Weslynne Ashton is an associate professor with appointments at Illinois Tech’s Stuart School of Business and Institute of Design (ID). Her research focuses on transitioning our coupled social and ecological systems toward sustainability and equity.
The United States is, by most metrics, often behind its peers in sustainability. Why is this?
A: There are biophysical and social factors at play. In the old world (Europe, Asia, and Africa), populations lived at high densities for long periods of time, learning to manage their resource constraints. In the new world (the Americas and Australia) population density was very low— before European colonization—and there were enough resources for people to live lightly on the land. The nineteenth century changed that and has pervaded our worldview about resources to this day: There’s enough land for us to take whatever we want and enough space for us to dump whatever waste that that we have.
What is the circular economy?
A: We’re never going to have a perfectly circular economy, where everything is reused and recycled, but the idea is how can we best manage the resources in a sensible way within the planet’s limits. Circularity offers strategies to transform industrial operations by redesigning products, reducing reliance on virgin raw materials, while creating new businesses for sharing services and extending the life of products, as well as recycling.
How does the concept of multiple capitals better inform how sustainable businesses or organizations are or can be?
A: It suggests that we need to look more broadly at what “value” organizations create and how they use different types of resources to create that value. We have the social (the people element), we have the ecological (everything we get from nature), and we have the technical components (money, machinery, and data). By making it more explicit and visualizing the different buckets of resources and the types of value that are being drawn upon and added to, we believe companies, organizations, and societies can get a more holistic vision of their contributions, the limitations, and opportunities for advancing sustainability of the whole.
Why is food waste a sustainability problem in the United States?
A: Food waste is emblematic of the systems sustainability challenges that we have in the United States and the globe. We produce a lot, and there’s loss all along the supply chain, but the bulk of where food loss happens is with consumers, in their homes and at the places they buy food. About 40 percent of U.S. food waste comes from homes, and about 30 percent from restaurants and groceries. One [issue] is the amount that we’re buying, and a lot of that is perishable. But there's also confusion with date labeling. The “best by” versus the “use by” date confuses consumers and makes them think that something's not good anymore.
How does the nationwide RECIPES project, in which you are participating, aim to reduce food waste?
A: RECIPES takes a systems perspective and recognizes that there’s a tremendous amount of good work being done at multiple levels across the country to rescue and reuse food waste. At ID, we’re building our Food Systems Action Lab, and RECIPES is one of our main projects. We are developing design frameworks to better visualize current systems, identify key players and understand what they're doing, and facilitate interactions among diverse actors in order to create more sustainable and equitable food systems.