Katie Elder

Sustainability. Leadership. Innovation.



Sustainable Consumption

The theme of sustainable consumption is a great topic with the holiday season rapidly approaching. The ads for Black Friday, a major shopping day on U.S. Thanksgiving next week, are filling my web browser as I’m on a U.S. IP address with my work computer. (“U.S.” Thanksgiving is different than “Canadian” Thanksgiving. In Canada, we celebrate in October and although the holiday centers on consuming food, overall it isn’t as shopping and consumption focused as the U.S. version – yet.)

To talk about sustainable consumption we really have to talk about “Sustainable Business Models.” I’ve recently been doing research on Sustainable Business Models inspired by my dissertation supervisor who is doing leading edge research in this area. Dr. Nancy Bocken has a great website of her own with highlights of her research which you can find here:

Before investigating the literature, I had trouble conceptualizing what a sustainable business model would look like versus a regular business model. I thought “Don’t all businesses, aside from shell corporations or companies set up with a specific short-term interest, need to think about some elements of sustainability – at least financially?” Of course, it’s more sophisticated and exciting than that!

Dr. Bocken’s research shed some light for me on what exactly a SBM is through her work on “sustainable business model archetypes” (Bocken et al, 2014). Her research built on the existing but very limited literature on SBM innovation to capture a wider variety SBMs and comprehensive review. Through each of these SBMs you can see the opportunity to reduce consumption in absolute or create more sustainable consumption models. The sustainable business model archetypes from Dr. Bocken’s research are:

  • Maximise material and energy efficiency;
  • Create value from ‘waste’;
  • Substitute with renewables and natural processes;
  • Deliver functionality rather than ownership;
  • Adopt a stewardship role;
  • Encourage sufficiency;
  • Re-purpose the business for society/environment;
  • Develop scale-up solutions.


The concept of more radically disruptive approach to sustainability through business model innovation – beyond product innovation for sustainability – has been occupying a great deal of my thinking as I’m wrestling with how to incorporate it to my dissertation research. I have always been a fan of different corporate governance models having exposure to the co-operative business model at an early age and serving on the board of a large retail co-operative in B.C., Canada. As much as I love the theory behind it, I’ve become skeptical about the co-operative model and the closely related credit union model. During my undergrad at Queen’s, I took a fantastic course from Professor Edwin Neave on Financial Institutions. In that course he shared with us that credit unions, despite being popular in Canada, exhibit lower growth rates than traditional banks.

I promised earlier during our course work on governance models and legal business structures to do a comparison of co-ops and B-Corps. With this task still outstanding, the additional lens I would like to apply to that comparison is: which legal structure (co-ops, B-Corps, corporations) is the best fit to enable a SBM? I now think that the comparison of legal structure alone is outdated given the additional thinking on the potential disruptive impact of SBMs – regardless of the legal structure the owners of the firms use to incorporate them with.

So what are my favourite examples of sustainable consumption via SBMs here in Toronto, Canada?

A local example in Toronto that comes to mind for the “functionality rather than ownership” architype is the Toronto Tool Library. At the Toronto Tool Library you can borrow tools for construction and DIY projects. I came across the TTL because they also have 3-D printers you can use to create projects without investing in a 3-D printer. I took a course to learn to 3-D print there a few years ago after reading so much about it in The Economist; I had to try it for myself. Since I visited, they have now expanded to two locations in Toronto. You can find more information here:

toronto tool library

3-D Printing a Bottle Opener at the Toronto Tool Library, January 2014.

This holiday season think about how you can support a SBM and sustainable consumption! How can you give without encouraging more consumption? What are your favourite architypes within the SBMs? Can you think of any examples in your local area?



Personal Sustainability: Interview with Matthew Sullivan on Meditation

The theme of my blog is trends in sustainability and this post looks at the trend of meditation for personal sustainability. However, it always seems to come back to taking inspiration from nature. First it was the bees and now it’s the birds!

Read along to find out: if you are in search of contentment, you can try the flock approach.  

I bring you an interview with my mediation instructor, Matthew Sullivan. I met Matthew and his partner Ann Margaret through the free mediation circles at my local yoga studio, Moksha Yoga Downtown I started going two years ago and while I don’t make it as regularly as I’d like to, it has been a very profoundly helpful way to calm my buzzing mind, especially with balancing my demanding career and Masters programme at the same time. I share the benefits with everyone who will listen and have gotten a few friends to attend the class with me. My previous boss even asked me to do a short mediation for our entire team of 70 people during a team meeting!

