Responsible production

Responsible businesses already recognise that an extractive, ‘Take-Make-Waste’ approach to production is reckless and unsustainable, and that circular, ‘closed loop’ strategies which seek to reuse, recover and recycle resources are the way forward. But this more holistic viewpoint needs to expand further if companies want to be truly sustainable and avoid any unintended consequences.

They must understand how businesses are rooted in and dependent upon wider social and ecological systems, whose resilience should be the ultimate aim of any sustainability strategy. These ideas of systems thinking and resilience-based stewardship offer exciting new ways of understanding sustainability and the power businesses have to work with others to bring about change far beyond just their operations.

Our research at the Centre recommends the following first steps for businesses wanting to begin or continue their journey in this area:

Image: Product life cycle responsibility: Own your own products' impacts, from raw materials to disposal, Net Zero Strategy: Measure and mitigate carbon emissions across entire value chain, Social Resilience Building: Pay fair taxes and wages and help enhance the natural environment, Partnership working: Work with others to tackle big, systemic issues.

You’ll find the practical tools, resources and rationale for how to do these things below, together with many more research-based ideas and inspiring case studies on this fundamental part of responsible business.

Research and ideas 



‘Biomimicry’ is the idea of using nature’s designs and processes to solve human problems, which stretches back to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘flying machine’ that he based on the structure of bats’ wings. More recently, the idea has been popularized by the scientist and natural history writer Janine Benyus, who sees it as the key to unlocking sustainability. “Life’s technologies tend to be elegant,” she says. “They sip energy, they shave material use, they really avoid toxins – they’re all the things we’re looking for these days.” Benyus describes biomimicry as like “tapping into an R&D lab that you could never afford and that has been going on for 3.8 billion years”, and argues that “when the forest and the city are functionally indistinguishable, then we know we’ve reached sustainability”.

It’s a concept that the US carpet firm Interface is pioneering with its ambition to create a ‘factory as a forest’. Working with Benyus’s consultancy firm, Biomimicry 3.8, Interface has reimagined its factory at LaGrange in Georgia as behaving like a high-performing forest that provides an array of ecosystem services, such as recycling nutrients, carbon sequestration and water storage. So Interface has devised a range of ecological performance standards based on a healthy, local forest ecosystem, which it will use to measure the factory’s contribution to the soil, atmosphere, biodiversity, water and carbon levels. The metrics have helped drive innovations, like creating carpet tiles that sequester carbon, returning more fresh water to the water table than used in manufacturing, and reducing levels of water runoff from the site. It has also encouraged the factory to reach out to nearby businesses and act as a ‘pollinator’ of best environmental practice locally as well as in its own factories worldwide, transforming the business ecosystem further afield.

The metaphor of an ecosystem and using the natural sciences to understand how to work more sustainably compels businesses to reidentify themselves in intriguing ways. What ecological role does a company play in this business ecosystem, for instance? Is it an extractor, concentrator, recycler or disperser of nutrients? Does it pollinate and create new life, or help consume and break down waste material? Is it large enough to act like a keystone species that impacts the health of the whole ecosystem? Or is it one of the many smaller organisms that performs essential routine tasks?

More and more scientists are recognizing how important biodiversity is to maintaining a stable and healthily performing ecosystem because of the unique abilities each ecological community has to respond to a disturbance. This ‘response diversity’, as it’s called, is equally important for the resilience and high performance of a business ecosystem. Yet how much does the current profit-maximization culture encourage a diverse range of businesses and business models? Is our business ecosystem becoming overwhelmed by a eutrophication of nutrient-hungry corporates that are choking the oxygen from other smaller firms? Is the exponential growth demanded by so many companies causing desertification of the business ecosystem to the detriment of everyone?

Circularity and closed loop working

For a responsible business, there are numerous benefits to abandoning any linear ‘make-take-waste’ processes in their operations and reimagining their products as part of a circular value chain that is closer to the regenerative cycle of nature. With no waste, just the indefinite reusing and recycling of resources, the financial savings and reduced environmental impacts are potentially enormous. Such a ‘closed-loop’ process encompasses every stage of a product’s life cycle, from raw material extraction and energy use during manufacture to sales and distribution and after-sale use, looking to eliminate waste and pollution at every stage.

