Monday, January 5, 2015

Material flow, the butterfly effect and consumer influence

What is “your butterfly” up to?!

Past postings have included discussions of the Ricoh Comet Circle and the circular economy as reasonable representations of several (perhaps oddly) connected elements in a more holistic view of sustainable systems as they influence green manufacturing. Connections in the context of those discussions have been about “material” interactions and movement … what comes from where, what goes where, where is “away” when something is thrown away at its end of life?

Over the new year break a number of discussions came to light about the other side of the “circular economy” coin … influence and effects beyond processes, materials, transportation, energy, water and so on.
This needs some explanation. What is referred to here is the influence decisions make on other decisions, people, experiences, quality of life, etc. Behind the smooth interconnectedness of our global economy sits a complex infrastructure of people, places, things. Sometimes these are simply referred to as “the supply chain.” But it’s not that simple. More importantly, if it was that simple we’d not be addressing core values of the many actors in the supply chain.

Data, specially that collected at different speeds and representing different “views” of the enterprise from top to bottom as discussed in the last posting, is currently focused on these material interactions and movements.  As referred to in the previous blog posting on the digital revolution, communication speeds, computational capability and speed and the hardware spitting out the data from machines and systems are more common, less expensive and more reliable. But, do they tell us the whole story? Or, more significantly, what would be need (or how would we analyze this data and use it) to tell the rest of the story.

This definitely needs some elaboration! Let’s rely on an old analogy … the “butterfly effect.”  One can find lots about this on the web but, basically, according to WiseGEEK “the butterfly effect is a term used in chaos theory to describe how small changes to a seemingly unrelated thing or condition (also known as an initial condition) can affect large, complex systems. The term comes from the suggestion that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in South America could affect the weather in Texas, meaning that the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on another part. Taken more broadly, the butterfly effect is a way of describing how, unless all factors can be accounted for, large systems like the weather remain impossible to predict with total accuracy because there are too many unknown variables to track.” The site goes on to comment on the fact that there are skeptics that this really works (due, for example, to things in large systems that tend to dampen, or attenuate, effects) but they do argue that is is applicable to complex systems beyond the weather.

So, assuming here that the economy (circular or otherwise) or at least the manufacturing enterprise is less than or on the same order of complexity as the weather … and that we believe that small things or changes can affect large, complex systems, can we apply this to our discussion of green and sustainable systems? More specifically, can we refer to any such changes in terms of our interest in influences and effects?

If you do a “search and replace” for “flapping of a butterfly's wings” with “human effects or behavior” and as well “weather in Texas” with “sustainability”, respectively in the above definition of butterfly effect … it reads:

“ … the suggestion that the human effects or behavior [as part of a supply chain] in South America could affect sustainability, meaning that the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on another part. Taken more broadly, the butterfly effect is a way of describing how, unless all factors can be accounted for, large systems like sustainability [of a supply chain] remain impossible to predict with total accuracy because there are too many unknown variables to track.”


OK … let’s go with this for a bit to see where it takes us!  What are some of the butterflies that are at play here? How could human effects or behavior in, say South America, or China, or India, eventually have a huge effect on another part? The most obvious answers to this in the context of sustainability start with terms like “conflict minerals” and, then, slavery. Meaning, the "human behavior" affected by slavery, in this case undesired.

One of the major human effects (butterflies) that is increasingly brought up is the derivation of work related to supply, handling and production of materials, products or components, specially within the supply chain, from persons not paid, or lowly paid, or otherwise captive by a system that exploits them for labor and other services. According to Free the Slaves there are tens of millions of people in slavery today. They put estimates at from 21 to 36 million people worldwide. These people are forced to work without pay, under threat of violence, and they’re unable to walk away. They can be  found  in brothels, factories, mines, farm fields, restaurants, construction sites and private homes. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it happens nearly everywhere according to Free the Slaves. Lisa Kristine, a photographer, has an excellent website dramatically documenting this. This is real.

Ones first reaction is “certainly I am not benefiting from or engaged in consumption that relies on slavery.” The links to slavery behind the products we buy and use is complex ... but there is a link. The story is told well at websites like Slavery Footprint which will calculate, based on the composition and origin of products one purchases and  uses - including many of the most reputable brands in the markets how many slaves work for you. For example, what about the cotton in the t-shirt, or exotic materials in the smart phone or coffee beans in our cup of espresso? or, closer to green manufacturing, the alloying elements in the solder used in electronics production? 