Q: Tell me about yourself and your background:

A: My name is Mathew Sullivan. I am a Zen master in the Korean Zen Tradition. I was ordained by my Zen master Yangil Sunim about two years ago.

Before that he ordained me as a Dharma teacher in his tradition. Before I met him my first introduction was to mediation was in Tibetan Buddhism. That was about 20 years ago, when I just turned 20, when I began sitting in meditation.

Q: Why did you start mediating?

A: I was quite unhappy. I was essentially still a child and trying to find my emotions and fit into the world. I was very lucky in the way that mediation was introduced to me or the way I found it. There were two things that were key for me. I first was that I started sitting into mediation at the same time I entered into a yearlong bout of cognitive behavioural therapy with a lovely therapist. Those two things made a huge impact on my life and my relationship with myself and I’ve been a lot happier since then. And the second thing that I was very lucky, when I was 21 I was going through a very difficult time and a friend of mine found for me a Buddhist meditation center off of Vancouver Island. I am a big believer that mediation lives in a context, it lives in a matrix, and I found this wonderful context this land, this retreat center that was on top of a mountain. The land itself was great teacher.

There were two Lamas there and I think of them as my first two teachers – they began my education and I am very grateful for them. Eventually I moved away from Tibetan Buddhism but the underlying lessons are the same.

Q: Meditation became more popular about 5 years ago similar to how yoga became popular about 15 years ago. What are your thoughts on that?

A: That is a fascinating question for me… I think there are both good and bad impulses that drive people towards meditations in the sense that there are probably are people like me 20 years ago – they want to be happy.

Something that amazes me is that people don’t know how to be happy when they grow up – they know how to get great grades, know how to get a job, or how to make babies, but not how to be happy or content.

I think that is the main thing: I think Contentment drives people crazy. I think that’s one thing that drives people to mediation.

I think there is also a danger in mediation. There is a teacher named great teacher – Trungpa Rinpoche  – he is a founder of the Shambhala School of mediation – he wrote a lot about spiritual materialism, spiritual shopping, and the grocery cart approach to spirituality that is a dangerous part of mediation. You see that in yoga, the Lululemon approach where you just need to get all the stuff for meditation and so people think that mediation is another way for people to fill a shopping cart. But it’s another way to get people to think about meditation and that is a wonderful thing.

Q: What about the role of retreats and how important were they in your education in Mediation?

A: Retreats were essential to my own education – the original retreat I attended, Kunzang Dechen Osel Ling or KDOL on Salt Spring Island – going there was essential to my education. I think it’s wonderful to get out of your own context and into a space. I did a series of retreats there – I started with a few days and then weeks in my undergrad. I did a summer there. During law school I took a year off of law school much to the consternation of my father who thought I might never come back. I was essentially auditioning to be a Monk so see if it would be a good fit for me. It turned out I wouldn’t. That year long retreat was a profound learning experience for me — partially because it was a bit of a failure for me. I was bored. I was content for the first 8 weeks or so then I was very bored, anxious to leave, counting the days. That might sound negative but in retrospect it reflected so much about me and it was an extremely important mirror to me. That is now something that I try and teach.

Failure and frustration or unhappiness are great teachers and in many ways are better teachers than being happy or content or calm.

Q: You mentioned you have traveled with mediation and we had the opportunity to do a Korean tea ceremony at the studio. Tell me more about that.

A: The main travel I did was with my Zen master to Korea. I was living in Vancouver and left and came here to Toronto and I came to the realization that I loved my lamas at KDOL and KDOL but that Tibetan Buddhism which is a wonderful tradition wasn’t for me. That’s when I met Yangil Sunim. We are extremely lucky to have him here in Toronto. He is a world class teacher – he is very famous in Korea but here in Toronto he lives in a self-imposed exile and keeps a very low profile and it’s hard to find him. I knew almost immediately upon meeting him that he was my teacher. I also knew almost immediately that Korean Zen was the tradition that I was the most comfortable with.

That was a very challenging experience. Like a lot of teachers he is a very challenging person himself.  I know I have given dharma talks on this subject – the best way to explode your preconceived notions about enlightenment is to meet someone who is enlightened. It’s not a path to personality perfection, it’s something else. It’s not a state of mind, it’s something else.

We went to Korea with several of his other students and I think it was a wonderful experience to see the temples but the more profound experiences were things like the traditional Korean tea ceremonies. Watching how that is done in Korea. It’s a very informal process – it’s not like a Japanese tea ceremony, it’s a very relaxed, meditative but understated procedure. Watching the various ways Zen masters did various tea ceremonies was one of the most instructive processes I saw there.