Explaining the circular economy

More and more businesses are turning to circular economies like this, not just because they are more sustainable and share the same regenerative characteristics as natural ecosystems, but because they are cost-effective. Waste costs, and costs a lot. It’s just that this cost is usually hidden in accounts or temporarily externalized by ignoring or outsourcing it, where it lurks in the shadows to bounce back on the business. But with circular solutions, a business needs to know where costly waste and pollution is at every stage of a product’s life cycle. Owning every part of the value chain certainly helps, and many of the world’s largest corporations – such as Samsung and Sony – have taken this approach for the financial benefits of economies of scale, as well as to control quality and ensure security of supply. But for the vast majority of businesses, closing the loop requires working with others at different stages of the process – at very local and supranational levels and in very different ways.

For instance, the electric vehicle (EV) industry has many circular economy challenges, but one key part is for the millions of used batteries it will generate once they’ve declined to 80% capacity after 8-10 years of use. Most have potential second-life applications as energy storage in housing or the national grid, for example. But currently, many retailers, local authorities and other key stakeholders in the EV industry don’t know about this and aren’t collaborating with EV manufacturers to provide more options for reuse and recycling of batteries.

To ‘close this loop’ and end silo-thinking in the sector, the UK government could help incentivise or compel the recycling or reuse of EV batteries through legislation – something already being planned as part of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan to make all products easier to repair and less wasteful. Billions of public money is also already being invested in a new Battery Industrialisation Centre in Warwickshire, which could form the hub of a large-scale advanced battery ecosystem in the UK.

Such collaboration and cross-sector partnerships with other businesses, organisations and public sector bodies are essential for a circular economy to work. They provide the knowledge, skills and capacity to help responsible businesses ‘close the loop’ between their individual operations and the wider social and environmental systems they depend on and need to protect. These collective activities might be harder for companies to direct and measure than their own in-house operations, but there can be no effective strategy for a business’ sustainability that doesn’t also support the resilience of wider society and the environment.

Complex adaptive systems

More recent academic thinking sees the world as a complex socio-ecological system, where the health of society (people) and the natural world (planet) are the most important and decisive factors, on which all human activity is dependent – including profit-pursuing business. This idea is most powerfully illustrated by the ‘Doughnut Economics’ model that was developed by Oxford economist Kate Raworth for Oxfam in 2012. It depicts a sustainable economy as like a ring doughnut, existing between a social foundation and an ecological ceiling, whereby the needs of people at the centre of the doughnut have to be serviced without overshooting the Earth’s resources that surround and sustain them. In this context, all business activity operates in constant tension between social need and ecological capacity.

Diagram: A doughnut economics image illustrating how external environmental factors like pollution interact with social foundations such as clean water, health and education.

It might seem blindingly obvious that business and profit are materially rooted in and systemically dependent on people and the planet, but this socio-ecological framing helps debunk the prevailing order that business is somehow separate or more important. And even if you’re one of the many responsible businesses that are already well aware of this fact, the latest thinking in this field (called ‘complex adaptive systems theory’, or CAS) takes this reframing further and fundamentally challenges what a business’s strategic approach to sustainability should be.

CAS theory suggests this socio-ecological system is made up of an interconnected web of different systems – be they natural, social, cultural or economic – that relate to each other in complex, non-linear and dynamic ways. So complicated and cumulative are these relationships that it becomes almost impossible to scientifically prove the impacts of any one part on the overall socio-ecological system. Thus when a systemic disaster strikes, it’s easy for individuals to pass responsibility, claiming ‘it wasn’t me’ because other people were to blame too. (A vivid example of this phenomenon was the 1952 Great Smog of London, where nobody and everybody was partially responsible for the death of up to 12,000 people.)

However, CAS theorists suggest that the flipside of this systemic complexity and volatility is that the effects of any individual can also be remarkably powerful too – which should be hugely encouraging to responsible businesses doubtful of what impact their individual efforts can make. Who knows how many catastrophic ecological tipping points have been narrowly avoided by the responsible actions of just one person? Equally, how many social and economic recoveries have been sparked by the influence and investment of one business? The most important thing is for businesses to try to understand how these various systems operate and interact so they can recognize what agency and impacts they have (or could have) on the resilience of society and the natural world.

