Friday, December 21, 2012

The End!

Yes, it is 12/21/12.

The Winter Solstice (as changing of the seasons go - not the coolest to begin with - it's either one of the equinoxes) marking the "official" change to winter from autumn and all that jazz.

I read an amusing blog post over at Scientific American a few days ago that I thought summed things up rather nicely

I found out that it was not just the Mayans that had an era ending today, apparently the Sumerians were looking for another planet to collide with the Earth round about this time.  I have to pause and wonder if it would be driven, you know, by someone like Ming the Merciless.

From what I read a few months ago, the whole doomsday thing is one way to interpret the Mayan Calendar.  Another way, and one that might be considered more optimistic, is the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one.  The questions then becomes, what will this new epoch look like?  What will we create?  Here are a few suggestions for beginnings and endings:

Ending Beginning
Age of Excess Age of Frugality
Age of Fossil Fuels Age of Renewable Energy
Age of Humans   Age of Something Else
Age of Prescription Drugs Age of Homeopathy
Age of Wealth Concentration Age of Wealth Equilibrium
Age of Possession Age of Sharing
Age of The West Age of the East (already underway)
Age of Deconstructive Thinking Age of Systems Thinking
Age of Reality Television Age of No Television
Age of Consumption Age of Restoration

OK, some humor - hopefully - what do you think?  What "Age of...." would you like to usher in?

Friday, September 07, 2012

Brand Equity - Is That Why I Bought This?

Why did I decide to buy this where I bought it?

The answer to the where is was convenient.  I could swing by at lunch from my office.  Would I have felt better if I had bought it at Cambridge Naturals?  Yes.  My friends at the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts should rightfully chastise me.

Among the brands displayed at the nationally recognized organic/natural/sustainable food store it did not have the best shelf placement, it was not at eye level (given that I am not within the height range of optimum shelf placement, that's probably not a factor for me in most cases). Within products of the same category, it was on the edge, teetering on the border of oblivion that is the next section.

Was it the Lorax?  Probably not, since I find that connection mildly annoying (though knower of the ins and outs I am not).

Was it the fact that Seventh Generation was one of the first few companies I learned about as I started to dive into the concept of "sustainability" over ten years ago?  Had their brand been infused in my head for that long?

How about the fact that I was fortunate to have seen (and briefly chatted with) their new CEO John Replogle at the Vermont Business for Social Responsibility Spring Conference in May of this year (seemed like a nice enough guy)?  Was some lingering piece of his keynote message ringing in my subconscious mind, adding to my brand awareness as I perused the detergents?  After all, I spent a few hours in the months following the event reading about what appeared to be a tumultuous transition from founder Jeffrey Hollender, through Chuck Maniscalco to Mr. Replogle.  Seems like they're on a good track now.

Did I remember reading about their compostable packaging, something the well-developed geek in me found so compelling?  Was the need to experience its coolness first-hand enough to influence my buying decision?  Clearly.

I could easily look past the quantity paradox - in our "bigger is better" economy, super-concentrated anything, with smaller package sizes appear to be of lesser value.  In this case, their two-piece package containing the 4X concentrated goodness with paperboard outer casing was larger than if they had used a recycled plastic bottle - making the overall size closer to the "regular" laundry detergents.  I wonder if that weighed in on their design decision?

Was I hoping that this purchase would bathe me in the "Halo of Goodness" and provide green bragging rights that (we think) come with buying something green?  (Note - I know that anything single-use is one of our biggest problems so at best this is "less bad" - but in a consumer economy - this still scores "green" points, right?)

I believe that the few extra dollars I pay for their detergent is an investment in an organization of individuals working to make the world a better place through their business activities.  Do they have a long way to go?  Sure, we all this's the least I could do.  (I'll not forget to mention that I am fortunate to be able to spend the few extra dollars here - one of the criticisms of "green/healthy" products, particularly food, is that some people cannot afford them. As another aside, I know of one cool company working on this issue, Stockbox Grocers.)