Q: For someone who hasn’t come to mediation before – what benefit do people get who come to a mediation circle or a retreat?

A: My Zen master says it increases your skin quality – so there are the cosmetic benefits – very well know cosmetic benefits. I am a firm believer that you sit in Zen meditation for no reason – there isn’t a goal. That is a very freeing approach because if there is no goal, you can’t be bad at it. You can’t fuck up Zen meditation. There is no being good at it either.

That being said, there are side effects to Zen. I teach mediation at a yoga studio – I think of mediation in a fairly unromantic way, as yoga exercises, yoga exercises that don’t involve movement of your body. There are all sorts of yogas that occur during mediation. There is yoga of awareness – that in itself is very profound as most people aren’t aware of what is going on in their minds a lot of the time. There is the yoga of letting go. There is the yoga of refocusing your mind back on to your breath. There is the yoga of refocusing your mind so that your awareness and your mind open up and your mind is no longer a thing between your ears – your mind is now the sound of the birds, it’s your friend sitting next to you breathing – your mind becomes the sky. I think of that as a very simple yoga exercise as well.

Q: Is mediation a religion for you or do you think it’s something that people can just do casually, like yoga?

A: I don’t think about it at all. In my Zen Master’s Zen temple there is a fair amount of religiosity. There is bowing to the Buddha, there are big bags of rice in front of the Buddha, there are chants and homages… and in Korea there is a much greater amount of religiosity.

For me Zen is not a religion and it’s not not a religion. The religion is beside the point but it’s also indispensable. I don’t think that you have to be religious to buy into Buddhism or practice it well, but I think that it is an antidote to the spiritual materialism to understand some of the context.

A very important moment for me – when I was at KDOL – when I was thinking about taking refuge which is the most basic entry ceremony as a Buddhist. I was thinking about it very seriously. You go for refuge in the Buddha  and go for refuge in the Sangha… both of those things made a lot of sense to me, but it was very hard for me to go for refuge in the Dharma – because I thought how do I believe in this stuff? How do I believe in reincarnation?  In the god realm and in the demi god realm? Both very important aspects of (especially) Tibetan Buddhism.

I asked my teacher Lama Tara this and I said I don’t understand reincarnation – she very patiently explained it to me and I said I had heard  that – I had heard the explanation but I don’t buy it. She said “Then I can’t help you with that.” It was at that moment that everything fell away for me – both loving and not caring about the religious aspects of mediation.

Q: For someone interested in meditation, how can they go and get started?

A:  I think there are many ways. The first thing that I did when I wanted to mediate was that I found a paper backed book called “How to meditate” and that was very compelling for me. You can practice on your own. It’s wonderful if you can find a place and if you can find a qualified teacher. That can be great but it’s also dangerous because people can go to a center and the chemistry isn’t there for them. That makes them fall away and think that meditation isn’t for them.

Finding a Zen master or mediation teacher is like finding a therapist. There are many wonderful therapists out there that you won’t find any connection with so you keep trying until you find one. I recommend finding a teacher but I wouldn’t get hung up on it.

The one thing I will say is that meditating in a group is very different than doing it on your own. It’s like geese flying in the sky – it’s much easier when there are other people around doing it.

 Thank you to Matthew!

A final note from me: I also highly recommend an iPhone App called Insight Timer. It’s available in the App Store and features free guided and timed meditations!  

Canadian Geese take flight over Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Biomimicry in Action: Interview with REGEN Energy ™ Co-Founder, Mark Kerbel

To add some colour to my last post on biomimicry as a trend in sustainability, I arranged an interview with the co-founders of one of the companies that gets the most buzz and well deserved recognition for being biomimicry-inspired. REGEN Energy is based in Toronto, Canada. Mark Kerbel, co-founder, agreed to do a phone interview with me from California. Mark Kerbel is a frequent speaker on the topic of biomimicry and emergence. Biomimicry is a topic I covered in an earlier post so check it out for more background.

“REGEN Energy ™ provides revolutionary wireless electrical demand management and automated demand response solutions to commercial and industrial facilities using a patented approach that is affordable, easy to use and maintains occupant comfort. Drastically reduce your energy costs while gaining unprecedented access to load-level data.” (REGEN, 2014)

This interview has been shortened and edited for the purpose of the blog post.

Q: How did you get started with biomimicry and what inspired your current business model?

