Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Speech disaster to Bathroom Manufacturers… (Oct16)

My speech went down the plug hole!

I spent ages preparing my speech.  Had an inspirational idea on how to pull it together.  And, I thought it was pretty good on the day!  But apparently the audience – at least most of them – were not so impressed.  And the Bathroom Manufacturer’s Association – the client – asked for a reduction in my fee.
After I’d spoken a couple of people came up to get my contact details and tell me about what they were doing.  I even got a follow up email thanking me for my ‘enlightening and inspiring talk’.  But my client was pretty frosty as I left and they refused to speak to me directly afterwards – I only heard of their concerns through the speaking agency.
So what went wrong?
My brief was to speak about the circular economy and give a consumer perspective on sustainability issues relating to the bathroom sector.  First, I should explain about the circular economy.  It’s quite simple really. Currently, the world operates in a linear way – we dig stuff out of the ground, make it into things, use them and throw them away.  The circular economy is a much brighter way of operating – essentially meaning that the stuff we dig up is used multiple times and perhaps never gets thrown away at all.  So, it stays in the system and ultimately reduces the amount we need to dig out of the ground – or throw away.  Here’s a video which gives an idea of circular design and intelligent solutions…
One of the best examples of a company putting the circular economy into practice is Interface carpets.  This global American company has annual sales of over $1bn and was set up in 1973 by Ray Anderson, who turned out to be an inspiring leader.  The turning point for him came in 1994, when he was asked by a customer what Interface was doing on the environmental front and all he could think of to say was that the company was ‘legal and compliant’.  He was struggling with what more he could say when he came across Paul Hawken’s book – The Ecology of Commerce.
At this point in my presentation to the Bathroom Manufacturers, I told the audience what made Ray Anderson turn from being a high impact industrialist to an environmental visionary. The story was about an Island off Alaska that had imported 29 reindeer during the war, to feed the US Coast Guard radio station. When the war ended, the reindeer were left behind and without any predators their numbers exploded.  A biologist returning after 12 years found 1,350 reindeers and six years after that there were over 6,000 but they were looking pretty thin and under-nourished.  After another three years, he returned again and the population had collapsed – there were barely any reindeer left.
This simple illustration of the island exceeding it’s carrying capacity, helped Ray Anderson to see the parallels with the global ecosystem.  And, what’s more, Paul Hawken was pointing the finger at industries like his.  He said “I stood indicted as a plunderer, a destroyer of the earth, a thief, stealing my own grandchildren’s future”.  But it dawned on him that whilst industry was undoubtedly the problem, it could also be the solution.  He made a commitment to be the first enterprise in history to become truly sustainable and move away from the extractive, abusive ‘business as usual’.
So what has this to do with the bathroom industry?  Well, one of the things I found most shocking in researching this sector was that they seemed to be very resource intensive and yet do almost no recycling.  Lots of energy is used to make ceramics for baths, showers and loos and very little, if any recycled materials are used in the process.  One manufacturer I spoke to, who appeared to be a leader said that they did use up to 15% post industrial recycled material, but no post-consumer waste at all.

Shocking amount of waste from bathroom sector – where does it go?

And what about all the baths and loos that are thrown away each year, whatever material they’re made from?  Where do they go?  As far as I could tell the vast majority simply end up in land-fill sites – even ones that are in pretty good condition, but have been removed for cosmetic reasons.  I have some personal experience here – working very hard to find someone who would be able to re-use bathroom equipment that we no longer wanted.
I have to admit that I made this point quite forcefully and perhaps some of the audience found it a bit too challenging.  But, I was hoping that someone might challenge me and tell me that there was a lot more happening than I thought….  Sadly not….
And, the consumer perspective?  Interestingly, it was a question from one of his customers that started the ball rolling for Ray Anderson.  But, my view is that industry shouldn’t be waiting for consumers to be pushing them any more – they should be taking the lead and create the best sustainable products and services they can.  The key is to make it easy for consumers to do the right thing.  See Project Breakthrough
I don’t want to bang on about all the other bathroom products and innovations I talked about in my speech, but I did run through my experience in installing state of the art eco-bathrooms over the past decade – and I’m about to install three more.  This included a perspective on low flow taps, aerators, smart showers, large baths, plastic baths, thermostats, hot water systems, dual flush and ultra low flush toilets and grey water recycling…
I’m pretty certain that I fulfilled my brief but clearly not in the way that was expected.  I think some people were puzzled by my story about the reindeer, perhaps some people wanted to hear more about what pressure was going to come from consumers and maybe some felt a bit threatened by my passion about the wastefulness and lack of vision in the industry.  Apparently, it got them talking – which has to be a good thing.  But my biggest failing, I think, was that I aimed my speech at potential sustainability leaders – and perhaps that was a step too far for the bathroom industry today.

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