Resilience-based stewardship

Researchers in the field of complex adaptive systems (see above) argue that sustainability needs to be subtly reframed as supporting socio-ecological resilience – or ‘resilience-based stewardship’, as they call it. In practice, this would encourage responsible businesses to look beyond the impacts of just their operations and take an active role in the preservation and enhancement of the wider social and ecological systems their operations are dependent on. So rather than Unilever just looking to improve the sustainability of the palm oil it sources from somewhere like Borneo, it has worked with other national and international groups, governments and agencies to prevent the wider degradation of regional and global ecosystems and alleviate the underlying social issues that damage the longer-term resilience of Borneo. (It’s interesting to consider if Unilever not buying palm oil from Borneo at all would actually help or hinder the country’s sustainability, such is the complexity of systemic dependencies.)

As well as providing a more holistic and systemic approach to sustainability, resilience-building offers a better strategy for a business’s long-term profitability and sustainable growth too. We know the mortality rate for businesses is very high – barely half survive more than five years and less than a quarter more than 15 – suggesting most companies lack resilience. But innovating and investing in any of the 17 Global Goals will help build overall resilience and produce returns far beyond their initial targets. As the former IBM executive and sustainability expert Bob Willard explains, the Global Goals “define the end state for a resilient and sustainable environment that supports a resilient and just society, that fosters a resilient and inclusive economy. There is $12 trillion in potential economic growth linked to achieving the [Global Goals]. It’s in the self-interest of companies to contribute to them.”

What Willard describes is both the ‘social boomerang effect’ and multiplier effect that investing in socio-ecological resilience has on the resilience of business, whereby any contribution by the business is returned many times over in the long run. Lessening inequality and poverty, for example, increases the potential market and consumer base for a business’s products. While better education makes for a more productive workforce, and cheaper and cleaner energy increases profitability. The interconnectedness of each of the Global Goals means they all contribute to the overall resilience of society to the mutual benefit of everyone – including businesses. So despite the sometimes daunting complexity of tackling any systemic problem, the rewards are often systemic, complex and many too.


Tools and resources

Doughnut Economics

Find out more about circular economics and systems thinking using Kate Raworth’s ingenious model.

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Doughnut Economics

Greenhouse Gas Protocol

Learn how to do full-scope carbon accounting using a wealth of greenhouse gas calculation tools from the organisation that promotes the gold standard in the field.

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Greenhouse Gas Protocol

Net zero carbon models and accounting

The diagram below outlines four different net zero strategies and their likely impact on climate systems: partial annual zero emissions from now (PAZE); total annual zero emissions from now (TAZE); historic offset zero emissions (HOZE); and historic offset and projected emissions (HOPE). If all businesses choose a TAZE strategy, which follows a common definition of net zero and is better than PAZE, this will only stabilize the bad situation the planet is currently in, not solve it or reduce GHG levels in the atmosphere. Actually making things better will require HOZE or HOPE strategies that take into account past emissions and even offset for estimated future emissions in the case of the latter.

Net Zero models: Reducing Carbon Emissions and Liability- Historical Offset Zero Emissions, Reducing Carbon Emissions Future and Past: Historical Offset and Projected Emissions, Increasing Carbon Emissions and Liability: Partial Annual Zero Emissions, Stabilising Carbon Emissions and Liability: Total Annual Zero Emissions

None of this should be seen as knocking net zero as an ambition or aspiration, which is essential for addressing catastrophic climate change. But for many carbon-concerned businesses, net zero will be far too low a barrier. Most should have no problem being fully accountable for their historic carbon emissions and those associated with the entire life cycle of their products (what’s called ‘full-scope’ carbon accounting). Not only is it the responsible thing to do, it will also future-proof the business against the likely introduction of carbon rationing and more stringent attitudes about what’s socially acceptable. Narrowly defined net zero benchmarks won’t be enough to differentiate a responsible business making real reductions to the cumulative carbon in our atmosphere from those just passing the buck.

Moreover, an in-depth report by the Centre for Responsible Business into current carbon accounting methods in the UK shows a worrying mismatch between the most commonly used measures of carbon and their true impacts. It risks many businesses making bogus net-zero claims, missing opportunities and giving false positives when it comes to identifying truly effective ways of decarbonising their operations. Under the current international carbon accounting standards used to calculate carbon neutrality, emissions from supply chains, after-sale product use and waste aren’t included for businesses and nature-based solutions are often ignored altogether. As a result:

  • Supermarkets selling food from UK farms risk having higher reported carbon emissions than those that import all their products from abroad.
  • Schemes that encourage staff to walk and cycle to work may add to a UK business’ reported carbon emissions.
  • Projects to recycle and reuse won’t register as carbon-saving at all.


Responsible production case studies

The pioneering global corporate: Interface

  • The US-based international carpet tile manufacturer – whose European HQ is in Birmingham, UK – has been a world-leader in sustainable business practice since 1994 and is now aiming to reverse global warming.
  • In 1994, its pioneering late president, Ray Anderson, set the company the ‘Mission Zero’ challenge of taking nothing and doing no harm by 2020, which it achieved a year early.
  • Starting with cuts to the petroleum used in its carpet tiles, Interface went on to become carbon neutral across its operations, reclaiming and recycling old tiles, and reducing waste and water consumption by 90%.
  • In 2017, Interface developed the world’s first carbon negative carpet tile that absorbs greenhouse gas. It’s part of a broader experiment with ‘biomimicry’ to create a ‘Factory as Forest’ in Atlanta that provides the same natural services as a healthy woodland ecosystem.
  • Now its ‘Climate Take Back’ initiative aims to give back more than the company takes from the Earth, restoring and making a positive impact on the planet to help reverse global warming.

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Interface concept designers

The ocean stewardship initiative targeting systemic change: SeaBOS

  • The Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative was set up in 2016 and coordinated by the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.
  • SeaBOS aims to try and transform global seafood production and make it more sustainable, protecting the long-term health of the oceans.
  • The initiative connects ‘keystone actors’ in the global seafood system such as marine scientists, seafood companies, fisheries and those in aquaculture.
  • These keystone actors work together to tackle problems such as forced labour, marine plastics and overfishing by creating and lobbying for systemic measures like supranational regulation and traceability technologies.
  • It simultaneously seeks to address seven of the Global Goals, including life below water (Global Goal 14), decent work and economic growth (Global Goal 8) and responsible production and consumption (Global Goal 12).

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The Brazilian sugar producer with healthy soil as a KPI: Native

  • Native’s CEO, Leontino Balbo Jr, started turning his family’s sugar cane plantations into an organic, self-sustaining business in 1987.
  • Recognising its dependency on healthy soil, the firm banned chemical fertilisers, pesticides and burning and introduced practices that would work with nature and the local ecosystem’s services.
  • Native worked with scientists from universities and research institutions to identify natural indicators of soil health that it uses as key performance indicators for the business and its impact.
  • Over 20 years, the plantations’ soil fertility has improved markedly, groundwater sources have regenerated and biodiversity has ‘exploded’ – with crop yields also up by 20%.
  • By improving the resilience of the soil, the sugar cane has also become more resilient to pests and changing climate, surviving more harvests than conventionally-farmed cane.

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The megafactory that became a nature reserve: Toyota UK

  • The 58,000-acre car plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, became a ‘Site of Biological Importance’ in 2007.
  • Working with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, the firm’s employees and contractors help protect and enhance the plants and animals that recolonised the site.
  • A specially-created Biodiversity Action Plan has identified several species of conservation concern and five priority habitats, particularly around three man-made balancing lakes.
  • The site is now part of a scheme to reintroduce ospreys to the Trent Valley, with staff helping design, build and erect nesting platforms.
  • Burnaston is one of five factories worldwide to be designated a ‘Sustainable Plant’ by Toyota, which aims to minimise their impact on the environment.

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How Gap’s work on water resilience is liberating women in India

  • The US clothing company helped set up the Women + Water Alliance with USAID and other charities to improve access to water and women’s status in rural India.
  • Recognising its dependency on both water and women to grow cotton and manufacture fabric, Gap quickly realised the two were interconnected and helping one would benefit the other.
  • 70% of Gap’s value chain in India is reliant on women, who often have to walk for hours to collect water. By training these women to be water champions in their communities, the Alliance has helped one million people have better access to water.
  • Gap’s female employees and suppliers now have more time for work and education to help break out of the poverty cycle.

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