Mark: My business partner and I both read a book about Swarm Logic and emergent system principles, “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.” We couldn’t find a use for it with our current business and therefore parked the topic on the side. When we started our next business, given but we had experience with utilities and rate structures and thought we could apply swarm logic to it.

We thought someone must already be doing it. We talked to academics who were using emergence in commercial or industrial areas. They said it was still very much in the research phase and wasn’t ready to be used in commercial application. We thought we could build an algorithm for it.

As practitioners we learned not to trust so-called experts… We now have 8 patents and more pending.

Q: What is the main benefit of the technology that REGEN offers? 

Mark: Are you familiar with peak demand? Commercial buildings will pay for the consumption and a peak charge – the peak charge can be over half of the bill in a month. The peak demand charges are determined from the highest 15 mins in a month. That was the original impetus: how can we reduce the peak demand?

Q: What is emergence?

Mark: Emergence is the principle that in nature things happen to self-organize. With some genetic mutations, individual organisms can develop some very good control mechanisms that can help lead the group to evolve into a better state to meet the new environment – all you need are lots of nodes with each node having some decision-making ability and the ability to change/mutate.

Q: How is biomimicry included as part of the organization governance or management?

Mark: It’s more of an informal principle and part of the culture in R&D and also part of the operations. There is a natural want to keep things simple – the more simple the better. It’s more important to push embracing that on the R&D side where there is something that might be fun to do but needs to be balanced with the complexity and reliability constraints of the system installed in a building for 10 years.

It’s informally part of the culture that’s evolved over times. It’s part of design reviews. The comment will come: explain why we really, really need to do this.

Swarm is simple and self-guided so it helps reinforce it as a cultural norm. Traditional building control systems view each zone in isolation. In swarm, every node is cognizant of every other node – makes a decision that is good for itself and good for the group. It’s a completely different way to manage: not just simpler but it’s also better in certain situations to use swarm methodologies versus traditional methodologies.

Q: Where do you see the future opportunities for biomimicry?

Mark: For us it’s to do the most you can with minimal resources: waste not, want not. That’s a core element of everything we do. When it’s about adding another calculation, feature, hardware or sensor, we always think about the complexity being added versus the quality of the information. There is a tendency for engineers in the building field to want to add more… I ask them to make sure that we understand why we really, really want to do this.

Nature doesn’t overcomplicate things just because – it will only add something that will help the entire swarm or organism.

Q: What future opportunities do you see for applied biomimicry?

Mark: Nature is not predictable and it changes slowly as it goes. Biomimetic features require people to look at things without blinders because they have to look at what else is possible. There are opportunities for material science, the amount of energy to build materials and what types of materials to build so that they are strong, flexible, etc as building materials. Also in agriculture, medicine – there are opportunities for immediate applied benefits.

Q: What will it take to make biomimicry more mainstream?

Mark: There is stuff out there in nature that we haven’t figured out yet. It’s got to be there but we haven’t looked hard enough yet. Engineers are not taught courses that say your first step should be to ask, “what is the core of the problem that we are trying to solve and is there a taxonomy in nature that we can apply?” For it to become more mainstream, we need to keep spreading the word to product developers. It’s not as abstract as they think: it’s much more practical and applied than they may consider.

Q: What are the best resources for people to find out more?


The Biomimicry Institute:

Motionry is another company to look at:

Motionry is a community of start-ups, researchers and companies streamlining how to discover and develop partnerships. (Motionry, 2014).

For more information about REGEN please visit their website:

Biomimicry: #BeesDoItBetter

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015! Thanks for all the great comments on the last post!

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015! It’s hard to believe that the month of January is almost now behind us. For January’s blog post I am looking at another sustainability trend: Biomimicry. It is defined by the Biomimicry Institute as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” Biomimicry is taking inspiration from nature and can be used to solve some of today’s toughest sustainability challenges.

Nature has perfected a lot of systems and yet it has taken (some) humans’ thousands of years to embrace the idea that our created systems may be more detrimental than the ones that nature has surrounded us with. The reason I call out “some” humans is that as I was writing this post I thought of the fact that many indigenous people, known in Canada as First Nations, developed many of their practices and systems in harmony with nature and with elements of biomimicry. Returning to this harmony and embracing biomimicry gives us the opportunity to return to systems that are well balanced and don’t produce externalities that need to be regulated with even more complex and inefficient financial and economic systems.

There are three broad areas where I see that the sustainability field can benefit from biomicry:

1) Individual physical design or forms such as the aerodynamics of a bird’s beak or the stickiness of a burr to other materials. The classic example of biomimicry is of course Velcro. This is a great example of the physical form from nature inspiring a novel solution to temporary closures for everything from footwear to military gear.


