the zeronaut: where others fear to tread

Less is more, it seems, more and more these days. We aspire to zero, whether that’s in carbon or waste or any other usage of a resource. Zero waste as a term only really penetrated popular thinking within the sustainability arena a few years ago, but already indications are pointing to the prospect of its disposal. Already questions are being asked about what lies beyond it.

So enter the zeronaut. A new breed of innovator, determined to break the sustainability barrier and leave invisible footprints behind. They are an eclectic bunch – radical industrialists, independent thinkers, blue chip CEOs, mad inventors – but they all deal in number crunching of the highest order.

Instead of balancing social and environmental interests with business interests, or relegating sustainability to the CSR department, these zeronauts are using zero as a focal point to re-imagine models altogether. Whether this is in waste, energy, pollution, poverty, pandemics or population growth, zero gives permission to start implementing some extreme methodology to accelerate environmental change.

The person leading this agenda is John Elkington, a respected authority on CSR, who has identified three possible scenarios in the near future: breakdown, change-as-usual, and breakthrough. The idea of zero could be a breakthrough. According to Elkington, a five-stage model was introduced to implement zero targets, consisting of a ‘Eureka moment’, experimentation, enterprise, (industrial) ecosystems and economy.

Essentially, it is about rebuilding the status quo and transforming it into a ‘future quo’. Elkington argues that status quo capitalism lacks imagination and ambition. That there is a design fault within it and also those factors linked to it such as mindset, behaviour, culture, economics and technology.

His approach is a game changing, experimental one. Where zeronauts will succeed in achieving large-scale sustainability improvements, he argues, is where there is a market price signalling scarcity. So if consumers face higher prices for water and electricity, this should stimulate entrepreneurial activity centred on economising those resources.

His ideas may be pushing at the boundaries, but at the same time they are a loftier continuation of previous ambition. Arguably the prototype zeronaut was Ray Anderson, founder of Interface. His quest for Mission Zero – a goal right from the outset to eliminate all of the company’s negative impacts on the environment – forged an entirely new business model and is yet to be surpassed.

The genius of Anderson was not just to work towards zero, but use that mandate as a source of innovation. He was once quoted as saying: “Zero footprint … has been the most powerfully motivating initiative I have ever seen in 55 years of business.”

Sadly Anderson lost his battle with cancer last year, but his mission lives on – not just within Interface but in the hearts and minds of all those sustainability champions he inspired. Lets see if they can collectively push a step further and go where no-one else has gone before.

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