Our detox decade

The world’s hangover from years of excess will be long and messy, writes John Elkington. But good work is already being done, like a global campaign to wean clothing brands off toxins.

Recent events in the global economy – and in my working life – have had me mulling over hangovers, addictions, detoxification processes and recovery periods. They include the Eurozone meltdown, the predictable but disappointing results of the UN climate-change summit in Durban, and a visit to a gigantic monastery in Bavaria, Germany.

Let’s start with inebriation and addiction. Anyone who has experienced a hangover knows that the human body needs time to flush out toxins like alcohol. And those who have suffered from the ravages of alcoholism know what the health effects can be, with full recovery taking a disproportionate amount of time. The same is true with debt and other forms of economic excess, as parts of the world are now discovering. 

Then there’s an even more profound form of addiction and indebtedness, which we are beginning to wake up to, in relation to our dependence on unsustainable levels of natural-resource consumption. If we are to achieve anything like sustainability, the global economy now needs a detox decade – or two.

But history shows that such periods can be messy, painful and dangerous. Huge energies can be released in the process, which can be channeled into genuine progress, or in potentially destructive directions such as protectionism, xenophobia and militarism.

The scale of our resource addiction was brought home to me when I was in a Bavarian monastery at the end of last month, taking part in a stakeholder process organised by the German sportswear company PUMA. They took a lead recently by publishing their 2010 environmental profit & loss statement. This calculated that the cost their operations had imposed on the natural environment last year through their greenhouse-gas emissions and water consumption was 94.4 million euros (US$125 million).

Such experiments in accounting and reporting are a tiny step towards the giant leap that mankind must now take towards sustainability. But small steps can be significant in several dimensions: think of the 12-step programmes that organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous take addicts through on their way to recovery. Given the link between natural-resource constraints and the outbreak of the Pacific side of World War II, it’s also worth reflecting on how we can radically shrink our resource appetites over time as the world heads towards a forecast population of over 9 billion. It’s interesting that the original 12-step programme dates back to 1939, when the world was teetering on the brink of all-out war.

But what would a planetary-scale resource decoupling process actually look like? Some clues can be found in current 12-step programmes. Among key ingredients of success are an admission that the individual cannot control his or her addiction or compulsion; a facilitated process where past errors are identified and addressed; a commitment to operate to a new and very different code of behaviour; and, critically, a willingness to help others suffering from the same addictions or compulsions.

As we begin to wean ourselves off the environment-intensive dependencies of the last century, a process catalysed by the developing global economic crisis, we expect to see what we have called a Phoenix Economy rising from the ashes. Those who are likely to best in the new order will be those with a high “future quotient”, combining an ability to sense where the future is headed and the adaptability required to succeed in very different market conditions.

So where in the world do you see evidence today of where all of this might take us tomorrow? One obvious example is the Greenpeace Detox campaign, designed to drive a range of toxic materials out of global supply chains. Exploiting the sensitivity – and competiveness – of sportswear brands, Greenpeace is campaigning to “stop industry poisoning waterways around the world with hazardous, persistent and hormone-disrupting chemicals.” Launched in July, the Detox campaign has spotlighted links between textile manufacturing facilities causing toxic water pollution in China and many of the world’s top clothing brands.

To declare an interest, I was part of the facilitation team drawn from the organisations SustainAbility, Forum for the Future and Volans that helped a number of major brands – and the companies behind them – to work out how to respond to the Greenpeace campaign. Among those involved, listed alphabetically, were Adidas, the retailers C&A and H&M, Nike and Puma. And the end-result is something that would have been almost unimaginable a year or two ago.

The brands – together with Li Ning from China – have combined forces to launch a joint roadmap designed to push towards the target of “Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals” by 2020. To get a sense of where this is likely to take the brands, see Nike’s explanation of the steps they have taken so far and some of the steps they plan next, or for PUMA’s view see here.

Achieving the roadmap will be a major challenge for the brands, not least because they often do not control the manufacturing plants that make their products. More problematic still will be the fact that so many of these facilities are in China, which tends to be sensitive to external pressures on health or environmental issues. And although 2020 may seem a long way away today, pushing towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in less than a decade is likely to prove a tough mission.

The roadmap includes specific commitments and timelines, including conducting pilot projects at major, vertically integrated and materials suppliers between 2011 and 2013 to better understand scope of use and discharge of hazardous chemicals. 

The brands also plan to verify that nine classes of hazardous or persistent chemicals are not currently used in their supply chains – and, to this end, aim to build an inventory of all chemicals used in apparel manufacturing by the end of 2012. Other steps include disclosing the results of all pilots and studies undertaken as part of this commitment, and reporting regularly and publicly on progress, quarterly in 2012 and annually from 2013 to 2020. Given the potential impact of this initiative, many people in business will be monitoring developments very carefully.

John Elkington is executive chairman at Volans and non-executive director at SustainAbility. He blogs at and tweets at @volansjohn.

Homepage image by Hopkinsii