Two years ago, I have joined the Environmental Responsibility team in order to bring in the voices of children, adults and experts into the LEGO Group’s sustainability agenda. As the only one with a background in social sciences, I ended being surrounded and outnumbered by environmental scientists. Overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the challenges of our planet, I desperately searched for hope.
With my colleagues’ help I started to see first how things interconnect and fundamentally what innovation opportunities they present. This “systems thinking” approach helped me face the gloomy facts without oversimplifying the problems or without losing hope. Maybe it helps you too.
Recently I listened in on a webinar with an environmental activist who lives on her ranch and, from time to time, enjoys eating steaks. When one of the webinar participants called her out on that, she replied: “It is NOT about the cow but about the how.”
She explained that her cows produce methane like any other cows. However, because they are free-grazing and feeding on grass, most of the methane gets absorbed via the roots into the soil. On the other hand, the industrialized system took away cows from the grass, placed them on a daily menu and interrupted these synergies. And since the cows still need to be fed, large-scale monocrop fields took one third of all available cropland – at a time when we think hard to find ways to feed 8+ billion people.
So it is still a good idea to eat less meat. But also to think twice about the way our food is systemically produced – regardless if it is a vegan burger or a beef one.
Now let’s try to apply systems thinking to the LEGO Group’s own “grass field”: plastics. Plastic is a fascinating material that can be durable, affordable, safe, lightweight and hygienic – if used purposefully. But in the current take-make-waste consumption system, it can also end up in crowded landfills or endanger animals in the ocean.
If we were to address it purely as a material – for example, via compostable or biodegradable alternatives – we may solve the problem aesthetically (less visible trash) but not practically, because the microplastics would still pollute the environment and potentially compromise our food and bodies.
Better system solutions would on the other hand (1) aim to avoid using Earth’s finite resources, like fossil fuels, (2) fit the needs of the system for continuous & extended use, and (3) keep adding value even at the end of their life. What does that mean for the LEGO Group? We need to change the system WE ALL play by – not just its bricks. Joining forces with other players will be key in such a transition.
The systems thinking helped me understand why it takes such a long time to get sustainability right since it is not merely about finding a better solution but actually (re)designing a system where the solution is tailored to fit in and continuously provides value to. This is how nature designs too – making the end of one thing a constant beginning of another.
We have a ton of practice in building systems that are efficient. However, the systems nature built are both efficient, resilient and sustainable. Want to think like an environmental scientist? Look beyond the green-tinted glasses and at the whole system, not only the material or single product.
Finally, curious how to make more informed, guilt-free choices in YOUR life? Try review your own lifestyle systemically by, for instance, this footprint calculator to see how many Earths we would need if everyone lived like you. And see where and how you can change the system YOU play by.
Senior Sustainability Insights Manager leading consumer insight & foresight within the LEGO Group’s social and environmental responsibility agenda.
Inspired by people who dare to break stereotypes, status-quo and misperceptions. Expat from Slovakia, living in Denmark. Fan of stand-up comedy, yoga and ice-cream. Continuous faith in humanity. Trademark: Likes to borrow other people’s dogs.