These are all pieces of the brand equity Seventh Generation has built with me, all factors in my buying decision.  How much was linked to their traditional marketing?  Doesn't seem like that much to me, though I'm gathering that not everyone thinks this much about this kind of stuff

Do you regularly think about the whys and wherefores of something you buy regularly?  What comes to mind?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Peace in Imperfection - The Quest for a Quiet Bike

It happened every pedal stroke - tinnnngggg,  tinngg,  ting,  t-tinngg, _____, tinngg.  The incessant, insistent, and maddening sound reminding me that my machine is not ideally tuned and/or cleaned, leading me on a chase to find the offending noise producer.  Digression - Yes, my maintenance standards, while still higher than the average Joe Racer (or so I think), have slipped over the past five years or so.  In fact, I was roundly mocked a few weeks ago at the top of a local "hill" at the sad state of my bike's cleanliness - as I trundled up at the tail end of the group (I am NOT always there - thank you very much!) a comment was lobbed my way by one of those insufferably skinny guys with a super-flashy carbon-of-the-moment ride like "well, if you cleaned that pound of s$%t off of your bike you'd be faster".  Well, maybe, but jettisoning the 15+ pounds around my middle (and elsewhere) would probably help more there jackass...anyway...back to the whole "imperfection" thing.

So, as I obsessed about what could be causing the Chinese Water Torture of bike noises, alternating my weight on the saddle, standing up (it got louder and more pronounced - I could almost feel it), riding no hands, loosening and tightening bolts, taking the bottle cages off, removing the seat post, smashing my fists against my head in rage and frustration, I started thinking about what it was that was driving me so friggin' insane about this noise.

Was it the noise itself, or what the noise signified?

First off, there's the anal element of working on one's own bike, especially for anyone that races, used to race, or wants to race - all that preparation, tuning and tweaking to get ready - mostly an exercise to keep nervous energy utilized.  What's going on with your body is more important.  Of course, there is a baseline level of bike tuning required to prevent a mechanical failure which can ruin your day.  Creaks, pings, tings, and any other unwelcome noise signifies a possible mechanical problem.  Is there something broken?  Crap.

There's the failure the noises point out.  So, when I threw the directions for that new stem in the garbage and just installed it (what torque spec? This things ain't magnesium.) did I really need those specs?  Did I fall victim to my desire for expediency and screw something up?  Idiot... What about that cable routing, did I make one of them too short or too long, causing unnecessary movement back and forth in the cable stop, miniscule enough to appear insignificant and large enough to send a vibration ringing throughout the titanium frame?

It's just one more problem in the world that needs to be addressed. (cue the dramatic music)

I consciously worked on accepting the noise as merely that, a noise, and thought about how fortunate I was to be riding my bike to work on an absolutely beautiful late summer morning. I noticed the reflection of my newly re-installed TA Specialities Alize crankset (re-installed to see if it fixed the blasted tinging and also because it's nice) chain rings on the pavement and curb beside me.  The low morning sunlight filtered through the trees created a reasonable facsimile rotating along the ground next to me.

I raced my shadow...we'll call it a draw.

I remembered racing my eighth grade best friend down the big hill (seemed big at the time) near my house as we rode to school (cue idyllic photo montage music).  My books, faithfully strapped to the spring-loaded rack behind me, carried along with me to their destination on a brown Vista 10-speed bought from my uncle.  I put into practice what I learned from watching Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, and Cale Yarborough in that weekend's NASCAR race - before most people knew what NASCAR was (and before restrictor plates) by sitting behind my friend before shooting by as I gathered momentum in his wake.  Helmetless, my cheesy K-Mart mechanical speedometer needle pushed 40 (or maybe it was 30).  Whatever it was, it felt insanely fast. That hill sucked on the way home.

Soon enough, the noise faded in its importance.  It was still there, and probably will be off and on for a while.  I'll keep chasing it, maybe I'll find it and maybe it'll come back again later. I'm getting better at saying "whatever" to stuff like this.

The simple lesson I learned today?  Pursuing ideal solutions is fine, and it will make life easier if you're willing and able to accept the now with all its faults and imperfections.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Twitter, Events, Connections, and Value

Image from KK+ (thank you) 
When I say "value" I am not referring to its recent valuation estimate based upon private trading.

When twitter was launched in 2006 my immediate reaction was "this is stupid". (of course "stupid" ideas have often gone on to be unbelievably successful - and one person's stupid is another person's genius).

Then one of my classmates at BGI said, "I think you might like this" (he shall remain nameless), and there I went. I have to admit that my first use of it was more than likely as a distraction from class; reading news, talking trash, etc.  Those tweets are long gone (I think) so who knows what I did.

