Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reverse Brainstorming: What is the most unsustainable funeral a person could choose?

A creative thinking technique employed by Speedo researchers in 2009, reverse brainstorming helped the team conceptualize new designs for competitive swimwear when the company's revolutionary and controversial swim suits were banned after the record-breaking 2008 Summer Olympic games.  Experts in fluid dynamics, biomechanics, and psychology envisioned a combination of oversized goggles and a body-compressing suit to create drag.  Imagining the opposite of what we want can help hone our creative thinking to get closer to the results we do want.

Now imagine the company of a casket builder, a physician, a funeral director, and a pharmacist along with our wives enjoying an evening of cocktails on the patio at a local supper club.  I cannot share all of the details of our reverse brainstorming on the worst funeral choices we could imagine for the environment, but the highlights are worth repeating.  As for the exercise, I invite you to try reverse brainstorming this, or any, subject and experience the creativity that can result in a collaborative discussion among your family, friends, or work colleagues. 

We quickly listed all funeral choices that we know are harmful in some manner to the environment or our health.  Casket? Yes.  Concrete Burial Vault?  Yes.  Embalming?  Yes.  Cremation?  Yes.   Burial Plot?  Yes.  Large grave stone?  Yes.  As we explored the details we set some boundaries for ourselves.  We didn’t intend to confuse “elaborate” as the opposite of being eco-friendly.  We also didn’t want to consider impractical choices nobody would ever make (like cremating a 24-karat gold casket).

Our reverse brainstorming helped us imagine the worst possible set of choices money could buy in funeral service.  We concluded our evening with several good laughs and each of us took home some ideas for our own end-of-life plans.  So what might the worst possible (but reasonably probable) funeral service look like from a Green perspective on funerals?

Well, there would have to be a cremation for a carbon footprint of about 600 lbs. of CO2, but not without a full service funeral with our embalmed body.  After all, a large number of cremations in the U.S. are embalmed.  In addition to the carbon footprint, cremation generates emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, in addition to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP).   For those of us metal implants or dental fillings, the impact of incineration releases harmful dioxins and mercury.  There is an ongoing debate on how to address mercury poisoning from cremation which the United States EPA believes is the 3rd largest contributor of air-born mercury contamination.

Our casket would have to be an imported Indonesian natural burial casket made from seagrass.  While it is biodegradable, a seagrass casket weighing 70 lbs. would have a carbon impact of more than 2500 lbs. (even more than imported stainless steel) after being shipped to an American port by ocean cargo, then air freighted to a commercial airport in the Midwest, and finally transported by truck to our funeral home.  And if our seagrass came from a controversial area where fisheries were compromised by seagrass farming, even better.  And if our casket could be woven by the hands of underpaid laborers (or even children) we’d be sublime.

We planned a funeral home visitation followed by a full service funeral the next day at a church for the added fuss of transporting our body and our families.  After the cremation we’d have our cremated remains interred at a cemetery and another memorial service so that everybody could start their cars three times to drive to at least three locations to pay their respects during our funeral.  All three of our funeral events would be thoroughly adorned with cut flowers—another industry rife with environmental and energy controversies.

Our cremated remains would be interred in a concrete cremation vault in a full-sized cemetery plot next to our loved ones.  We’d hope that our cemetery of choice used only the finest pesticides and herbicides to maintain a plush green lawn manicured regularly with two-stroke oil-burning trimmers and leaf blowers.  Oh, and the trees, of course take out the trees because they leave such a mess every fall.  After all of this, we will have left behind a larger impact after our death than in the final 2-3 years of our living lives.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sustainability in Death Care: From Trend to Movement

Trends come and go without consequence.  Movements come and stay until they are no longer needed because the world has changed entirely.  Movements happen when a group of people work hard toward a change.  A movement with a humble beginning credited to the 1998 opening of Ramsey Creek Preserve in rural South Carolina has blossomed into a momentous change in modern burial practices.  One example includes the expansion of natural burial service offerings by one of the industry's largest cemetery and funeral service providers, StoneMor Partners, L.P. (STON).

Mark Harris, author of the 2007 award-winning book, Grave Matters, opined on his blog last month at how quickly America’s cemeteries have changed.  While there were very few modern green cemeteries in America prior to 1998, today there are hundreds of existing and new cemeteries embracing sustainable burial practices to varying degrees of “going green” from merely allowing families to forgo concrete burial vaults to prohibiting vaults, monuments, and embalming entirely.

