A Conversation With Asheen Phansey, Sustainability Evangelist

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.

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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