May 24, 2008

Better Get Efficient...and Fast

[Posted at Huffington here]

It's pretty clear that the business world is facing dramatic change driven by environmental concerns. Over the coming years and decades, we're going to change the entire energy system and find new ways to design, make, ship, sell, and consume things. While it's uncertain if quality of life will suffer (and I hope not), the quantity of resources used will change dramatically - e.g., using a lot less energy, or at least carbon-driven energy, to power our lives.

And this change is becoming a business imperative regardless of whether you buy the climate change argument (and I really don't want to open that can of worms from my last post ). Just looking at the high price of everything from metals to food to fuels, the case for being radically more resource efficient is getting clearer every day. What's also clear is that the world can't currently provide for what will be nine or ten billion people who all want our lifestyle (the government of China has set a goal of moving half its population into the middle class by 2020 - that's 600 million people; if they all use oil at our rate, China alone will need more than the world produces by 2030 or so). At current technologies and modes of production, there isn't enough stuff. So there's a business need and a system overload requirement that we innovate and do more with less.

But don't just take my word for it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a stunning article recently that I've been mulling over for awhile and needed to get my head around. It was titled, "New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears." The shocking part of this article was the fact that it didn't malign the idea that we may run out of things, which Milton Friedman-esque business people have been laughing at for 200 years (since Thomas Malthus first drew an exponential population chart plotted against a geometric resource growth chart and said we'd all starve). Yes, those doomsayers have been very wrong in critical ways, mainly related to our ability to innovate and substitute out of products when we found new options (like from whale oil to kerosene to oil).

But the Journal was deadly serious, talking about resources like water that we can't substitute our way out of. The related point was that there's really nothing left to substitute to -- we know where pretty much everything is. Two quotes were fascinating: "Record highs in the prices for oil, wheat, copper...are signs of a lasting shift in demand as yet unmatched by supply". The "as yet" is a big qualifier, but it feels a bit like wishful thinking, especially given the second quote from ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva: "I don't think we are going to see the [oil] supply going over 100 million barrels a day, and the reason is: Where is all that going to come from?" So even the oil CEOs are telling us there's not enough stuff.

So what does this mean for business and how is it connected to the green movement? First, rising prices for nearly everything mean we're entering the big leagues. Whether you call it "green" or "eco-efficiency" doesn't matter; either way, all the efficiency tools we have - such as total quality, lean manufacturing, six sigma - are going to be put to the test. If your company has a knack for cutting out waste and reducing resource use, it will survive and thrive. If you can't reduce your reliance on fossil fuels in your whole value chain - from sourcing to manufacturing to distribution - you may be in trouble.

Second, if you can offer a new "supply" to help bolster that side of the Econ 101 curves, you will have a giant market to satisfy (those billions of consumers). And I'm talking about smart supply growth, not the corn ethanol kind that actually exacerbates all of our problems. I'm talking new low-carbon energy, water saving technologies and processes, good design principles, building efficiency, and on and on.

The mad race for renewable energy technologies and the dramatic shift in car offerings are good examples. The venture capital money flowing to new technologies easily recalls the Internet boom. But is this one a bubble? It might be, but these entrepreneurs are working to satisfy existing multi-trillion dollar energy and resource markets, not trying to create new markets or needs. So money from the biggest, smartest names in Silicon Valley is flowing freely. This is a very good thing. There will be a shakeout, but some winners will win big.

As demand for resources outstrips supply, the Journal worried, what if countries just try to grab what's left in a big resource fight? Companies might go down a biggest is best path as well. But won't the best companies profit much more if they just find a way to need less? And won't the competitors that help their customers use less do extremely well?

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