Visualize, for a moment, the industrial economy as a massive system of conveyor belts—one that directs materials and energy from resource-rich countries to manufacturing powerhouses, such as China, and then spirits the resulting products onward to the United States, Europe, and other destinations, where they are used, discarded, and replaced. While this image is an exaggeration, it does capture the essence of the linear, one-way production model that has dominated global manufacturing since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
Increasingly, however, the linear approach to industrialization has come under strain. Some three billion consumers from the developing world will enter the middle class by 2030. The unprecedented size and impact of this shift is squeezing companies between rising and less predictable commodity prices, on the one hand, and blistering competition and unpredictable demand, on the other. The turn of the millennium marked the point when a rise in the real prices of natural resources began erasing a century’s worth of real-price declines. The biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression briefly dampened demand, but since 2009, resource prices have rebounded faster than global economic output. Clearly, the era of largely ignoring resource costs is over.