How can we accelerate the circular economy transition? Here are 5 top tips
With COP26 on the horizon and the economic recovery from Covid-19 continuing, much has been said in recent weeks about the climate and social benefits of the circular economy. But how can businesses and public sector organisations help accelerate the transition away from taking, making and disposing?
This question formed the crux of the conversation at edie’s most recent webinar, which aired on Thursday 29 July to mark Earth Overshoot Day – the date in the calendar year by which humanity has used an entire year’s worth of natural resources. Earth Overshoot Day 2021 was the joint earliest on record, twinned with 2019.
The session was kindly sponsored by Centrica Business Solutions and is now available to watch on-demand. Discussion points included coupling the net-zero transition and Covid-19 recovery with the transition to a circular, one-planet economy; innovating business models, investments and engagement pathways and spotlighting real-life examples of collaborating for the circular economy in action.
Here, edie rounds up five of the key takeaways from the speakers from this session, which convened a panel of experts from ReLondon, Elvis & Kresse and Centrica Business Solution, with edie’s senior reporter Sarah George as chair.
1) Have a clear view on your materials, but be flexible with your methods
Those looking to either set up a business with a circular model or to launch a circular offering for an existing brand were keen to hear from Kresse Wesling, co-founder of luxury lifestyle brand Elvis & Kresse.
Wesling told of how her “fascination with waste” compelled her to visit sewers and landfills upon moving to the UK, to gain insight into how they operate and what ends up there – and how, at one landfill, she spotted disused fire hose. She was attracted to the material as it is “stunningly beautiful and full of history”, but ultimately chose hose as the brand’s primary material after speaking with the London Fire Brigade and finding out that it wasted between three and 10 tonnes of the material annually.
Wesling said: “I wanted to start with waste from a place of not understanding why we produce it…. We have no need to send anything to landfill; we just have a complete lack of imagination and creativity.
“But 100 million tonnes is so big to tackle, so I started with hose and in London”
Wesling’s initial vision was to use the hose to make roof tiles but, after looking into the below questions, decided to plump for homewares and fashion accessories.
- What is the material made from?
- What are its natural properties?
- Where and how is it made?
- What is the best possible second life for the material?
Businesses that are not looking to solely offer a circular product or service may want to consider whether they can take a more circular approach to one or more of the below facets of their operations:
- Equipment, including computers, printers and furniture
- Purchased services
- Workspaces (i.e. can they be shared?)
- Building and infrastructure
- Plastic items
2) Ethics should underpin everything…
As Wesling’s presentation continued, she outlined how the brand donates half of its profits and has certified as a Social Enterprise and B-Corp.
She said: “We do all of our business decision-making based on whether the move will make the world better for other peoples’ grandchildren. This is shorthand for sustainability, you take selfishness and short-termism out of the equation.
“We’re never trying to achieve one thing – we want to have a positive impact in multiple areas.”
Aside from bettering resource efficiency by creating a circular economy for hose, the business also repurposes leather and packaging materials; pays all workers a living wage; operates an apprenticeship scheme and donates 50% of its profits. Moreover, it has recently relocated from a mill to a farm, enabling a venture into regenerating land.
Centrica Business Solutions’ net-zero product manager Alex Lowe agreed with Wesling’s outlook, adding: “As a sustainability professional, I’ve grown frustrated with being told that you can only frame climate change and environmental impact in terms of business language. I am unapologetic about also making the ethical case. The business world does not operate outside of the ethical compass.”
3) … But be willing to ‘translate’ the wider benefits
Nonetheless, Lowe acknowledged that whether transformational change is focused on resource efficiency, decarbonisation or, increasingly, both topics, not all decision-makers will be swayed by ethical arguments.
As such, he presented a five-pillar approach to building a business case around an environmental objective. Aside from ethics, pillars covered risk management, customers, shareholders and employees
Lowe said: “If you take a strategic view, a long-term view, environmentally and economically sustainable become the same thing. If you want to operate into the future as a business, then you are going to rely on having a stable climate; customers who have not left you and investors you can rely on.”
Lowe also highlighted how specific events or academic developments could spark “naysayers” to prioritise ethics to a higher degree, such as new climate science reports or the news seen this season about widespread flooding and wildfires. The body of research on the intersections between resource use and climate change is growing rapidly, two major comprehensive reports being those from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Aldersgate Group.
4) Partnerships are crucial
While Elvis & Kresse relies on partners to supply hose, leather and other materials that would have otherwise gone to waste – as well as charity partnerships to take half of its profits – Centrica Business Solutions relies on partnerships with businesses willing to accelerate their sustainability journey.
And, when you look at some of the circular economy stories to have crossed the edie newsdesk in recent months, there are almost always multiple participants. Selfridges is able to offer rental through HURR Collective and repair through The Restory. TerraCycle is able to use refillable packaging through partnerships with retailers like Tesco, as well as consumer goods brands and providers of logistics services. Asda’s second-hand fashion aisles feature products sourced by wholesaler Preloved Vintage Kilo.
To that end, edie asked ReLondon’s chief executive Wayne Hubbard how the organisation delivers meaningful partnerships. Hubbard explained how ReLondon, aside from working on consumer-facing communications and behaviour change campaigns, supports SMEs with circular models and provides partnered London boroughs with advice and practical ‘toolkits’.
Hubbard said the key to a good partnership is one where all parties maintain focus on a common aim, staying within their focus areas of expertise but playing to their individual strengths. Cities, for example, are smaller and more nimble than nations and can reach more people than one SME.
Lowe agreed, adding: “In my experience, the critical thing is that every party is aligned on an objective that is their absolute reason for participating. From there, you need a model that enables all parties to benefit from working together.
5) Engage policymakers and people
Hubbard spoke of a “golden triangle” of partnerships and engagement, in which businesses and cities work both upwards, with policymakers, and downwards, with the citizens in their communities.
He argued that, only with all of these moving parts, will the transition to a circular economy be smooth and maximise its benefits. Moreover, in Hubbard’s view, it could better engage the general public, who he believes often feel disenfranchised by talks through forums such as the G7, G20, World Economic Forum and UN, where consumption-based emissions are not always accounted for.
Consumption-based emissions is a term used to refer to all the emissions generated within a city or nation as a result of both local goods and service provisions and those imported, minus those associated with exported goods and services. Like most nations in the Global North, the UK’s consumption-based emissions are significant, due to the offshoring of manufacturing.
“It’s an empowering narrative to be able to explain to citizens, articulating very clearly, that they can bring benefits to the fight against the climate emergency by sharing, repairing, renting and reusing,” he said. “You can’t flick a switch and have these [consumption-based] emissions be gone. You need systemic and behavioural change.”