lego-708089_640No, I’m not pulling your leg. LEGO, one of the world’s most popular toy companies, has pledged to “go green” by finding a sustainable alternative to their trademark plastic building blocks. The new initiative, which is a $150 million investment, will unravel over the next fifteen years — as per the company’s plan to be sustainable-centric by 2030 — according to CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. To this end, the company will construct a LEGO Sustainable Materials Center in Denmark (its native land), which will serve as home to a vast team of specialists and scientists dedicated to finding alternative methods of production and packaging.

On the off-chance that you might not know what sustainability or “going green” means, here’s what you need to know:

Sustainability, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means: “The degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.” In more accessible terms: “Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations. Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.”

To clarify, “sustainability” entails the environmentally-friendly production of goods (including all its stages: conception, extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal), to the end of not inflicting lasting harm on the Earth’s natural resources and natural environment; the point is to “sustain” the planet for future generations. A couple of ways to go “sustainable” include environmentally-friendly chemical engineering, environmental resources management, and environmental protection — which are some of the ways that LEGO will go about changing its company for the better.

If it seems like I’m way too geared up about this news, then do some research about the production of plastics and about how many companies, globally, have pledged to achieve sustainability.

First, most of the responsibility for the compromised environment on this planet falls on plastic. Did you know that every single piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere on Earth today, whether it be in a landfill or in the ocean? And it isn’t about to go anywhere. The average piece of plastic takes about 100 years to decompose — the most being one million years for the average plastic milk jug. When plastic does finally decompose, it releases lots of harmful toxins and carcinogens that result from the degradation of the plastic (which is made from oil). That, my friends, is why you should never reuse a disposable plastic water bottle.

Second, despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is very real, most of the world’s governments haven’t taken any action to limit their pollution, with the US as the biggest culprit. Most companies that have taken steps toward achieving sustainable practices are companies in Europe (like LEGO!) because Europe has been working to reduce its environmental impact for years. They are way ahead of places like the US, China, and India. 

Most of our environmental problems can be tied to one issue: consumption. Thanks to the proliferation of capitalism and a consumer culture — and largely due to processes of industrialization — rates of consumption have risen dramatically over the last century and a half, dating back to the Industrial Revolution! That’s when people started making and using products that were cheap and didn’t last long.

Since the products didn’t last very long, companies had to keep on making them at an unbelievable rate, using up vast amounts of the world’s natural resources. Hello, pollution! This practice of buy-use-throw-away-as-soon-as-it-wears-out meant that factories were working overtime, the same way they are today in places like India and China. The common factor of the pollution? Consumption. So, for things to change, companies will have to start manufacturing products that are sustainably made so they last for a long time (reducing the need to consume); and, when those products eventually stop working the way they’re supposed to, they can be infinitely and cleanly reused and recycled, eradicating the need for constant resource extraction. This is precisely what LEGO is working toward! Isn’t that cool?

If this is all sounding a bit dire or impossible to achieve, don’t freak out. There are ways to make sure that we don’t use up the Earth by the year 3000. My personal favorite is Closed Loop Production, or Cradle to Cradle Production, which was developed and spearheaded by Michael Braungart and William McDonough — a chemist and architect, respectively. They seek to develop materials that can be infinitely reused and have either a very limited environmental impact at the point of extraction or no impact at all, depending on the product’s needs. Most companies with sustainability initiatives are moving toward cradle-to-cradle systems because it’s the most sustainable way for a company to progress and still be around in the future.

What does all this have to do with LEGO? Well, I’ll tell you.

Since the dawn of the company, LEGO has been built to last. It takes a lot to break a LEGO. In fact, LEGO could be considered one of the world’s earliest sustainable companies: “Lego’s signature brick has been built for compatibility as far back as 1958 and has been designed to last just as long — each element can be used again and again, with no end-of-life in sight.”  But, the company has said that closed loop or loop-to-loop production may not be an option or even the most urgent option; their main focus is on eco-design, integrating “greener design principles into the manufacturing process, linking them to wider zero waste ambitions,” which does involve cradle-to-cradle concepts.

If I had something to complain about, it would be the lack of specificity in their outlines for achieving sustainability and the lack of diversity within the plans for sustainability. There are a lot of layers to sustainability (I think that’s the 27th time I’ve used that word, but why not use it again?) — including building local communities of workers and employees, implanting initiatives like company composting, and building offices that are completely “green.”

In my opinion, although this is a marvelous step forward, LEGO needs to step up its game. Hire some sustainability or environmental experts across a variety of fields to completely turn over the company. As I always say about companies’ sustainability campaigns, there’s always more that can be done, and there’s no point in tackling the obvious crowd-pleasing issues without tackling all of the tiny ones as well; because if that doesn’t happen, nothing will ever completely change, and the pressure on other companies to go sustainable will be light instead of heavy. Also, if no companies enact any lasting change, or if they continue to cut lots of corners, then we’ll really be in trouble.

Regardless, LEGO’s step forward is worth congratulating, especially because they produce so much plastic. If one of the world’s biggest plastic producers finds sustainable alternatives, then the chance for change will go from a faint glimmer on the horizon to an all-consuming glow.

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