Celebrate World IP Day – Innovate for a Green Future
Unleashing human “green-ius” to solve the climate crisis – with the help of IP rights
Human ingenuity is a double-edged sword. While it has created a modern world with technology and connected society unimaginable even 100 years ago, some of our most successful inventions have contributed to the escalating climate crisis in which we find ourselves. While the industrial revolution transformed work and social mobility, the machines on which it relied also precipitated a reliance on fossil fuels and other limited resources, initiating a pattern for industrialisation that has been replicated across the globe and caused often devastating environmental effects.
Now that the information revolution has succeeded its Industrial counterpart, for the first time it is possible to gain a global, data-rich perspective on the impact humans are having on the planet; it does not make comfortable viewing.
Nevertheless, humanity is resilient. We are betting on our ingenuity to get us out of the ecologically critical corner into which we have painted ourselves. Research and innovation offer potential for environmentally responsible alternatives to the most polluting elements of modern life, such as transport and energy, as well as developing solutions to mitigate or reverse existing damage. Here, intellectual property (IP) rights play a critical role.
From patents to trademarks, copyright to design rights, intellectual property can help consumers – increasingly concerned about their personal environmental impact – make informed choices about the products they buy and services they consume. IP rights also protect inventions, de-risking the process of bringing new products to market and enabling commercialisation that generates funds for further research. IP rights allow knowledge-based businesses to license their inventions, meaning they can be rolled out around the world. And if an inventor decides their discovery should be free for all to use, IP rights can prevent unscrupulous entities from trying to profit from it.
IP issues surface in all kinds of circumstances when it comes to environmental issues. Here are some of the instances where IP rights are playing a part in environmental innovation along with a look at some ingenious eco-innovations in the ocean clean-up space:
The Greta effect: activist Greta Thunberg trademarks her name
One day in August 2018, Swedish student Greta Thunberg skipped school to protest against the lack of government action to protect the environment. Within a few short months, her protest had grown into a global movement with millions of school children following her lead and cutting classes to show their support for the campaign. By the end of the 2019, Greta was a global celebrity and had been named Time Person of the Year .
In early 2020, Greta announced that her newly formed foundation had applied to register her name, “Fridays for the Future” and “Skolstrejk för klimatet” as trademarks. This drew criticism from some quarters, seen as an attempt to monetise her campaign. However, it is a sensible move from Thunberg, whose undoubtedly strong ethical principles mean she does not want to see others using her name to support campaigns that she does not endorse. Having built a brand and platform based on a powerful moral stance and hoping to use it to achieve environmental goals, it is a responsible approach to ensure her well-known personal brand is not used for commercial purposes outside her core beliefs.
Just like regular trade marks, certification marks tell a consumer about the provenance of a product. However, eco-certification marks confirm that it adheres to a particular environmental standard, meaning consumers who are concerned about their eco-impact can choose to buy a product with proven eco-credentials. One of the most well-known is the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star scheme, which promotes energy efficiency in technology products. Established in 1992 (the same year as the Rio Earth Summit and something of a tipping point for corporate engagement with environmental responsibility) it was originally applied to computers and office printers. However, the scheme now covers more than 75 categories from lighting to new homes and household appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators.
While arguably the most well-known, Energy Star is not the only eco-certification. Germany’s Blue Angel mark, founded by the federal government in 1978, is a European equivalent and many vendors who market products in the US and Europe ensure that they meet the standards for both marks.
In the world of corporate reporting, where focus on CSR has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, policies mandating the use of Energy Star and/or Blue Angel-certified products act as a shortcut to demonstrating responsible purchasing.
Image rights help spinach-loving sailor clean up the seas
French innovators The Sea Cleaners are hoping a 91-year old sailor can help them reduce plastic dumping in Asia’s oceans. It’s not just any seafarer, however, but the legendary Popeye the Sailor, who first appeared in a US cartoon strip in 1929. The Sea Cleaners have secured the rights from owners King Features to use Popeye’s image to promote its efforts to reduce plastic dumping in Asia and hope his popularity in the region will strike a chord and persuade people to stop dumping plastic in waterways.
The Sea Cleaners have invented an ocean plastic clean-up vessel, the Manta, which it describes as “the first ocean-going vessel capable of collecting and mass treating floating ocean plastic waste before it fragments.” The company also plans to do a deal for co-branded Popeye merchandise, with profits from their sale funding the build of its revolutionary craft, with the first voyage scheduled for 2023.
Seabin – a rubbish bin for the ocean
This was the first invention that popped into our heads when thinking about ideas for this blog. The concept of the Seabin is simple: it’s a rubbish bin for the ocean. But in its simplicity lies its genius. It sits just below the waterline in marinas and captures all the pollutants, from plastics and oil to other debris and even microplastics, that float around a typical marine environment. Initially crowdfunded and backed by what its inventors describe as “a couple of solid patents” the Seabin is also being developed for offshore use.
Brand with the Three Stripes commits to repurposing ocean plastic
Adidas, the “brand with the three stripes” is an astute organisation when it comes to managing its IP rights. It is responding to increasing demand for eco-conscious products by pioneering the use of recycled materials and in 2015 partnered with Parley for the Oceans to incorporate ocean plastic waste into its sportswear. Parley Ocean Plastic™ is used as a raw material that is used to make yarn by Adidas’s supplier – the yarn is trademarked. In 2019, Adidas sold 11 million pairs of trainers featuring ocean plastic and says that each item in its Parley collection has at least 75% recycled content.
IP rights, making betting on a human ingenuity a safer gamble
Our success at navigating humanity out of the climate crisis depends on inventors and programmes like some of those mentioned above, as well as major brands seeing the commercial incentive to green up their act in response to consumer demand. Whether supporting invention, altruism or responsible commercialism, Intellectual property rights have an important role to play in creating an environment where innovation – and the rest of the planet – can thrive.