A Conversation With Asheen Phansey, Sustainability Evangelist

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APhansey-Post.jpg An employee at SolidWorks, Asheen Phansey helps his clients to make smart, sustainable choices when they're developing new products. An expert on biomimicry (nature-inspired design) and green marketing, Phansey is uniquely suited to the task. That's something he knew even before joining the team at SolidWorks, though: He's traveled the world to guest-lecture for the Principles of Sustainability class at the Presidio School of Management and others; launched the Quaking Aspen consultancy; and is a member of the faculty of Babson College, where he teaches a Sustainable Entrepreneurship Inspired by Nature course for MBA students.

Here, Phansey discusses how there's no such thing as a completely green material or product or process; Hunter Lovins, the author that first laid out a compelling case for "doing well by doing good"; and why there is a deep complexity to sustainability that can't be simplified without careful and transparent efforts.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

Generally, the short answer I normally tell people is that my job is to save the world. If you want the long answer, though, I help guide people that make the world's products toward a more sustainable path. My company's customers design, manufacture, and sell millions of the objects we see on store shelves every day, so there is an enormous amount of environmental impact that we can influence. It's an opportunity to fundamentally reduce our footprint on the Earth by designing out impacts from product inception; it's my job is to direct this initiative.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

There is quite a revolution going on in sustainable design. The idea of democratizing the practice of environmental life cycle assessment is changing the way people think about sustainability. Life cycle assessment, or LCA, is an objective, scientific method of systematically measuring the environmental impacts of a product or activity. However, full-scale LCAs are very costly and time-consuming, taking on average three months and $30,000 per product analyzed. The real revolution is that tools are being created for us non-LCA-experts, empowering every designer and engineer to embrace systems thinking and consider the life cycle impacts of their product designs. This will change the way products are made.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

People assume that there is always a right answer when it comes to sustainability. Paper or plastic, steel or aluminum? Fast-growing bamboo shipped from Asia, or reforested oak harvested locally? It all depends on how you do the comparison and what metrics you use. This is really surprising for people. People often ask, why isn't there a simple "green index"? First, we would have to agree on the stages of the product being measured and which ones are beyond the system boundary, and then we'd have to all agree on which environmental impacts to care about and their relative importance or weights. No universally accepted standard exists to help answer those questions. There is a deep complexity to sustainability that can't be simplified without careful (and transparent) efforts.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Measuring toxicity. No one really understands how to measure it broadly. Right now, a very small percentage of new materials and products are being measured for human- and eco-toxicity. As toxicity models become stronger and easier to understand, we may all have to go back to the drawing board with the materials we've been using. The status quo around most of the world is that if you can't prove a material is harmful, go ahead and keep using it -- but that attitude is slowly reversing.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Pursuing only sustainability practices that will cut costs, and ignoring those that cost money in the short term. Sustainable practices often reduce material and energy costs, but sometimes, attempting only to squeeze costs out of our designs means missing the creative and innovative elements. Sustainability is about investing in a better world. It's an investment that yields long-term benefits -- social, environmental, and financial benefits -- as long as we define the "R" in "ROI" (return on investment) the right way.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Material whitelists and blacklists, or simple lists to hand to designers regarding which materials they should or shouldn't use. I used to think we should provide such lists, but later realized we'd be doing a disservice by breaking it down like this. For example, PVC is a material that would end up on most material blacklists, and it might really be a poor choice in a disposable product. However, if PVC is used in a long-term application -- say, a building, or a buried pipe -- it will remain very stable, lasting several times longer than many "cleaner" plastics, and in many cases proving a more environmental choice than a material that would have to be dug up and replaced often. Sustainability is relative, so absolute lists can lead you down the wrong path. There is no such thing as a completely green material (or process or product), but there are greener materials.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Near to mind and heart right now is Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of the carpet company Interface, Inc. He was one of the first business leaders to embrace sustainability as a core business vision and value system. He put together a "dream team" of sustainability visionaries and remade his entire company with sustainability as its main driver. Sadly, he recently passed away. I highly recommend his humble narrative, Mid-Course Correction.

Another person I would definitely put into a sustainability Hall of Fame is Hunter Lovins, co-author of Natural Capitalism. Through this book, she and her co-authors were one of the first to lay out clear and compelling case studies proving the business value of sustainability -- the idea of "doing well by doing good" that we in the sustainability industry take as a given now.

The last organization I might include would be the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). EDF is an environmental non-profit that favors market solutions to environmental challenges. For example, EDF invented the concept of emissions cap and trade, and successfully employed this approach to drastically reduce acid rain caused by sulfur dioxide at a fraction of the cost that the EPA had projected. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce climate-altering greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, was based on the EDF's cap-and-trade model. EDF has a long history of other environmental wins, such as removing lead from gasoline and eliminating the ubiquitous polystyrene clamshell used by the fast food industry.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I worked in the biotechnology and aerospace industries before becoming a sustainability professional. Working in high-tech, I learned all about the innovation process, which was crucial experience for helping to develop tools for sustainable innovation now.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I use a "to do list" app called ToodleDo. I know it sounds funny, but it's a great because it's on iPad, iPhone, Outlook, and the Web; it captures the zillions of things I'm doing every day. Similar story with Evernote, which I use to take all my notes. I also use TweetDeck pretty heavily -- I get nearly all of my sustainability news from Twitter feeds. I check websites like Environmental Leader and GreenBiz for the in-depth coverage.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Disturbed's cover of the Genesis song "Land of Confusion." I can't resist a hard rock ballad with a motivating message to make me stop complaining about the state of the world and start doing something about it.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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