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Factor 10 and Sustainable Business
Gil Friend, 6 Mar 05

Gil Friend is a systems ecologist and business strategist, and is the CEO of Natural Logic, an environmentally-focused strategy, design and management consultancy. He writes a regular blog on issues of business and the environment. Gil has agreed to write occasional essays on sustainable business for our Sustainability Sunday feature, and we are happy to add his voice and perspectives to our site. Take it away, Gil:

The legendary Prof. Dr. Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek was unable to leave Europe to keynote the Pacific Industrial and Business Association annual Silicon Valley Environmental Management Conference this week, so Ed Quevedo of WSP Environmental ably pinch hit a discussion about "Factor Ten" -- and offered an important "heads up" to the participating companies.Schmidt-Bleek heads the Factor Ten Institute, and coined the MIPS (material input per service) unit at the Wuppertahl Insitute in the early 1990s.

I first encountered this work in the book Factor Four -- subtitled “Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use -- by Wuppertahl’s Ernst von Weizsäcker with Amory and Hunter Lovins. Schmidt-Bleek decided that wasn’t good enough, and declared, as Quevedo put it, "that because of the extraordinary inefficiency of industrial society, we need to become ten times more efficient in everything we do."

The root cause for the growing ecological crisis, notes the Factor 10 website, is the massive and frequently indiscriminate use of natural resources, including energy carriers, land and water:

On the average, more than 30 tons of non-renewable natural resources are invested today for every ton of goods, with increasing tendency. [...] On the average, citizens of OECD Member states consume some 20 times more non-renewable resources than the Vietnamese.
Governments have taken up the Factor 10 challenge, in a way that is changing European business – and that will helpfully change business worldwide. Three data points:

  • Austria put Factor 10 into long-term environmental plan in 1995.
  • Japan put Factor 8 into its long-term financial plan in 1997.
  • Three committees are developing EU level policies to drive F10.

Quevedo: "Once the EU clock starts, we see typically see regulations in five to seven years. We talked in 1993 about product takeback, and now we see that coming into practice. We talked in 1995 about chemical regulation with an FDA-like approval process, and now we see REACH. Now people are talking about taxing natural resource use. This is major emerging business opportunity, but the regulators will catch us if we don’t do it on our own."

What to do? Current environmental policies cannot lead to sustainability, because they essentially address only the output-side of the economy. The key, instead, is dramatic dematerialization -- or as Bucky Fuller called it half a century ago, ephemeralization -- a radical improvement in resource productivity.

In order to approach ecological sustainability, the resource productivity in western countries has to be increased by at least a Factor 10, compared to today. A demateralization of this magnitude will also dampen the energy demand by ca. 80%, opening completely new vistas for de-carbonization and for supplying sufficient energy to the 2 billion poor of this world.
The only question is whether this change will be driven by succeeding waves of EU regulations -- which will continue to push businesses this way, “I guarantee it!” -- or whether companies climb into the design innovation drivers seat. The other only question is whether the US will once again will surrender major market share to global competitors, or apply its innovation engines and seize the day.

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lunar solar power could play a large role in achieving factor 10 productivity :D

"It is technically and economically feasible to provide at least 100,000 GWe of solar electric energy from facilities on the Moon. The Lunar Solar Power (LSP) System can supply to Earth power that is independent of the biosphere and does not introduce CO2, ash, or other material wastes into the biosphere. Inexhaustible new net electrical energy provided by the LSP System enables the creation of new net material wealth on Earth that is decoupled from the biosphere. Given adequate clean electric power, humanity's material needs can be acquired from common resources and recycled without the use of depletable fuels [4, 5]. LSP power increases the ability of tomorrow's generations to meet tomorrow's needs, and enables humanity to move beyond simply attempting to sustain itself within the biosphere to nurturing the biosphere."




Posted by: glory on 6 Mar 05

Finally its beginning to seem quite interesting to be a European - who ever thought it would happen! America has always seemed so much cooler - exciting and optimistic and unashamed (or afraid) of itself. Perhaps there's a hare and tortoise equation going on here. Or maybe it's just an understanding that bad things CAN happen if you're not careful - It can't just be coincidence that Japan and Germany are the fastest solar embracing nations, can it?

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 6 Mar 05

I'm a big fan of Natural Capitalism and this line of thinking. It is crucial. I am also certain that a dramatic improvement in psychological well being is equally crucial. People go for excess consumption because they are unhappy. People start wars and are otherwise cruel because they are unhappy. There is reason to suppose that massively wealthy business interests who oppose who oppose constructive environmental laws are psychologically driven in some way. The key points of change are improved childrearing and psychotherapy (which should be honored, not denigrated).. Beyond this, institutional change to support rather than repress the human spirit is important, as is personal growth to help us become more centered, creative and personally competent people.


Andrew Gaines
Project to Make Well-being a National Priority

Posted by: Andrew Gaines on 7 Mar 05

This is a great idea, but factor 10 is _really_hard_ to do. At RMI we were writing an engineering textbook on how to do factor 10, and it was almost impossible to find success stories, people who had accomplished it. I wasn't the researcher, so I don't know the details, but I think factor 6 was about as good as most things got while still performing the same functions. That means that factor 10 requires broader leaps in thinking (e.g. let's not make the car more efficient, let's redesign the city so you can walk to work). Certainly that's needed, and perhaps people trying to use factor 10 as policy will become more open to leaps like that, but if you're expecting to be able to achieve 1-to-1 substitution, you're going to have to really stretch the frontiers of engineering (which is exciting, but not reliable or cheap.)

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 7 Mar 05

Jeremy, I wonder if some smart engineers could make some calculations along the lines of thinking you mention. For example, what is the energy use of 80 standard refrigerators in 80 studio apartments versus a walk-in refrigerator that is of sufficient size to service the food needs of 80 people?

With cars, is efficiency narrowly defined as the energy efficiency of the motor, or can it be more broadly defined as the productive capacity of the machine, the efficiency of the energy conversion from raw resource, the resource use during the lifetime of the vehicle, etc, in addition to the simple fuel efficiency? For example, if a given car is used only 1 hour per day, already it's only using about 1/24 of it's productive capacity.

Where does one draw lines when calling for 10-fold increases in efficiency?

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 7 Mar 05

Interesting comments. A few responses.

Lunar/solar: Same problems as the "synchronous orbit satellites microwaving power to earth" scheme floated some years ago. Both systems increase Earth's energy flux by harvesting and concentrating off-planet energy, which will inevitably perturb global climate. Probably not what we need -- especially when already-incident solar flux exceeds human energy demand by a factor of about 13,000.

"beginning to seem quite interesting to be a European": yeah, pleanty of us Yanks think so too :-)

"factor 10 is _really_hard_ to do":
1. Yeah, so...
2. Seriously, you've got it exactly right. Think systems, not 1-to-1 substitution. Think outcomes, not things.
3. It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare.  
It is because we do not dare that they are difficult.
- Seneca

Posted by: Gil Friend on 7 Mar 05


I think its important to set the goals we need, rather than what is currently achievable - so maybe only factor 6 was achievable by a single enterprise, but I bet a lot of the limitations were the availability of other components in the entire system, i.e. if you can still only purchase Factor-1 transport, pumps, etc then its hard to get to even Factor 6, but once those other components start being improved then the results compound as Amory has so often reminded us, e.g. company A uses a third as much transport from company B, company B uses a third as much fuel per kg of goods transported and you are up to Factor 9...

- Mitra

Posted by: Mitra Ardron on 8 Mar 05

Applying a factor 10 approach across the board may be, as an earlier commentator points out, fraught with difficulties.In fact, we have to abandon once and for all the idea that the energy-plundering lifestyle we live today can continue much more that a few decades. Instead I suggest we need to apply factor 10 (or less) thinking to the basic necessities and a factor 100 or more to least necessities.
How do we work out what is a neccessity? Easy .. look at the definition of living standard applied in the region/country.
The more important for supporting a living standard priority the lower the factor.

I call this: "rescue me in a Hummer but meet me at the cafe on your bicycle".

Posted by: stephen hinton on 9 Mar 05

Gil (who is having problems getting a comment posted) says:

Mitra's got it exactly right: "I think its important to set the goals we need, rather than what is currently achievable..."

See my recent "How High the Moon - The challenge of 'sufficient' goals" at

Re "maybe only factor 6 was achievable by a single enterprise" -- how will you ever know, if you don't ask the right questions (of the right people people, in the right way)?

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Mar 05



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