Several national market surveys by leading research groups in the last three years have reported that most people would consider a natural burial.  In some regard, almost everyone values the environment when making choices in how they live from choosing what car they will drive to deciding what food they will eat.  When asked specifically, most people extend their environmental values in making end-of-life choices.  Making end-of-life choices consistent with one’s values is a matter of being informed when it comes to the environmental impact of cremation, embalming, caskets, vaults, and other choices in death care.

The natural burial movement has brought death care discussions to the dinner table.  When people ask good questions and share their values with one another, real change happens.  The independent film, “A Will for the Woods,” is the first feature-length documentary on the green burial movement.  The film has stirred attention and conversation around the world through a comprehensive campaign including a Kickstarter project, social media buzz, film festivals, and local screenings.  This movie is garnering the attention of Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers alike adding to the momentum of the green burial movement.

Many in the death care industry in the early 2000s contended that “green burial” would be a short-lived trend.  Some early adopters of greener funerals were subject to accusations of greenwashing from their contemporaries.  Today, we are witnessing a new era of Big Business on the Green bandwagon.  We are living in a time when a Mountain View, California Walmart store hosted the President of the United States for a press event highlighting the White House’s renewed push for solar energy.  Conservation, recycling, carbon emissions, toxicity, pollution, energy use, renewable energy… these are all part of big business initiatives to some degree in every trade or industry.  Death care is no exception.

I’m sort of done with Green.  It isn’t enough to declare one’s individual or company intentions as “good for the environment.”  The sustainability movement has made such declarations pointless and irrelevant.  Every company—even big companies—from Apple to Walmart are going green.  Even the nation’s largest trash removal company, Waste Management, has built an entire marketing campaign on going green.  I say that if we aim to convince somebody that they should consider our product or service because it is greener, we must be prepared to talk about exactly how we will contribute to creating a safer and healthier environment right now in the present and in the future.  We need to provide specific and measurable benefits of our products and services, or our families won’t pay attention.  While it is true that “being green” isn't easy, it is no longer a differentiator either.  Sorry, Kermit.
It's not easy being green.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sustainable Businesses

By guest author, Jeni Tyjeski

Consumers today are increasingly aware of the effects that their decisions have on the environment. When faced with the option to purchase a product from a company that has environmentally friendly practices or buy a cheaper product from a company that isn’t sustainable, many people are making the choice to purchase the green product, even if they do have to pay a little more. Sustainable businesses “create products and services that compete on price and performance while significantly reducing humankinds impact on the environment” (Fried, 2014). As consumers seek out the green products more and more, green businesses become more competitive within their market and sustainability becomes a greater subject among the producers, regardless of their size.

I interviewed two Wisconsin businesses that either incorporate green practices into their business or were founded as a green alternative to a heavily polluting industry. Their business practices are environmentally friendly, educational for consumers, and extremely different from each other. Differences within the market are common, though, and Rona Fried, president of sustainablebussiness.com, comments that “sustainable businesses operate across all business sectors” (2014). Differences within the green market have been incredibly apparent while interviewing Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company. Though these two businesses create vastly different products, they both have sustainable practices that set them apart from other businesses within their field. What efforts are these small business owners taking to grow and build their products sustainably and lessen their ecological footprint, and what is the value of a sustainable business? Could other, larger businesses, adopt a greener business approach similar to the paths taken by the companies interviewed?

After the passing of his grandfather, Jonas Zahn wanted to create a casket that was both skillfully designed and environmentally friendly. He also wanted the time spent creating the casket to be time where he could remember and honor his grandfather. What Zahn ended up with was a simple and unique design created with local materials that both honored and respected his grandfather’s memory. Following the creation of his first casket, Zahn further researched the natural burial movement. His first product was a kit that allows other families to spend the memorial time creating a casket for their loved one. After his first design, he continued to do more research and built many more prototype caskets, changing designs and materials to introduce a truly green and attractive product that exceed industry standards. In addition to the local materials used in the creation of the casket, Northwoods plants 100 trees for every product sold. The 100 trees sequester 200 pounds of CO2 in their first year, 4 times
A Simple Pine Box by Northwoods Casket Co.
more than the carbon footprint of Northwoods Simple Pine Box (Personal Interview). Compared to the 2000 pounds of carbon produced from a creation of a traditional steel casket, the Northwoods casket is actually bettering the environment from which their product is made (Personal Interview). One unique quality of the green casket business is their ability to create a product that is extremely sustainable. Brewing, on the other hand, has taken a different approach to creating a sustainable business, focusing on both their product as well as the process used to create it.

