Could a large-scale industrial factory actually be designed to be good for the environment and for the ecosystem that surrounds it? And could that, in turn, generate long-term economic value for the population of people connected to that factory? Author and global bioengineering guru Janine Benyus doesn’t just believe it’s possible—she’s partnering with the world’s biggest carpet tile manufacturer to set the example to follow.
Atlanta-based Interface is already on track to hit zero-waste status by 2020, thanks to decades of sustainability initiatives, such as operating four of seven factories with 100 percent renewable energy and using simulation technology to replace physical carpet samples. The next step, which Benyus and Interface are plotting, is a project they call “Factory as a Forest,” which entails remaking one of Interface’s 10 factories, in New South Wales, Australia, using the local ecosystem as the new foundation.
This isn’t just the next flavor of the month in corporate social responsibility. Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, helps clients such as Nike tap into biology and planetary science as a new source of tech innovation. For example, her consultancy studied how nature captures fog and wicks moisture to help an aircraft manufacturer reduce moisture and the spread of germs within an airplane cabin. With Interface, she and her team are helping define the region’s specific “ecosystem services” —how much water it stores, how much carbon it sequesters, how many pollinators it supports. Interface, in turn, will use those guidelines to ensure that the ecological “output” of the new factory operates in the black, not the red.
We asked Benyus to explain in greater detail how this concept can work, and for her thoughts on a tech-enabled future.
What excites you about where technology is taking humankind?
I’m excited by the fact that we are probably the first generation to actually be able to gather biological intelligence and distribute it to the people because of the Internet. Our understanding of how nature works is just increasing exponentially. Now we have a way to gather it and to actually make it available to people. Our experiment is AskNature.org to try to get that biological intelligence out. That’s exciting to me—understanding how nature works, and then possibly being able to emulate it.
What scares you about where we’re headed with technology?
What scares me is that we might actually believe that we truly can create life before we fully understand its complexity. I’m very much a believer in the precautionary principle when it comes to creating life forms—synthetic biology. What worries me is getting ahead of ourselves. I think we should emulate many things, but I don’t think we should emulate self-reproducing organisms until we understand a lot more of what we’re doing.
Companies that preach sustainability often focus on mitigating damage. How does the “Factory as a Forest” concept flip this around?
The next evolution of “do no harm” is to produce beneficial services.
- The way local ecosystems actually function,
- the way you know they’re healthy, is that they’re producing services that are beneficial to us as human beings and to all life.
- They’re cleaning water.
- They’re cleaning air.
- They’re building soil.
- They’re supporting biodiversity and pollinators.
- They’re holding sediments during flooding.
- They’re mitigating climate change.
- They’re protecting against pests.
- Even providing food and fiber, and cultural experiences like recreation and inspiration.
We thought this would be an amazing framework for the next aspirational goal for Interface—once they had reached do no harm, to actually become a generous company, in the fact that their facilities were functionally indistinguishable from local ecosystems, meaning that they actually performed like the ecosystem next door, meaning they would meet the same metrics that the system next door would.
How do you get from studying an ecosystem to recreating its benefits in a factory?
At Biomimicry 3.8 [Benyus’ biomimicry innovation consulting firm] we’ve been working with city planners for several years now, working to figure out how a city could produce ecosystem services, giving city managers these kinds of metrics—purify this much water, purify this much air, store this much water, store this much carbon. We call them ecological performance standards. When you have those metrics, they become an organizing framework to cumulatively gather what are now fragmented technologies and put them together and then start to count what it is they produce.
Before, [Interface CEO Ray Anderson] set metrics for reducing energy use, reducing waste. Now what we’re doing is saying, “What positive effects can we start to count up?” Once you have an aspirational goal like this, and you have numbers, you begin to gather collections of design changes. For instance, we can go next door and look at relatively untouched areas and figure out how much water they purify and store per hectare. Then you say, “OK, we can start to meet or exceed that metric in different ways.
- We can change our water use.
- We can purify the water from the manufacturing process even more than we have before.
- We can use constructed wetlands. We can store water with rainwater harvesting.”
How will quantifying nature’s benefits change how the factory operates?
What we’re doing now is basically understanding the habitat type. We look at the system and what makes it tick. We look at the ecological realities of that river flat eucalypt forest [the ecosystem where the factory is located]. Which ecosystem services are most important to this company in terms of its business model and what it has to accomplish as a business, and then how can we reduce risk and make the site more resilient?
For instance, if you were to increase carbon storage on site, you were to increase the fertility of soils and the cycling of nutrients in the soils, and slow water and sink it and store it, the landscaping would be more resistant to drought. You want to store more carbon or more water, so you want permeable pavement wherever you possibly can, changing the parking lots. You may incent your employees to commute and not bring their cars to the factory.
How can the concept of a factory that produces these ecosystem services change our human relationship to manufacturing?
Nobody wants it in their neighborhood. In fact, there’s a social justice component of this, because poor people have tended to live closer to the chain-link fence with the factory on the other side, right? Now what we’re saying is how can development, or manufacturing facilities, actually be welcome neighbors in a neighborhood? That’s a radical thought.
If you think about the factory as having a metabolism, the exhale—the outcome of a factory has been pretty nasty pollution—air, water, and soil pollution. Does it have to be like that? This is an idea of re-envisioning what it might be if a factory actually released water cleaner than what came into it or released air cleaner than what came into it.
I expect that there will be cascading benefits, and that the benefits will be—to the business, it’ll be healthier employees, lower healthcare costs, more happiness, more productivity, the ability to recruit and retain. Then also for the company, it’s reduced risk in terms of liabilities and regulators. You’re suddenly producing cleaner air. You’re not wrangling with regulators.
You’ve said that “heat, beat, and treat”—heating up materials, beating them with high pressure, and treating them with chemicals—is the de facto slogan for our current industrial age. What should be the slogan for the next era in manufacturing?
I think manufacturing will be local, safe, and cyclical. I’m doing a lot of work as to how nature’s models can help 3D printing or additive manufacturing. I actually think manufacturing’s coming home. I think manufacturing is going to be coming into neighborhoods in the form of print centers.
This is a really key moment for biomimetic chemistry inside the printer, biomimetic designs of adding function to very common raw materials. [Nature uses non-toxic building materials like keratin and chitin to create forms, while 3D printers currently rely on toxic plastics and resins.] That’s what nature does. It doesn’t use very elaborate materials. It has very good designs that make it tough and strong and resilient. And then, of course, nature is able to easily disassemble at the end of its life and be reassembled into new product. These are all things manufacturing needs.
That’s very different than what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about an industrial process, where you wear hard hats and eye guards. We’re a long way to go before it’s local raw material, safely produced, and then recycled at the end of its life—put back into the printer, if you will, as the raw materials for the next product. We’ve got a long way to go.