Sustainability Performance Management A blog accompanying my PhD research

May 14, 2012

Article Review: Types of Industrial Ecology (Journal of Cleaner Production, 1997)

Filed under: Article Review,Sustainability — jakob @ 9:46 am

Over the weekend, I have read Types of Industrial Ecology by F.A.A. Boons and L.W. Baas (1997). Please find the review below.

Review of the Article

F.A.A. Boons and L.W. Baas, Types of industrial ecology: The problem of coordination, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 5, Issues 1–2, 1997, Pages 79-86, ISSN 0959-6526, 10.1016/S0959-6526(97)00007-3.

One of the points the authors repeatedly make is that there is a clear difference between biological ecosystems (they refer to the metaphor introduced by Frosch & Gallopoulos 1989) and industrial ecosystems. The main difference, the authors state, is that in industrial ecosystems, intention is necessary to achieve the coordination required for firms to establish the desired input/output relations, whereas in biological ecosystems there is no external agency necessary and coordination happens through evolution. Accordingly, Boons and Baas conclude that for industrial ecology to happen there is a need for an external agency, such as a governmental agencies or business associations.

However, the paper touches upon a wide range of topics the link of which is not in every case entirely clear (to me). The authors start by discussing the “usefulness of biological metaphors” (i.e., the metaphor of the biological/industrial ecosystem), then go on to highlight some characteristics of Pfeffer & Salancik’s (1978) resource-dependence theory some lessons of which (e.g., the organizational drive towards autonomy) they contrast with the trend towards cooperation as indicated by some other authors (this contrast is actually quite interesting), to finally introduce 5 different types of industrial ecosystems: Product life cycle, Material life cycle, geographical life cycle, sectoral, and miscellaneous. The authors point out that the best basis for an efficient ecosystem would be a combination of (an “integrated approach”) of geographical proximity and product/material chain (– which is actually quite close to the metaphor of the biological ecosystem).

Category/Tradition/School of Thought: Industrial Ecology and Organizational Sociology (e.g., RDT)

What I like about the article: The most interesting thing for me was the idea of contrasting the drive towards autonomy as implied by resource-dependence theory and the drive towards cooperation; this, however, seems to be not much more than a side note and I don’t really see a clear link to the remainder of the paper.

I think the author’s observation that some coordinating agency is required/useful for industrial ecology to become effective makes sense. In 1997 (that is when the paper were published), the internet was not as popular and ubiquitous as it is today; if the article had been published three or four years later, it would certainly have included a reference to the opportunities the internet provides to facilitate coordination amongst industrial entities.

What I don’t like about the article: In their paper, the authors discuss the “usefulness of biological metaphors”. With that, they refer to Frosch and Gallopoulos (1989) paper “Strategies for Manufacturing” (cf. article review from May 10th, 2012). Frosch and Gallopoulos used the metaphor of a biological ecosystem to describe how in industrial processes output from one firm could be used as input from another firm to achieve both economical and ecological advantages by reducing waste, energy consumption, and resource depletion. I think the use of this metaphor is pretty clear, and I simply don’t understand why Boons and Baas put so much effort on demonstrating that the metaphor is imperfect. Of course it is! The metaphor serves as a model – and while all models are wrong, they can still be useful (George Box). The metaphor used by Frosch and Gallopoulos is adequate to underline their intention.  And after all, Boons and Baas end up underlining the adequacy of the metaphor when making the point that an “integrated approach within a region, in which complete, or at least large parts of, product chains are present (including consumption)” was best to minimize adverse ecological impact.

The paper includes a variety of topics which seem to be somewhat “disconnected” from each other.

Is it worth reading? I am not convinced the paper includes important new information for most researcher in this field. Maybe the situation was different in 1997.


Frosch, R. A., & Gallopoulos, N. E. (1989). Strategies for Manufacturing. Scientific American, 261(3), 144–152. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0989-144 

Pfeffer, J. & Salancik, G. R. (1978). The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective. New York, Harper and Row

Wikiquote: George E.P. Box:, retrieved on May 14, 2012.

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