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A Roadmap for Achieving Environmental Sustainability

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Janette Ballard

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In his new book, professor Jack Buffington explains why we’re going in the wrong direction and how to change course before it’s too late.


In the face of climate change and other environmental threats, Jack Buffington sees a path to solving our most vexing 21st century problems. But to get there, we need to understand and acknowledge human limitations. He makes his case in his new book, “Environmental Innovation: An Action Plan for Saving the Economy and Planet by 2050” (Roman & Littlefield, 2024).

Jack Buffington

Buffington is a professor of supply chain management at DU’s Daniels College of Business and University College. He spent his career working in supply chain consumer products, including logistics for Molson Coors Beverage Company. He earned a PhD in material science and supply chain in Sweden, often considered the most sustainable nation in the world. While there, he realized that current solutions to environmental concerns aren’t solving the global problem.

“Environmental Innovation” examines why we’re going in the wrong direction and how to change course to achieve a sustainable economy and environment.

“I lay out 20 strategies that are important in order to get there,” says Buffington. “But to understand why those strategies make sense, you have to understand why what's happening today doesn't work.”

In his book, Buffington offers a unique perspective on environmental sustainability and how it can be addressed using 21st-century solutions. In this interview with the DU Newsroom, he talks about the problems with today’s environmental policy and the changes that need to occur to achieve environmental sustainability by 2050. This interview has been edited for clarity.

You said that people are well intended, but what they’re doing isn’t working. Please explain.

I focus on sustainability in three planks. The first one is policy, which gets into government regulations, nonprofits—NGOs, Greenpeace, organizations like that. There are two major problems with the policy approach. One of them is that there's a view that you can solve these problems as some sort of global community. There's never been any evidence that humans have been able to solve problems on a global level. Innovation normally occurs at a smaller level.

The second policy problem is that there's a lack of understanding or acknowledgement that most people who live on the planet cannot focus on a longer-term environmental strategy. If you do the math, about 70-80% of the world population [makes less than $20 a day.] Even in wealthy parts of the world like the United States, over 50% of the people can’t afford a bill if their water heater goes out or their car breaks down.

To coin a term, “environmentalism is for rich people.” When you dissect what's best for the planet and what's the primary concern for most people on the planet, it's the economy. Environmentalists have written books about “the end of growth.” Proposing an end to growth isn’t feasible and hasn’t led to environmental progress. You have to tether what's good for the planet and what's good for the economy or you'll never solve that problem.

The other two [planks] are related to science. There has been a movement toward big science, away from small science—which enables huge projects but prohibits innovation—and supply chain, which is the perpetuator of the problems that we have in the environment.

The book defines the challenges facing climate goals and offers achievable solutions to meet those goals. Can you touch on some of those solutions?

Yeah, it's important to understand there are a couple things that need to be addressed.

When we talk about the environment, typically people only focus on CO₂ emissions. There's not an all-encompassing focus on impacts to the environment that includes chemicals, plastic waste and so on. There's a whole litany of problems, and it's not just energy—it's food, it's materials—and so I try to cover a comprehensive view. We can solve the problem of renewable energy and still wouldn't get there.

Another problem is that people don't understand what carbon neutrality means. What surprises people is the technologies needed to achieve where we need to go by 2050 are largely in place when it comes to renewable energy and food systems. The biggest problems are human systems—our ability to accept and acknowledge change in a way that looks at things more long term.

In the energy and food industry, every country subsidizes agriculture. Subsidies to agriculture prevent innovation.  The question is, are companies and governments—Russia, Canada, United States—willing to allow hundreds of trillions of dollars of actual assets to stay in the ground?

Is it because corporations and governments want to make as much money as they're capable of making? Is it greed?

Yeah. But imagine if you're the president of Nigeria, a poor country, and you get a lot of your tax revenue through oil, and that's allowing people to have healthcare and all these things. Will we classify that as greed?

I don't believe that the goal should be to take down the big powerful companies. Number one, I think that's naive. In the past, innovation has come from the outside. What I'm encouraging is entrepreneurs and governments fund these outsiders—these small innovators—without taking down the ExxonMobils. Also, we need to focus more on the Global South, where the challenges are the greatest. Instead of being conceptually correct, it's better to be practical to make things happen.

So, if you look at how much money the government spends on subsidies—they subsidize the energy industry, they subsidize the farm industry and utility companies. So, if there's incentive on the other side, then we can surface all these problems. Assuming we're just going to take everything down because of climate change is naive.

You've been working in the supply chain industry for years and have sounded the alarm before about how the industry is contributing to climate change. How have we been doing the past 10-20 years?

We [the supply chain industry] cause the problem because we're the ones who bring inventions to market. We're the ones who distribute oil, food and everything like that. And as a corporate manager, that's your job. Your job is to increase shareholder wealth. Supply chains were created through these incentives. ESG [environmental, social and governance] programs started a divestment from oil companies. And then next thing you know, oil stocks go up and everybody invests back in them again. So, you're never going to change that model without balancing economics and the environment.

It is a problem that there isn’t a clear definition of the term “progress.” We get people together in the world, and we create these big proclamations like the Paris Agreement, where every country in the world became a signatory. The goal was to keep temperature changes below 1.5°C. Since then, temperatures have risen past 1.3°C, and that target was supposed to last until 2100.

We have these conferences, and we make these proclamations, but there's nothing behind it. The United Nations has something called the Sustainable Development Goals. And when they came out, The Economist magazine called them worse than useless because there’s nothing that can be done about them. Speak to those in the Global South, and they will tell you the problems are becoming much worse.

And, if you look at what's happening with the economy right now, the world is about ready to go under stagflation [economic stagnation combined with rising inflation]. The Bank of Japan for the first time in 40 years raised interest rates, which is a signal to the entire world there’s a potential for stagflation.

So, we aren’t going to solve the problem through a sole focus on the environment. There's got to be economic incentives as well. And that's the reason why there hasn't been any progress—because we don't have the right incentives, and we're not measuring the right targets.

You said in a 2019 DU Newsroom interview that there is overwhelming research evidence that our conventional wisdom regarding recycling is the barrier to innovation, even if it’s intended to fix the problem. Could you elaborate on that?

I got my doctorate in Sweden, which is the number one place on the planet when it comes to recycling. But the problem is, recycling is a back-end-of-the-supply-chain problem.

For example, let's take two different types of packaging materials. There's aluminum, which was invented by the company that I worked for [Coors]. Every single can of aluminum should be recycled because it's 100% recyclable.

Plastic is a polymer. The plastic bottle was created by Dupont. It was not created to be recycled. It was created to be lightweight, gas permeable, flexible and so forth. So, if you try to recycle something that wasn't designed to be recyclable, all you're doing is prohibiting innovation to fix the problem. You’re just putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.

What's happening is that we're recycling plastic the same way we're recycling aluminum, which means that we're over-recycling something that wasn't designed to be recycled, and we're under- recycling something that was. As a result, aluminum, which is 100% recyclable, is being recycled at a 40% or 50% rate—below 20% in Colorado—which means we're burying a bunch of aluminum in landfills that we’ll never recover. And so that's the problem when we try to do these things on the back end. It's intentionally good, but it's economically and scientifically wrong, which means we're prohibiting a good solution to ever happen.