Catalyst of the Blue Economy, Gunter Pauli

Gunter Pauli’s Entrepreneurial Journey, from Guru of Biodegradability to Advocacy of Sustainability

Gunter Pauli


It wasn’t enough merely to make and sell biodegradable soap to tree-hugging consumers.

No. Gunter Pauli was a young man in a hurry, with big ambitions, making a big leap. So he set out to ensure that the entire complex surrounding his manufacturing process would also be biodegradable. That meant every fiber, material, and component from floor to roof in the plant infrastructure could be broken down by bacteria, fungi, or biological means.

It was audacious. It had never been done. It was, he proudly proclaimed, “the world’s first ecological factory.” It earned global recognition, and celebratory media.

And it had a fatal flaw.

Back in 1991-92, Pauli recalled, you could count on one hand the number of successful entrepreneurs combining ethical, ecological thinking with market savvy. “There was Ben and Jerry [gourmet ice cream makers] with organic dairy cows, and there was me with cosmetics. We were the change agents, demonstrating how business could be done differently, with zero waste and emissions.”

It was heady. Pauli was a cutting edge “guru” who was “eliminating chemicals that used to turn rivers into foam.” But while cleaning up Europe, his rapid growth was destroying biodiversity overseas. His key ingredient, palm oil, was grown in tropical plantations, metastasizing across Indonesia, eating up rain forests.

“I came to conclusion that I was clearly not the guru and pioneer,” he said. “I had confused biodegradation with sustainability.” That pivotal turning point brought a secular conversion or “awakening” that redefined his life, career, and outlook.

From that point on Pauli has been relearning, rethinking, rewiring and redesigning business models. He has put words and ideas into action, leveraging funds at the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) Foundation, a think tank that gives innovative ideas traction and scale.

He rattles off disruptive ideas in short succession. Gillette and Schick could revive the dying production of silk by making that material the cutting edge of their disposable razors, and thus save money, create jobs, sequester carbon, and eliminate 100,000 tons of processed metals sent to landfill. Urban industries could grow mushrooms, on site, from the rich ‘waste’ of used coffee grounds. He points out the idiocy of purifying water, only to then combine it with our feces and urine, when $30 diversion toilets reliably convert human waste into productive and odourless fertilizer, without requiring a single drop of water.

These tantalizing stories are among 200 projects, leveraged by USD $4 billion in investments, which created 3 million jobs. They inform Pauli’s Blue Economy, Version 2.0 a book on the prospects to harness and transform commerce into low-carbon, resource-efficient outcomes.

Water – “directly interlinked with fossil fuel energy and chemistry” – remains the core focus of Pauli’s initiatives. “Water will always be associated with life,” he argues. “No water, no life. But now our organization and network of 3,000 scientists is pushing further into how, instead of consuming water, industries can actually produce more of it. How you can start farming without irrigation needs, and in fact where the agricultural by-product is producing water.”

Many grasp how paper comes from trees, for example, but few appreciate how paper – even if recycled – also wastes prodigious amounts of water. So why not eliminate consumption of both, asks Pauli. He makes the case for how South Africa can use Chinese technology to convert pulverized rock from exhausted mines, combined with recycled polymers, into “stone paper.”

Pauli remains a leading voice of combining capitalism and conservation. Yet since his “awakening” the driving focus has shifted from creating wealth through proprietary, competitive and exclusive offerings to an “open source” mindset that seeks to give away all his creative thinking to as many people as fast as he can.

“As an economist, if I want this blue economy to work for all, I know that charging x per cubic meter isn’t doing it. The traditional business model, to make more, cheaper, must become a way to generate lasting value for more people.”

He created the ZERI foundation “to speed and scale up, and go faster and bigger” than any single company could accomplish on its own. He is also working less in OECD countries than in developing countries, “delivering in the peripheries rather than in center of the world.

Yes, he acknowledges, paradigm “shifts are sometimes too big,” so he has learned to work at different levels. The US$100 million project is exciting, but more often he embraces hundreds of $100,000 projects. He’s still in a hurry, and the ambitions still burn.

But Pauli has adopted the Asian wisdom of how a journey of a thousand miles begins. “We’re all about a thousand small steps,” he says, “not one big leap.”


Gunter Paui will be giving the keynote address at the IWA World Water Congress, Brisbane, 09 October, 2016


Interview with Gunter Pauli by James Workman, Editor of The Source magazine