Worldwatch Paper #144: Mind Over Matter: Recasting the Role of Materials in Our Lives

December 1998
Gary Gardner and Payal Sampat
ISBN: 1-878071-46-7
60 pages

Nations and businesses are discovering ways to use materials more intelligently--to provide the goods and services people want using much less wood, metal, stone, plastic, and other materials. By reducing wasteful use, and by steering production toward du rable goods that are easy to reuse, remanufacture, or recycle, a few pioneering firms are recasting the role of materials in our lives. Some businesses have even shifted out of manufacturing and become purveyors of services--dramatically lowering levels of materials use.

This creative trend stems from a recognition of the environmental costs of excessive materials use. A long list of environmental ills, from deforestation to species loss to climate change, are due in part to the gargantuan appetite for materials this cent ury, especially in industrial countries. Consumption of materials in the United States has grown some 18-fold since 1900, and the average American now uses 101 kilos of materials daily. If developing countries continue to embrace the industrial-country mo del of materials-intensive growth, the human impact on the natural world will only become more severe and widespread.

Recognizing that continued "business-as-usual" practices are unsustainable, some nations, international organizations, and environmental groups are calling for major reductions in materials use--often by as much as 90 percent. Incremental efficiency gains will not do the job. Instead, an imaginative remaking of the material world--one that aligns economies with the natural environment that supports them--is the sustainable way forward.