In 1999 Paul Graham added his years of brewing knowledge to the Central Waters Brewing Company team. With his understanding of the brewing process he brought passion for sustainable and local practices, which he used to expand the business. Graham, along with his co-owner, Anello Mollica, source a large percentage of their ingredients from local farmers, cutting back on transportation emissions in addition to sustaining local businesses. Central Waters has demonstrated a forward thinking approach to sustainable practices that not many other breweries have. They have two solar arrays at their brew house; one that provides hot water to heat the facility and preheated water for brewing needs. The other photovoltaic array produces twenty percent of their energy needs. Graham thought sustainability was important when choosing the packaging for the products as well. Sourcing the bottles from a green manufacturer and using post-consumer recycled cardboard, Central Waters shows an attention to detail in all phases of their production, a feature that appeals to a generation concerned with the future of our planet (Personal Interview). Though many consumers today are looking for a greener alternative, not all retailers are as willing to supply the newer and greener products to their specific clientele.

Julie Zahn, wife of Northwoods founder Jonas Zahn, commented on the difficulty of changing minds towards greener alternatives. Like Brodwin mentioned, sustainable practices are often thought of as nice, but not practical. It took Northwoods five years and many conversations, trade shows, newspaper articles, press releases, etc. to get the funeral industry to take their sustainable caskets seriously. A large percentage of the funeral directors “have been happy offering funeral options that do not account for environmental impact or sustainability for a very long time and are not very open-minded to change” (Personal Interview). Since green caskets are becoming more popular, and more consumers are looking for the green caskets, the families are pushing the funeral homes to add the green options to their casket offerings. Zahn adds that that is why consumer education has always been such an important aspect of Northwoods’ business plan. Though they can convince the funeral industry to carry their product, unless consumers are seeking to purchase green products, Northwoods efforts will be in vain. A successful sustainable business needs knowledgeable consumers looking for their green products in order to change traditional industry minds and survive in their market.

The practices that the businesses interviewed have implemented are sustainable and community-minded, but Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company are relatively small businesses. Their products are geared toward select audiences: those looking for a casket or a beverage. What would happen if a larger business, like Wal-Mart, were to create and sell legitimately sustainable products? Though Wal-Mart is not typically thought of as a community-minded business, “big business plays an important role in sustainability due to its legitimizing value in the eyes of the public” (Brodwin, 2014). Though the products produced by Central Waters and Northwoods are sustainable, David Brodwin, cofounder of the American Sustainable Business Council observes “policymakers and others may dismiss it unfairly as too small to matter to the economy as a whole” (2014). Brodwin adds that the entry of large businesses into the green and sustainable market “proves the legitimacy and importance of sustainability as a concept and as a market force” (2014). It proves that sustainable practices work and can be implemented into any business, regardless of size. It tells competitors “’there’s money here’ and that brings more investment capital to help sustainable businesses grow” (Brodwin, 2014). It portrays the realness of the practices, and in turn, the media writes “serious stories about sustainability going mainstream rather than just human-interest stores about mavericks bucking the trend” (Brodwin, 2014). In order for success of sustainability as a widespread marketing plan, smaller businesses need to continue to model the success that they are having and push the larger businesses into action.

Central Waters Brewing Company and Northwoods Casket Company have not only envisioned a company ran sustainably, but also implemented practices into their business in order to reduce their carbon footprint and sustain local industries. “The arrival of big companies offers powerful, credible testimony that sustainable business is indeed good business” (Brodwin, 2014). The foundation of sustainable practices was created by small, grass roots efforts, and is growing into an increasingly important aspect of business ethics. These businesses have created effective plans for reducing their carbon footprint and producing environmentally friendly practices that need to be noticed and implemented by larger businesses. Green producers, combined with educated consumers are putting the necessary pressure on larger businesses to add more sustainable products and practices, helping to make sustainability an industry norm.