Fast-forward to 2012. I've continued to use twitter as a news feed, conversation portal, and as a way to interact with event attendees in professional and personal settings.

Here's what I've learned about twitter and events - use the conference hashtag (duh, right?)

Savvy event organizers provide a twitter hashtag on the event website, registration materials, and in obvious places around the venue to make it easy for attendees to interact and share their observations with the twittersphere.

I find this fascinating and of great value when I cannot attend an event that I am interested in - it's an easy and informal way to interact remotely.  From a professional perspective, it allows team members at the event to stay focused on greeting visitors face-to-face (nothing is more off-putting to a visitor than someone staffing a booth or table with their face buried in a mobile device) while another team member monitors the twitter stream and seeks to interact with attendees virtually to create initial relationships and invite them to their company space.

  • Choose your hashtag intentionally - short, memorable, and unique
  • Beware hashtag appropriation by "outsiders"
  • Depending upon the event (in my experience - a reflection of the community's adoption of the medium) the tweets may or may not be useful for interaction.  At some events they're dominated by advertising blasts 
  • Take a flyer and help coordinate an impromptu tweetup for those active twitter users at the event. You never know who'll you meet and what great connections you might make
  • Think about archiving the tweets from the event for later follow up / analysis
  • If the opportunity arises, project the twitter stream somewhere at the event to encourage engagement - I've seen this at multiple events and it can be quite fun
  • Set up keyword searches relevant to your business (or your goals for the event) and monitor them along with the event hashtag for people you might like to connect with 
Using twitter helped me connect with a number of people at a recent event - we shared the use of the medium, with that in common it was much easier to strike up a conversation. Who knows how many connections were made and/or reinforced among other attendees (is there a way to measure this?).  I planned to tweet anyway, to help spread ideas beyond the event's walls - I overlooked its effectiveness as a connector, and was pleasantly surprised by how it helped.

So - if you're thinking about jumping into he twitter fray - or you're a seasoned tweeter - how might you use it to connect in new ways?

In what ways has twitter surprised you?  Good?  Bad?  Neutral?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Unionize Facebook?

Image by highwaycharlie
With Facebook's IPO looming I find myself asking the question:

Why are Facebook users giving away their content and control of  personal information?

This information is what Facebook uses to make their money - it's the basis of their business model.  So, Facebook users (of which I am one) have decided that the service Facebook provides is worth providing information and content for free (and forfeiting control of that data).

Interesting.  Think about it.  What does that mean?

What if Facebook users decided to stop.  Is it conceivable that users could start charging for the data they provide?  Or, what if Facebook were unionized or became a cooperative, where the people that provide the content (users) are considered part of the business, and be fairly compensated for their data use (and/or pay to use the service).  Facebook provides a service that connects us in ways we never thought possible, but remember, Facebook's customers are the companies they sell advertising and data to, not the users.

So, what would happen if Facebook users unionized, for real?

Looks like someone thought about it a few years ago - doesn't appear much has happened.

More interesting to me is the emergence of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium - analysis and collective standardization of the new asset class of personal data.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Part 2: Social Impacts of the Circular Economy

In a previous post, I talked about my recent obsession the The Circular Economy.  I'm taking a look at the social implications of a fully or even partially implemented circular economy.  What could we expect for changes in the social sphere?

Changing - easily?
The first benefit would be...nothing.  What I mean is that, in a circular economy, while there will certainly be shifts in behavior and activity, there is no large-scale "call for change" that causes the everyday consumer to recoil, feel judged, and climb into their business as usual shell.  Someone buying a printer, an area rug, or a chair could buy that item without much of a thought to what to do with it at the end of life because there would be a system developed around end-of-life reuse that would make it simple and straightforward to do.  In fact, they would have to go out of their way to NOT have the item reused.  In other words, the social benefit we reap is lower resistance to the concept and faster adoption. (Yes, this is idealized - there would certainly transitional challenges - and it's good to think of what could be.)

Lower Unemployment
While this certainly has economic implications, reducing unemployment has far-reaching social impacts as well.  In a circular economy, regionally distributed remanufacturing and refurbishment hubs shift the overall costs associated with continued use from material to labor - specialized labor (essentially a renewable resource) at that.  These jobs are kept locally and regionally, reducing the social challenges that accompany unemployment like depression, separated families, atrophying work skills, ill-health, and feelings of isolation.  These all come with associated social costs as government an non-profits provide the services the unemployed need.   

Lessening the Affects of Income Inequality
I suppose one could argue whether this is a "good" or a "bad".  With a reuse and refurbish economy with a minimum amount of virgin materials used, consuming (in perhaps a new sense of the word - "using up") an item is a "good thing".  The item enters the reuse stream as something requiring disassembly, assessment, and remanufacturing to be sold again to another user.  So, the current linear system's relationahip between higher income, higher consumption and therefore higher resource use is flipped - no longer are the profligate spenders subjected to the judgment of their peers for being wasteful polluters.  Could this have an impact on the current debate over income inequality?  Maybe.  I won't pretend that this is a utopian solution to creating universal harmony between the classes.  I can imagine the creation of multiple, isolated circular economies where those with the most have the highest quality circular remanufacturing streams, those in the middle have the middle (if it exists) and those at the bottom have the least.  In fact, what we might call the  "circular economy" is already in practice in developing areas or where incomes are low and this it's done by necessity. 

Building Social Capital Where we Live  
When the housing bubble burst, contributing to the financial crisis and the economic downturn in 2008, our culture of mobility came to a screeching halt.  The ease with which we jumped from house to house "trading up" and an unemployment rate on the rise, pulling up stakes and moving for a new opportunity was not simple.  Despite the hand-wringing that comes when some sort of an "unsustainable" bubble burst, perhaps this is a good thing - we might start paying attention to where we are now, making improvements instead of seeing greener grass through every open gate.  It's possible that in a circular economy, with distributed local and regional remanufacturing and reuse centers we'll be reconnected with both the organizations and people with which we share space with.  The term "throwing away" could mean "throwing to the next town".  It's not a forgone conclusion, but the opportunities to recreate civic bonds that have been lost according to some (see Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone) will be more plentiful.

Connecting Communities of all Sorts 
One can imagine formal and informal value cycles emerging and self-organizing in business and personal communities, it's already happening through craigslist, freecycle, ebay, etsy, etc.   In the B2B space, it will be formalized and institutionalized, with large scale companies sealing procurement/value cycling agreements that span years and revolve around delivering the services/value needed, not the items themselves (think cloud computing).  What social impacts will this form of supply chain collaboration create?  At the individual/consumer level, people seek out their neighbors and/or regional organizations that can use their stuff and connect with like-minded individuals that may share other aspects to build community resilience and inter-dependency.

What's missing?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Part 1 - Creating the Circular Economy

What was this again?
In my last post about Cora, a new project I am enamored with using mobile technology to help solve our "waste" problem, I mentioned that one of the reasons I think what they're doing is so cool is because "They're helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy".

What is a Circular Economy?

When I say "circular economy", I'm referring to an economy modeled on natural systems where there is no waste - "waste" is an input for other processes.  Raw materials, once extracted from the earth, are continually circulated in the industrial system as industrial nutrients.  Products are designed to be disassembled and reused, or designed to be an input into another product at their end-of-life.  In the industrial ecosystem there are losses along the way (friction - tires, brake pads, band saw blades, etc.) and as part of this thinking those losses are digestible in Nature. Eventually, a material's industrial utility has ended.  At that point, as part of a circular economy, the material may be reintroduced into Nature without any harmful impact. Of course, energy is required to re-purpose industrial waste and/or transport it for its next use.  In an ideal scenario, this energy is derived from renewable sources - including harvesting the heat generated from the very processes the materials are used in. I'm drawing upon my memory of The Natural Step and Cradle to Cradle for this definition.

I wrote the comment "helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy" in passing, almost as a "no-brainer". Then, I read an article from Fast Company's co.exist design site mentioning the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's "Towards the Circular Economy" report prompting me to
 think intently about what it would take to make it happen.  The answer: a lot.

We think about resource use and flow linearly

We've created linear systems of resource flow; we pull something out of the ground, throw a lot of energy into it in the form of manufacturing, use it up and throw it back into the ground. We recycle, that's true, though looking at  mining company financial performance one might conclude that rates of raw material extraction continue to climb. You see, collectively, we generally believe that an item has a useful life and when we're done with it, it's value is minimal or zero - to the point where it is in our best interest to toss it away as valueless, and replace it. We're essentially making an economic decision based upon an item's utility under current social conventions and economic incentives. 

