Loyola University Chicago

Quinlan School of Business

Business and the cycle of nature

Business and the cycle of nature

What can business learn from nature's example? Nancy E. Landrum, PhD, outlines how nature can teach business to be more sustainable.

If a business wants to sustainably survive, it must take notes from nature’s 3.8 billion years of survival, says Nancy E. Landrum, PhD.

Below, Landrum, professor of sustainability management with an appointment in both Quinlan and Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability, outlines how businesses can learn from nature’s example.

How nature can teach business to be more sustainable

By Nancy Landrum | Professor of Sustainable Business Management

Spring is all around us: the flowers are blooming, the leaves are budding, and the grass is growing. From a cold snowy winter, the bounty of nature is blossoming before us.

We are familiar with this cycle. In predictable fashion, the flowers, leaves, and grass will reach mature abundance in the summer; they will begin to die and fall to the ground in the fall; they will be dormant during the winter; and they will become a nutrient to continue the life cycle again in spring. Each one has a purpose that contributes to ongoing life; this is the cycle of nature.

What can business learn from this example? 

Business as usual

Businesses don’t often think of using resources like the cycles of nature. Instead, businesses generally use resources in a more linear fashion: we take resources from nature—water, plants, animals, minerals—and we transform them into products to sell. The products are then used and discarded. This has led to a depletion of resources and an abundance of waste. We are faced with peak oil, peak energy, peak water, and more that communicates the fact that resources are being pushed beyond their limits of availability.

The growing awareness of environmental limits has led businesses to increasingly adopt actions that reflect an obligation to care for the environment: reduce carbon emissions, reduce waste, reduce packaging, use more eco-friendly materials, and the list goes on. The options are dizzying, and it can seem overwhelming to manage them all. 

What the cycle of nature teaches

But it can be quite simple if approached from the lessons of the cycles of nature: everything operates on renewable energy, produces no waste that is not reused for another purpose, and produces conditions that allow others to live and flourish. 

The Plant is a Chicago food-based small business incubator in a 93,500-square-foot former meat processing facility. It is also a local example of companies working together to create a circular model of resource usage and operations:

  • The building’s planned anaerobic digester will provide biogas to offset natural gas use for the HVAC and brewing operations.
  • The kombucha and beer brewing operations will provide carbon dioxide to grow plants in indoor growing operations.
  • The aquaponics facility fertilizes the plants with nitrates from fish, and the plants filter the water to return to the fish.
  • Plant Chicago, the nonprofit housed out of The Plant, conducts research on the economic and environmental potential of closing waste loops, in partnership with the food businesses co-located with them. For example, spent brewers grains have been used in the bakery for use in bread, to create bio-briquettes for the wood-fired stove in the bakery, as a substrate for mushroom farming, as fish food for the aquaponics farm, and as compost for outdoor farm operations.

Though these and other efforts, The Plant will divert over 10,000 tons of food waste per year from the landfill.

Another example can be found at Eileen Fisher, the women’s clothing retailer.  The company implemented a take-back program that will repair, resell, or remake items for a second life and therefore prevent waste. Since moving to this model, the company has taken back over 800,000 garments accounting for 3% of its products, but the goal is 100% recovery.

Nature’s rules for resource usage are simple: renewable, without waste, and conducive to life. If every company's actions followed these simple guidelines learned from nature's 3.8 billion years of survival, then it becomes clear that the company is creating conditions for its own survival.

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