That was the stark warning from Marks & Spencer’s head of sustainable business Mike Barry, speaking at WRAP’s annual conference in London earlier today.

Barry told delegates that the circular economy would happen “whether you like it or not” and that big corporations – including M&S – were coming under increasing threat from a new wave of disruptive innovation such as social media and public cynicism over how multi-nationals operate.

“The rise of social media means that anyone can now become a consumer or a producer, it is a huge competitive threat,” argued Barry.

“Add to that the societal disquiet with how big business and capitalism purports itself – as soon as somebody can come along and offer something more compelling than we can … it’s a big disruptor to the marketplace.”

Within the next decade there will be a rise in microbusinesses where goods and services will be shared on a person-to-person basis, allowing consumers to become less dependent on large corporations, Barry predicted.

In order for retailers like M&S to react effectively, they will have to change their business models – Barry pointed to the company’s recent Shwopping initiative which aims to incorporate both environmental and social value as a pre-cursor to how future models might operate.

“Shwopping is an idea of the future, but there’s a lot of journey to still be done,” he observed. “Collaboration will get us [to a circular economy] quicker … there is now an incredible imperative for businesses to change.”

WRAP’s chief executive Liz Goodwin underlined the need for businesses to find new ways to take advantage of future circularity, but was heartened by how far the debate had moved on in the past 12 months.

“I think we have a long way to go before we really start to see business models that will make a difference,” she told delegates.

“We will need to build those [closed] loops gradually … but we are now talking in a more clear and consistent way.”

Maxine Perella

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