blame, point fingers, and spread guilt, they ignore the underlying cause – the rise in population over the past 50 years – which is a second-order effect of the successful avoidance of global pandemics and major atrocities from world wars.
A better approach, I think, can be summed up in a simple phrase: “desire delivered.” Sustainable policies and solutions, in other words, need to capitalize on human nature and consumer desires to channel behavior in the right direction.
For example, in Stockholm (where I’m from), public transportation is structured so that it is faster, more comfortable, more reliable, and less expensive than driving. This has resulted in fewer people driving cars into Stockholm city for work. Congestion is reduced and, more importantly, pollution has decreased. Public transportation is now the preferred transportation choice as it meets the desires of individuals.
Solutions that improve people’s lives
To really address important global issues, we need solutions that improve people’s lives on all dimensions, including the environment. The science is often there. Now, supply chains must be built and scaled to take that science to individual consumers so that they choose to use those new products and services, while the providers of those products and services simultaneously thrive and prosper financially.
There are many examples of companies innovating not only more sustainable products but also more sustainable supply chains. For example, many consumer products consist of a basic ingredient, water. Why not establish business models where concentrated products (without water added) are delivered to consumers who add the water at the point of consumption?
Soda Stream is a great example of this. It reduces the dependence on difficult-to-recycle packaging and lowers the tonnage of product that must be shipped. Leading consumer products companies such as Procter & Gamble have introduced a similar concept for basic household products such as soap and shampoo.
Supply chains are transforming to capitalize on this change and deliver scalable, desirable products to consumers. As a chemical engineer, I learned that what is possible in a beaker many not be directly replicated at scale due to, for example, differences in heat and mass transfer properties. So, to address the challenge in front of us, supply chain innovation is required, as supply chains are the mechanisms to take new ideas to the consumer and to businesses.
Supply chains that drive sustainability
Although I received my lowest grade in college from Professor Sagan, I have to say that his course is the one that I reflect upon the most to this day. Statistically speaking, if I’m lucky, I have approximately 1,700 weeks left in my life, based on my current age and life expectancy. I aspire to enjoy those weeks to my fullest, knowing that the daily choices I make result in an even better future for generations to come.
This is why I choose to invest my working hours helping digital supply chains deliver what people, including me, desire most – all in a way that helps drive sustainability and address the challenge of global warming.
To learn more on how to drive sustainable supply chain processes, download the IDC report “Leveraging your intelligent digital supply chain.”