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Bright Idea?

by Worldchanging SF local blogger, Karri Winn:

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Recently I attended a press event at the San Jose Technology Museum of Innovation for, which is a campaign to diffuse 300 million compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) across America in the next year. 18 seconds is how long it takes to unscrew one bulb and screw in the next. Branded and convened by Yahoo!, this event was attended by manufacturers, EPA Energy Star, sustainability consultants, press, Hollywood, environmental NGOs and high level corporate executives from firms such as Walmart. The message: Change a Bulb, Change Everything.

So, what’s the big deal?
According to the International Energy Association, "a global switch to efficient lighting systems would trim the world's electricity bill by nearly one-tenth. The carbon dioxide emissions saved by such a switch would, it concludes, dwarf cuts so far achieved by adopting wind and solar power."

Inspired by Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, movie producer Lawrence Bender plays a core role in the campaign (he was at the event leading us through the program.) He thinks it is important as a simple thing American’s can do that will help the environment. While we didn't discuss this at this press event, obviously this will also have a direct affect on the nation's economy measured in sales revenues. Green is good for the economy, right? On the campaign website, CFL retail sales are mapped in real time to a visual image of the United States along with data that tells us how much we are improving our climate chaos situation.

The best part of the campaign, though, has got to be the branding. Genius to use the iconic image of the light bulb associated with bright ideas, innovation and creativity and link that to an heroic frame: change everything! The global problems we are facing are incomprehensible to many -- those of us who have studied this stuff for decades see all the complexity and don’t bat an eye. Yet, complexity is the major barrier to adoption for anything. In a sense this campaign is doing a greater service by making it really simple to address an uber complex non-locally generated but locally experienced problem through radical simplification.

CFL Technology

The EPA Energy Star folks are behind this in a big way and have been working to help advance CFL technology to meet "consumer" quality needs vis-à-vis the incandescent bulb. The benefit to the "consumer" is a longer running and therefore more cost effective product -- although the upfront cost is still higher then incandescent bulbs.

Anyone listening to the press lately has likely heard the criticism of CFLs since they contain mercury -- one of our very toxic metallic friends. Frankly, I don't see this as a problem since the mercury lasts longer than the bulb, it can be redeployed into new bulbs by the manufacturer creating a closed loop industrial nutrient. It is a problem if we just shift the burden of externality production from energy to mercury. The dual challenge is training all of us minions to recycle these bulbs -- we all have to adopt a new behavior or we will make it worse dumping mercury into our trash and sending it off to the incinerators.

Secondly, the onus is on Industry and major retailers like Walmart to ensure easy systems for their customers to recycle light bulbs at their facilities. If they are going to make money off of these sales, then they should certainly be responsible for part of the product lifecycle. IKEA, one of my favorite companies, has created an instore recycling process and above that they only sell CFLs with low mercury content. IKEA has been actively selling CFLs as part of a natural step process improvement since 1997.

If this campaign and the players in it were truly radical, not only would these light bulbs deliver the light quality and net reductions on energy consumption at point of production, the manufacturers would be creating a full life cycle supply chain and advanced green business model that includes right livelihood and social innovations in the production process in partnership with their major retailers. Part of the business revolution must include companies taking ownership of their product throughout its life and the impact it has on people through the same cycle.

Here's a fact sheet on how to deal with CFLs from Energy Star: download PDF.

Not So Bright
When I first heard about the campaign, I thought that they were going to give away light bulbs. Not so. So really this is just a big marketing campaign to spur adoption of a new and improved product.

This is a great time to be a CFL manufacturer -- it is not everyday that an Industry group can attract a public education campaign that has the direct effect of selling their products -- especially one that has a negative environmental issue (mercury) in its orbit.

Changing a light bulb doesn't change everything; it just helps us temporarily not make things worse. This is a systemic solution to nothing. In the meantime, this is a stepping-stone to substantive reductions in point of production pollution and the use of mercury should not hold us back given that we need to act hastily as possible against the worsening climate situation.

More than that, it could simply energize the masses to do more. Vamos a ver.

Replacing a petroleum-based economy with green alternatives is good, but let's get real, this is only a substitution strategy that may leave us with the same feudal serf system we have today. The real problem is not where we get energy from or the products we use, it is our mental paradigm of what we think is real and true and in this case it's about how we understand our role as human beings in relationship to each other and to the earth. Hopefully in the future we will come to see ourselves as part of a vast mycelium network, interdependently generating wealth and prosperity for humanity and our flora/fauna friends with an economy based on the interest of nature and supporting right livelihood for all people.


The people I meet at these events always make them worthwhile. I had a great conversation with a WalMart marketing director. I immediately told him I have not and would not ever shop in WalMart and then I congratulated him on the epic possibility that WalMart radically shifts global supply chains and the business model of the future.

I am not into WalMart; but I am absolutely into the possibility that WalMart becomes a radical player in cultivating new business models that promote right livelihood, operate on the interest of nature and support bioregional-based economies. As the world’s largest global retailer, WalMart is a high-level leverage point to achieve systemic change in the world. While we create and diffuse the values of a new global humanity, we also have to stop things from getting worse as fast as possible.

I left no activist critique out of the conversation, but I used them to craft sustainability business cases that simultaneously demonstrate the values implicit in the critiques and a business rationale. This guy was super smart and even I was thoroughly impressed by what he is thinking about -- it’s easy to get caught up in the externalities of the behemoth, but real evolution is possible. WalMart could really be a radical player in changing everything and we would all be better off for it.

I told him that I was looking forward to the day when WalMart, who is China's 8th largest trading partner, becomes the world’s largest retailer of home-based photovoltaic systems. If I were WalMart, I would lobby China to become the world’s premier manufacturer of sustainability energy systems, and I would see my opportunity to become a major supplier of household energy. Overnight, China could solve the primary adoption problem for solar, i.e., the cost, by accelerating the supply of photovoltaics into the market they could force the price down and WalMart, through the most impressive global distribution system in history, could radicalize the energy marketplace. They could do all of this and make money and have a far more massive impact reducing point of production pollution than light bulbs ever will.

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Do LEDs have any toxic chemicals? I know they're more expensive, but so were CFLs.

Maybe the bright green idea is to buy LEDs - I'd especially be impressed by lower lifetime energy and full-spectrum light.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 11 Mar 07



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