We require a shift in perceived value at an object's end-of-life   

When something is "used up" from an individual perspective - its value to someone else or another organization may be high.  As one of my reuse friends said, "We're so used to buying it instead of making it for ourselves that there's more [social] legitimacy in an item we purchase than if we make exactly the same thing for ourselves at home."  Developing a secondary economy of reuse and upcycling (as is already happening) will help drive change in economic policy to support reuse.  It's not the engineers, energy geeks, and cradle-to-cradle worshippers that see a circular economy as obvious, it's consumers, politicians, gen X, Y, Z, millennials, AARP members, football stars, prom queens, liberals, conservatives, communists, and capitalists -  all of which may be reusers and creative upcyclers

I focused on the physical/material portion of a circular economy in my earlier definition. There's much more to it.  Breaking it down, I see it in three levels (as with most "sustainability" frameworks or buzzwords its a triumvirate like "people, planet, profit", "triple bottom line", "triple top line", ESG, CSR, etc.) 
  • Socially - we meet and exchange goods and services with people we know (probably nearby) and in the process build and strengthen social connections and communities
  • Economically - the goods we exchange have economic value, and the longer those goods circulate in the "material world" the more value they provide for their users and society
  • Environmentally - large amounts of energy were used to create these items, by keeping them circulating, we're improving our EROI and preventing the introduction of indigestible post-human waste into the biosphere
Up next, the the social elements of the circular economy.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Using What Appears to be Useless

What the heck do you do with these?
I'm going to ask you to bear with me on something that is probably NOT remotely part of your consciousness - what the heck can you do with a few thousand used Wolfgang Puck coffee pod wrappers?

Yes, that is correct, coffee pod wrappers.

You know what I'm talking about.  It may not be coffee pod wrappers for you, maybe it's baby food jars, or those little cardboard thermal wrap things that come with certain brands of coffee, or used bicycle inner tubes, or used coffee bean bags, or the crinkly wrapping paper that comes with takeout, or something completely different.  Things you look at and say "what a waste...why are we sending thousands of these a year to a landfill".  Sure, some of these items may be recycled - hopefully lots of them are - and there are things that cannot be recycled, and/or might have more value if they were kept in the material world and not broken back down and remade into something completely different.  After all, "recycling" (which is really downcycling at times as an item is make into something of lesser value) requires energy of some sort right?

OK, you may not be obsessing about this kind of stuff, but when you stop and think about it for a few minutes does it really make sense to bury something in the ground after we've invested who knows how much energy to pull it out of the ground and make it into something useful?

What to do?  There are services like freecycle and craigslist to connect people with used stuff with people that want the used stuff (I successfully passed along ~200 CD jewel cases a few years ago to a library) and a continually developing collaborative consumption and person-to-person ecosystem that might be considered and outgrowth of the ever present DIY, voluntary and involuntary simplicity, and reuse/upcycle community.

I recently learned about a project I'm excited about (and helping to spread the word about them)
seeking to connect the dots in all these communities - they're building a mobile app built on top of a curated database that will make it easy to find out what to do with the thirty empty bags of dog food in your garage or the empty 5 gallon buckets from your latest home improvement project.
It's called Cora - Trash Backwards.

Why I like it?
  • As much as mobile devices are contributing to our waste problem, they're not going anywhere anytime soon so we might as well leverage them to help solve the problem they contribute to
  • The Cora message is about the positive and creative things we can do with these items, and the personal connections made when we creatively reuse - not hand-wringing, guilt-ridden pleas to "save the planet" (though that's the ultimate goal, right?)
  • They're helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy.  We're now skewed toward a linear/transactional economy
  • I'm fascinated (and sometimes flummoxed) by the intersection of internet technology/communication and old-fashioned DIY/build it yourself culture in the real world
So head on over to their Kickstarter page (kickstarter is a clearinghouse for creative projects looking for financial help to get off the ground) check them out, make a small investment and soon you'll be able to creatively reuse the stuff you're not sure what to do with.  You can get a sneak peek of how their app works here.