Slavery Footprint makes a bold statement in answer to this - “It’s the supply chain, stupid. And it’s a supply chain that enslaves more people than at any time in human history.” You can take a survey on the website that starts with where you live, what kind of place you dwell in (rooms, autos, etc.), your eating habits, your consumed products in the home, jewelry, what you wear, what leisure activities you engage in, and, specially, the type of electronic gadgets you own and use and ends up with an estimate of “how many slaves work for you.”

My number was 27. I have no idea how accurate this is … but it’s not likely to be zero … so this is not good.

So, what about butterflies and their effect? If one knows that slaves are contributing to the products they purchase and use due to, say materials (tantalum in a smart phone, cotton in underwear, constituents in food consumed or products (think cosmetics) used - and knowing the source of the materials and any slavery associated - for example from United Nations Labor Organization and its Global Estimate of Forced Labor), and then one finds out what are the brands that are the most prevalent in the use of these materials, and then stops buying and, more importantly, works with others to get more people to become aware how their purchasing behavior supports slavery, and then companies see the publicity or reduction of sales due to this awareness … and … finally, the companies change their purchasing behavior to source ethically … isn’t that a butterfly effect?!

It could happen! 

Here is one butterfly example - focusing on conflict minerals in the Congo - called “Raise Hope for Congo." Among other helpful information it has a simple description of how the 3Ts—tin, tantalum, tungsten—and gold move from the mines of eastern Congo all the way to your cell phone. These minerals form the basis of some of our most popular  technological advances in devices that most people use every day -  game consoles, laptop computers, and mobile phones. Further, besides going into tin cans, tin is an essential ingredient of solder for electronic circuit boards. Tungsten has many uses in traditional manufacturing including drill bits and gold is commonly used in electronic components because of its conductivity and lack of corrosion.

And, just as evidence that this is a real butterfly … even McKinsey has an essay on the birth of a consumer movement in their “Socially Conscious Consumer” posting! That means this is real! With information (data!) consumers will naturally move from products whose provenance they cannot confirm or for which it is known that slavery is involved in the supply chain AND move to products that can prove they are ethical.

But, the problem still exists. So, to make the full effect requires more butterflies!

If you are a company with a large consumer base - think Walmart or Marks and Spencer or Proctor and Gamble or your favorite tech products company - this will cause change (or at least concern and then change!) And, if your product relies on some of these minerals or other materials for its functionality it is a strong encouragement to look for both responsible sources or alternative materials. In an earlier posting reference was made to a BCG-MIT Sloan Business School study about business cases for sustainability. The top motivation indicated in a business survey was improved brand reputation … next was increased competitive advantage. Butterflies work!

These butterflies could be helped a lot by data. Transparency, linking back to the social impacts, labor practices/slavery, the influences mentioned at the start of this posting, is the key. Big data may help. But, the data most needed is that which is in this case most hard to come by. 

So, we come back to the question posed at the start of this post … what is “your butterfly” up to? Or, perhaps more correctly stated, can you get some butterflies “fired up”?! There are lots of opportunities. These influences will need to be included in our view of “circular economies.” We will need more and better data to tell us the whole story. Or, if the data is available, a better sense of how we need to analyze this data and use it to tell the rest of the story.

Maybe this should be one of our top New Year’s Resolutions.


  1. Knowing where our products come from and what it took to create them is a top priority for the New Year. The longer a situation exists, the worse it tends to get.

  2. Dear Sir-

    The post is indeed nicely articulated from the new direction i.e. butterfly and slavery. You have explicitly mentioned and explained the product- slavery relation that everyone must consider while purchasing a product.

    Thank you so much indeed for the post.

    Mahesh Teli

  3. Hi..
    very nice your blog.. The work is very well expressed in a new butterfly management and slavery. You mentioned and explained the relationship between the product of slavery, which must be considered when purchasing a product. And if you "search and replace" for "flapping wings of a butterfly", with the "effects or human behavior," and also "time in Texas" and "sustainable development", respectively, in the preceding definition applies butterfly.. Alternator Manufacturer in India .


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