Closer to providing sustainability benefits is the example from the transportation industry of a bird’s beak serving as inspiration for the aerodynamics of trains that came from a Japanese engineer – reducing friction and drag to maximize fuel efficiency and speed.


Images from:

2) Communication systems such as how bees and ants communicate to accomplish large scale tasks. The inspiration for Canadian company REGEN Energy ™’s Swarm Energy Management optimization system was inspired by the communication system used by bees to communicate without a central leadership role. REGEN Energy ™ adds decentralized communication systems to existing systems to help them communicate to reduce peak loads and simplify energy savings programs.


Infographic From:

More information on REGEN ™ at:

3) Harmony in Ecosystems such as designing for the surrounding environment like termites homes that maintain low temperature even in the dessert. Although it is inherent for all natural beings to exist within their ecosystems, as humans look to find ways to create less disruption in ecosystems and to fit exist across different and changing climates and geographies, this is an important inspiration. This description from “Biomimcry” (Benyus, 2002) gives a vivid visualization about the dynamic nature of natural life:

“Redwoods have fewer but better offspring, which have longer but more complex lives. They live in a most brilliant                and artful synergy with the species around them and put a great deal of energy into optimising their relationships.                Their wastes are recycled endlessly and their energy source is the sun.”


Thinking about ecosystems makes me think back to the Phillip’s Machine that I saw in action at Cambridge in September 2014 and wonder what other systems could be optimized by taking inspiration from natural systems along with physical structures to identify opportunities and outages with current models.  The Philip’s Machine uses water to model the economy and shows the impact of changes in one area, for example taxation on other areas of the economy, like savings with adjustments to the flow of the water.

I think that the biggest opportunities are still in the areas of communication and ecosystems. The design area and function forms are the “low hanging fruit” of biomimicry but I think the other two areas are ripe with opportunity for further expansion in areas like the REGEN ™ swarm-inspired technology.

Why do you think that human’s inherently think that we can outsmart nature with our created systems? Where do you see the next biggest opportunity for biomimicry to have an impact in the sustainability field?

Up next: I am working on a further post with some first-hand insight into the usage of biomimicry for solving sustainability challenges and also looking at a comparison of the ever-trendy B-Corps with the less-sexy-yet-practical co-operative structure.

Sustainability Trends: Reporting as a catalyst of change or purely risk mitigation – Chipotle Guacgate

The goal for my sustainability related posts is to look for emerging trends in sustainability.

As sustainability has gained more awareness over the last few decades at the most macro level one of the biggest trends is the finding sustainable solutions that also result in cost-savings. These are easy wins for organizations as they get the additional benefit of a good-news story along with an immediate cost savings. At a certain point these opportunities should all be identified and used up. Then what? When the quick wins of short-term cost saving + sustainability advantage are seized there will still be advanced in technology that present new options to upgrade, identify new cost savings and reduce impact. There are some organizations that already take a more long-term view and go beyond the critically important but opportunistic cost-saving seeking. I am hunting for examples of companies that have decided to take a more proactive view beyond immediate cost savings or risk mitigation to embed sustainability in their organizations.

Chipotle Quac headlines

A recent headline led me to believe the Chipotle had actually called out the potential risk of climate change impact on their ability to serve guacamole in their restaurants. A bit of further digging revealed this was not actually the true intent or meaning behind the disclosure at all.

The company report stated:

“Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns, including any changes associated with global climate change, could have a significant impact on the price or availability of some of our ingredients.”

“In the event of cost increases with respect to one or more of our raw ingredients, we may choose to temporarily suspend serving menu items, such as guacamole or one or more of our salsas, rather than paying the increased cost for the ingredients.”

The link between these statements and the headlines of climate change risking guacamole are a stretch although it’s not unlikely that we start to see more of these types of disclosures. In this situation I think someone saw an opportunity to create some buzz regarding climate change using a brand many are devoted to and an item that North American’s generally love.

Regular disclosure or trend-worthy foresight in reporting? Regular disclosure that was sensationalized – but it did start definitely start a conversation!

Do you think this hurts or helps the climate change discussion since it had the opportunity to bring to light the tangible impacts of climate change but wasn’t based on the company’s actual intent with the disclosure?

Starting a conversation

Welcome to my blog! I started this blog as part of my Masters in Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge coursework. The programme is part-time and designed for working professionals. I am planning to use the blog as a home for posts on other areas too – from retail trends to restaurant recommendations! Stay tuned!

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