The 30th anniversary of Walter R. Stahel’s prize winning paper “The Product Life Factor”

The 30th anniversary of the 1982 Mitchell Prize competition
In 1982, Walter R. Stahel won a prize in the prestigious U.S. Mitchell Prize competition. His paper “The Product-Life Factor” was the first publication defining the closed loop economy—what is now referred to as the circular economy—and describing the impact of an economy in loops on resource savings, waste prevention, job creation and the role of innovation and the private sector.

In his prize winning paper, Stahel also showed how potential disincentives and obstacles can be overcome with appropriate education and fiscal and policy measures—approaches that have culminated in his publications on “Sustainable Taxation” twenty years later.

The Woodlands Conference and the Mitchell Prize Competition
The Woodlands Conference was founded in 1975 as a non-profit educational institution for the purpose of public education concerning the issues of sustainable societies, The tern ‘sustainable societies’ means, in this context, societies in which social and economic progress has been made that is consistent with the world’s finite resource-base; in other words, societies which are not necessarily dependent on continued growth in energy use, population, materials consumption, and industrial output.

The 1982 Conference on ‘The Future and the Private Sector’ was held 7-10 November 1982 at The Woodlands near Houston, Texas. The conference considered the major factors of production in the context of sustainable societies over the next two decades, and gathered several hundred business, ac¬ademic, governmental and non-governmental leaders from around the world.

Associated with the conference was the Mitchell Prize competition for scholarly papers on the means and possibilities of transition to sustainable societies. The theme for the 1982 $100,000 competition was ‘Future Roles for the Private Sector’. The Woodlands Conference receives most of its financing from the Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. The Mitchell Prize Competition was sponsored by George and Cynthia Mitchell.

Other Prize Winners of the 1982 Mitchell Prize included Amory B. Lovins and Hunter Lovins, the founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute at Snowmass CO, and Professor Peter Senge, the founding chairperson of SoL and a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA.

Walter R. Stahel’s prize winning paper “The Product Life Factor”
Stahel’s paper showed that the extension of the use-life of goods is, first, a sensible point at which to start a gradual transition towards a sustainable society in which progress is made consistent with the world’s finite resource base and, second, a strategy consistent with an active and independent role for the private sector.

Product-life, or the period over which products and goods are used, governs their replacement speed and thus the consumption of natural resources required for their manufacture and the amount of waste they create. Shortening product-life increases demand for replacement goods where these can be afforded. Extending product-life optimizes the total life-span of goods and reduces depletion of natural resources and consequently waste; it builds on and increases wealth. Longer use of products will thus contribute to the transition towards a sustainable society.

Compared to fast-replacement, product-life extension is a substitution of service activities for extractive and manufacturing Industries, and a replacement of large-scale capital-intensive companies by smaller, labour-intensive, locally integrated work units. The private sector, whether R&D, manufacturing or finance, will find innumerable business opportunities in product-life extension activities - REUSE, REPAIR, RECONDITIONING and RECYCLING.

Indeed, while increasing the number of skilled jobs available and reducing our dependence on strategic materials, such activities will provide the private sector with fresh impetus to make cheaper goods available as part of a self-replenishing economy built on a spiral-loop pattern which allows a substitution of manpower for energy. In this way, unemployment and poverty which certainly aggravate the fundamental instability of the world economy might be substantially reduced. The private sector has, moreover, resources and skills that uniquely qualify it to initiate this transition towards a sustainable society where a balanced use of resources and other societal goals are achieved. Potential disincentives and obstacles can be overcome with appropriate education and fiscal and policy measures.

Since 1982, these ideas have been continuously developed and broadened, and summarised 2010 in Walter R. Stahel’s latest book “The Performance Economy”.

Other resources:
Mitchell Prize Paper:
The Performance Economy:
The emergence of the modern circular economy: