The value of things unseen

On a family vacation as a child, I once accompanied my parents on a tour of a house they were considering buying on a timeshare basis. I followed the adults around the entire time and didn’t say a word. Afterward, my father complimented me on my good behavior and gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me:

“Sometimes kids should be seen and not heard.”

Today I imagine all of the exhausted parents out there nodding their heads, one of them maybe mouthing a sarcastic “amen” if they could have heard my dad at that moment. I seemingly did my parents a lot of good that day by finding a way to calmly and quietly go about my kid business. Sometimes, the most important thing is what’s unsaid.

But what does kid business have to teach us about green business?

Screenshot taken from

Screenshot taken from

GOOD Magazine has the answer. In this case, it’s actually about what is unseen.

In America, we think big, and when it comes to sustainability and green business, our minds usually jump to big numbers and big solutions. How many windmills? How many thousand green jobs? What percentage of renewable energy by 2020? And so on…

But let’s entertain for a moment the thought that maybe the real solution revolves around thinking smaller, and not just in terms of our energy consumption habits. What is the green business equivalent of being “seen and not heard”?

The business profiled in the GOOD article, Uponor, makes cross-linked polyethylene tubing used to improve the performance of heating and plumbing systems. Not exactly the first thing our minds jump to when we think of the green economy. And utterly invisible to most people. But what if it these pipes, used in so-called “radiant flooring” that heats and cools buildings by circulating water instead of air, could help you cut your heating bill by 30 percent?

That’s exactly what they do, and it’s a useful example of how sustainability, more than anything, is really about maximizing efficiency. Put the environmental argument aside. Efficiency is the stuff of capitalism, and it’s the basis for how people create value. It’s about taking an existing process and making it better – so much better that other people will pay you for the level of betterness that you provide. Green business is about taking this basic principle and using it to create new opportunities to generate wealth. There’s a double economic advantage because every business doing its own equivalent of what Uponor does adds value by helping people save money.

In the post-World War II era, America’s economic strength has been maintained largely by a demand for consumer products, and a healthy flow of diverse, well-paying jobs sufficient enough to sustain that demand. With many of those jobs gone and not coming back, we’re now in a state where the amount of broadly accessible wealth necessary to sustain this type of economy simply isn’t there. We need a new capitalistic formula, based less around convincing people to pay for useless things, and more around convincing people to pay for the value of efficiently produced goods and efficiently provided services.

Most of these services, like Uponor’s radiant flooring, will scarcely be seen or heard. The search for greater efficiency, however, enables them to be identified, and with every newly located niche comes the opportunity for newly generated wealth. What could 1,000 more Uponors, distributed around the country, do for our slowly recovering economy? What could only a few do for a small community struggling with high unemployment and low levels of wealth?

Anyone with an enterprising mind can think of new ways to create value by either doing something more efficiently, or helping someone else do the same. But the real key is in what lies behind the scenes. How can we take the everyday processes that make the world run, and make those processes run better?

The truth may save us all.

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