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New Harvard-published tome advocates applying earth science to management

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In Earth Inc., Gregory Unruh says companies can become more sustainable by applying biosphere rules to their operations.

Just finished thumbing through a new business book from Harvard Business Press by Gregory Unruh, who is a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. The focus of "Earth, Inc." is on the idea that it isn't enough for manufacturers to get more responsible about recycling of the products and/or technologies that they send out into the world. They need to start thinking about "precycling," or basically the practice of considering the end-of-life of a product in the conceptualization and design phase of a new gadget or thing-a-ma-bob.

Here's an excerpt from the book to get your brain going:

"Creating a value chain is at the core of business sustainability strategy. But companies cannot build a value cycle by merely taking their existing value chain and bending it back on itself. Doing so will only create a costly mess. To be economically viable, a series of methodical, enabling steps have to be taken first. Like premediation, these steps can be considered 'precycling'. Before a profitable value cycle can start churning, the conditions for success have to be put in place. Precycling is therefore something that occurs first in the heads of new product designers, operations managers and strategic executives. Precycling is a managerial mid-set that replaces the value chain model with value cycling thing."

During the early part of his career, Unruh actually spent time doing environmental mediation at companies that somehow found themselves out of compliance. He argues that nature is shaped by five principles that should likewise inform business management practices:

  1. Materials Parsimony: That is, companies should be using the minimum amount of materials necessary to create a given product and, at the same time, choose materials that are "life-friendly and economically recyclable."
  2. Power Autonomy: Strive to create products that can run be using renewable energy.
  3. Value Cycling: Figure out how to reuse pieces of what you've already produced as part of new products. (One of my favorite real world examples of this is how Hewlett-Packard uses spent printer cartridges in the manufacture of certain new printers.)
  4. Sustainable Product Platforms: Figure out a way to use value-cycling concepts to use new opportunities for your company.
  5. Function Over Form

If you think about it, why shouldn't a company look at recycling not as a costly obligation but as a means to drive new revenue. The technology industry, in particular, has oodles of opportunities to create new sources of revenue and sourcing opportunity by thinking in the ways that Unruh suggests.

The high-tech industry already does a brisk business in refurbished gear, although this has always been a thorn in the side of the distribution channel and it raises very relevant questions about warranties and support and so on. But perhaps it's time for the tech industry to start developing meaningful relationships with "dis-integrators" much in the same way that it relies on systems integrators to create business technology solutions in the first place.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure