INTERVIEW with FLORIAN HOFMANN from TU BERLIN
by Max Greiner, Sophie Kikowatz & Lara Herrmann
What made you get involved in the topic sustainability?
I studied sustainability science and while I was thinking about what I wanted to do in my master‘s thesis, I found the topic of obsolescence quite exciting. It has been picked apart a lot in the media. It‘s about how Entrepreneurs manipulate products so that they break sooner. I read a very popular science book about this and thought about how I could change this negative connotation of short product lifetimes and how obsolescence could be overcome systemically. This led me to the topic of circular economy and I presented this to my professor, who then made contact with Fraunhofer. So it was more of a negative starting point for obsolescence and dealing with it.
Circular economy is already an operationalization concept of sustainability. We all know that sustainability has been used by various groups of actors in recent years to pursue their interests. There were also some actors who understood sustainability in a different way than people who really deal with the sustainability of economies and societies. I am planing on writing a doctoral thesis about it and want to continue learning about the subject. I have developed a certain dynamic that I can‘t really control anymore. Which is nice.
I studied business administration in a bachelor‘s program and realized that it wasn‘t enough for me. During our Studies, we didn‘t try to challenge the traditional and conventional approaches to economics. There was very little theory involved. We were programmed as machines, that would later go into business, to work for big consulting firms, for big companies, and somehow I didn‘t like that, because an academic institution should enable people to think critically and to reflect on certain things, to read texts, and so on. I just wasn‘t taught that in my studies. That was a great pity.
How important is it to live sustainably in order to act sustainably at work? Do you project your behavior onto the behavior of others?
Yes, it‘s a difficult question, because people start moralizing very quickly and compare their own behavior with that of others. It is quite difficult not to. I try not to moralize so much and to accept freedoms of others. But still, it is a balancing act. Personally I try to integrate these things into my life. I think we learn a lot more from our fellow students than from the content of our studies.
There are three major areas in our lives that lead to systemic unsustainability in terms of infrastructure: One is mobility. So how we move from A to B in this world. I also try to ride my bike through Berlin. I do that every day. I also try not to fly. Even before Corona.
The second big field is nutrition. Our global nutrition system is pretty screwed up. *laughs* There I try to live partially vegan, but I don‘t always manage. Being a vegetarian is my agenda.
Housing infrastructure is the third point. So what is essential infrastructurally in our lives to implement sustainability. And this I find in apartments sharing in terms of electricity, heating and also land consumption.
If we change something there, we can change a lot. I also live in a shared apartment and I think I will continue to do so. But yes to conclude, projecting my behavior onto others is something I do not want to do. One would go crazy otherwise. It is important to keep a certain distance. If you deal with the issues every day and read the reports of the IPCC and you‘re working on making things better and it just does not get better. That‘s where you get on such a fatalistic path.
How much responsibility do you attribute to users/consumers?
I have already mentioned obsolescence. Companies are always accused of designing products that break quickly. As well as symbolic obsolescence, such as marketing measures that manipulate people a bit, pushing them in the direction of „you want the product even though you don‘t actually need it“. I find that difficult, but on the other hand you can also blame the consumer. For example, we conducted a survey with 2000 people here in Germany. There we asked if people believe that companies design products with predetermined breaking points. Quite a lot of people, about 80%, answered: „yes, that‘s definitely true“ but at the same time they admitted that 60% of people replace their smartphone even though it‘s still functional. This is a bit schizophrenic. Sure, you can say the companies have enticed us to buy it, through marketing and advertising. But it‘s always a back and forth, always a shifting away of responsibility. You can see that in politics, you can see it in companies and you can see it in consumers. My boss would say that we need new responsibility architectures. How can we see the concept of responsibility and how can we achieve that the various parties do not push responsibility back and forth? At my presentation, someone said „what do you think about Greenpeace accusing corporations?“ That‘s incredibly important and that‘s what many, many more organizations should be doing. The only question is, what answers do we have to these criticisms and what exactly can we change? I‘ve also done interviews with management consultancies that advise companies on circular change, and they‘ve also said that companies always feel so pushed back, feel put in a corner, that all kinds of people condemn them, „what are you doing?“ Even their own employees are already doing that to some extent and that leaves such a feeling of powerlessness. And that‘s when I think to myself that we all have to approach each other a bit in order to constructively change something.
And not just say „hey you idiots you are doing this wrong and that wrong, why do you keep doing this“ although we know the growth could possibly be harmful for the future development of mankind. Yes, so again responsibility is such a big thing, which definitely needs to be dealt with. And the question is, of course, how can we create the political framework so that everyone has to take responsibility.
But I‘m arguing from a privileged position. I don‘t have a big family yet, I was fortunately supported in my life and so on. Of course, there are other social conditions, i.e. families where the father became unemployed during the Corona period and so on, there are so many fates in life where the external conditions are not there to take on certain responsibilities. That should be taken into account in any case.
What would be concrete steps, measures to transform business models and which companies are most likely to get involved?
From my observations and what my studies also show, companies usually make only small modifications to product properties. For example, drill version 1 is made of plastic and drill version 2 is made of 60% recycled plastic. Now you can say „very good“ but in the end it is only a minimal improvement.
It would be much more important for companies to question their value creation logics and redesign business models. How do we reduce waste; how do we make the waste we have recyclable?“ but how can we actually avoid the waste; how can we possibly design services and products that do without materiality? Of course, material always plays a role, but how can we question economic thinking or management from the very beginning?
If you look at the automotive industry, manufacturers argue that their car bodies are made of 60% recycled aluminum. That‘s all well and good, but still the car represents individual transportation and a luxury that has an incredible amount of harmful effects. Modifying product features is the easiest step.
A large textile retailer places collection boxes for old clothes in their stores, but what happens to the clothes? The boxes are put up and they say „Hey we also take partial responsibility for the clothes that just fall out back there or fall out of the consumer‘s usage patterns, we accept them“ but the question is of course what do they do with them? People mostly have no idea. They collect them and give them directly to recycling companies or other organizations. They don‘t do anything with the clothes themselves. It‘s pretty creepy the way we approach it.
It‘s similar to offers from some furniture or electronics manufacturers, that tell us to bring them old products and in return one gets a twenty euro voucher, which you can then shop again happily. What happens to your old furniture? I don‘t believe that furniture companies will recycle and sell the furniture.
Many studies show that especially in America, the secondhand market, accelerates the market for first-time purchases. It is a kind of indulgence trade „Hey I have had my smartphone for 2 years.. I can put it on ebay and it will be further used.
Just today I saw an advertisement of a running shoe manufacturer, where one can order a subscription. One is virtually no longer the owner of the shoe but uses it for two years and when a new model is out, they take this shoe back and then recycle it. The sale of such shoes can thus be accelerated. You get a new shoe every two years even though you used to buy a new shoe every five years. What does that have to do with sustainability or the circular economy? That‘s another acceleration and increase in potency of about a factor of 2. It simply means that more is consumed. They are simply suggesting that they are taking responsibility and doing something good with it. I don‘t know anything about shoe recycling, but as far as I know, they can hardly be recycled, they tend to be incinerated.
So what can companies do concretely? It is difficult to change fundamentally from within an existing organization. There are political power hierarchies and we also know this from social psychology. If people are already established in a company and have had success in the past, they can‘t just be pushed aside. This means that new employees who want to do something with sustainability hardly have a chance. Arguments such as „That‘s not possible, I know the market that works like that“ come up.
Decision-making power games play a very big role. But also the culture, the rules, the normative target horizons that have been set. If you imagine a car manufacturer like Audi, for example: The brand stands for luxury, limousines, etc., and now imagine this company has to make it sustainable overnight or in the short term. This will simply not work. In the past decades, other values were communicated and decisions were made based on other factors.
What can companies do, for example?
Open up a new experimental space: An exploration territory where new rules or business models are tried out. It‘s also about engaging new people, getting new ideas in. In other words, a kind of adventure playground… Arranging a sustainability playground alongside the large organization of the existing one. Of course, you have to provide financial resources or networks for that.
For example, there is a startup company or „spin of“ from Miele in the Dutch market called Bundles. They put washing machines in households and the ownership remains with Miele. Consumers sign a ten-year contract and Miele is then responsible for repairing the washing machines. Normally, washing machines have a useful life of 8-9 years. The startup‘s goal is to then leave washing machines in circulation for 30 years. Because Miele previously only sold products and wanted to sell as many washing machines as possible, the company said „we have to set up a completely new company“ and founded Bundles on the Dutch market. The Netherlands is much further ahead than Germany when it comes to sustainability and the circular economy. There is a lot of experimentation. It‘s always about the creation of new spaces, where new rules of the game are tested out, where people experiment and explore how they can operate in a circular economy.
As an example in your presentation, you showed various sharing and repairing concepts. How could these be made more interesting in the future?
We have now talked quite a bit about entrepreneurship and consumers. But there is also a political dimension, where regulatory things or market incentive structures could be created. Like in Sweden, for example. There, the sales tax was reduced from about 20 to 7% for repairs. We also have that already for books and food I think. But it could be also established for the rental of products. But the last argument is of course again education to create awareness for these issues. For example, already going into schools, into universities, where people are educated. To bring these issues forward. I used to work at Leuphana at the Unseco Chair for Higher Education for Sustainable Development. My former supervisor once had a small teaching event in one school over several weeks, where she went into the forest with the small children to experience nature again, to touch leaves, to dig around in mud. And well, two children came with rubber gloves, the parents said „we don‘t want our children digging around in the dirt in the forest“ and I think that‘s pretty sad. So I think what is really fundamental is our relationship with nature. How do we see nature, what does nature mean to us? And I don‘t mean romanticizing nature and saying „oh the beautiful nature, that‘s so great and wonderful“. But rather, for example, to push projects like „solidarische Landwirtschaft“ more so that people really build up a healthy connection to food production again. We are already very alienated, not only in the production of highly complex products, but also in such things as nutrition. And of course you can do that very well in school, but of course education is always the last argument.
Florian Hofmann is a research associate at the Fraunhofer IZM and the TU Berlin with a focus on organization development, circular economy and transition management of organizations.