The Ford Motor Company has been doing its utmost to shake off its old-economy image and let everyone know that it is as cool, happening, and green as any of you young upstarts (all of whom, by the way, need to get off its lawn, PDQ. Twenty-three skidoo!).
Point of fact, it hasn't been doing too badly. Ford's electric and hybrid offerings are starting to gain some traction in the marketplace, especially the ones that represent a more budget-conscious option for fuel efficiency. And it's just taken a new step: on April 18th, Ford went Hollywood.
Okay, it didn't really go Hollywood. It went indie-circuit short-film documentary category (you could say it went TIFF, which is actually much cooler than going Hollywood anyway). Ford has launched a ten-part documentary series profiling entrepreneurs and innovators who have crafted new, creative, and profitable approaches to promoting sustainable living. And here is the amazing thing, for anyone who's ever viewed a movie made by a corporation for the purpose of changing its image: It's actually interesting, visually compelling, and convincing. The first one at least, is, je ne sais quoi... good.
Of course, this is no in-house promotional video. Ford has some very helpful partners on this venture, primarily SHFT.com, which is "an award-winning sustainability lifestyle platform." Oops, sorry, my hand slipped and some spin got in there. It's a website, is what it is, and a very good one, whose avowed goal is to "convey a more sustainable approach to the way we live through video, design, art and culture" and whose implicit statement is "All the cool and beautiful people are saving the earth. Go ahead and trash it if you want to be ugly and lame." Implicit or explicit, one thing is clear: SHFT gives excellent documentary.
The first one in the series focuses on Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, whose modest goal is "to eliminate the idea of waste." He was inspired, he says, by the contradiction between the stuff we can make and what we do with it once it's not wanted. "Our major global solution for garbage? Put it in a pile. Or burn it. These are not sophisticated solutions."
TerraCycle went about putting every product it could think of to the question: That's supposedly not recyclable. But is it really not recyclable? For myriad types of packaging and products, he found that materials routinely discarded and left in a big stinking pile are actually 100 percent recyclable. Within a few years after it was founded in 2001, TerraCycle had become the largest collector and processor of wrappers, chip bags, and other flexible wrapping-type materials in the world. They came up with a unique blend of individual consumer effort and underwriting by the companies making and using the materials to create an economically viable method of processing these materials, and making them into the raw materials for other products. Remember Mr. Fusion, the garbage-powered automotive fuel system that Doc Brown brought back from the future, to the amazement of Marty McFly? (What do you mean I'm dating myself? As if!) Well, you get the feeling that if it's ever invented, it will have a TerraCycle logo on it.
TerraCycle represents an interesting angle that, based on the trailer, promises to be repeated throughout the series: Ecological innovation is not only about scientific breakthroughs. Yes, cold fusion would be nice, and no one will go broke who can turn industrial sludge into cotton candy. But these entrepreneurs are just as celebrated for their unique and inspired approaches to the fundamental problems of consumption and waste. How do you take the way people live and turn it into sustainable way to use finite resources? Tom Szaky is thinking not only about the technology he'll need to turn garbage into recyclables into new products - he's also thinking about how to make recycling specifically for TerraCycle something that people want to do.
For instance, I'm very intrigued by what he's managed to do with disposable diapers, which are a major ethical and psychological problem for many parents. You want your baby's bum to be dry. You don't want to spend your life doing laundry, and you don't want your house to smell like an eight-day latrine. But every time you throw away a disposable diaper, you feel like you're flipping the earth a giant bird. TerraCycle has found a way to relieve some of that emotional burden, by repurposing the absorbent polymers into a kind additive that helps soil hold onto water; the plastic parts into park benches. This kind of solution that combines technological innovation with an understanding of the consumer culture is rightly celebrated in this series.
And, though it does deserve a gentle ribbing for calling itself a lifestyle platform, SHFT.com deserves credit as well. It's doing its part to influence the consumption-oriented cultural patterns that are as much a part of sustainability as are technological solutions. Without it, Ford might have just produced another set of dreary corporate videos, and we might all indeed be making haste to scurry right off their lawn.
[Photo: Documentary Series "The Big SHFT" Launches at 404 NYC: (L-R) Adrian Grenier, Bill Ford and Peter Glatzer launch the documentary series "The Big SHFT" at 404 NYC in New York City]
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