Social circle – the full benefits of the circular economy

Reuse offers tremendous social value - because of this, it could act as a useful lever to secure public buy-in for a more transformative resource agenda, argues Craig Anderson.

Can we develop a circular economy purely from a waste and resources point of view? Don’t we need the buy-in of the producers and retailers who control and supply consumers with these goods and services? And what about the consumer – will they be able to deal with this major evolution of supply and demand?

Change and leadership is coming from industry for a circular economy, so now the industry needs to look at whether the consumer can handle such a major upheaval. For me, the answer is yes, if we make doing the right thing appealing rather than necessary. We must identify the social benefits as well as purely technical and financial ones.

The greatest success that the charity reuse sector has had working with a commercial business has been when the business has understood the social context and value involved in reuse. They’ve seen the opportunity for a service-based partnership that meets their business needs and that comes with the bonus of adding value to local communities.

These successful partnerships connect the social agenda with their people, their staff, and their customers. The connection is the ‘human’ part of people, their relation to society and their wish to help their neighbours and their own communities. The partnerships that my organisation Furniture Reuse Network runs with major retailers and partners brought in over 78,000 furniture and electrical items, saving low income families £12 million on essential goods last year in the UK.

This is on top of the three million items supplied by our members that has saved 380,000 tonnes of CO2 and helped nearly one million low income households save £340m on essential goods. But on the downside, when we look more closely at the future of product reuse we see some barriers.

Current constraints
For instance, take the reparability of the products on the market, the access to spares that are only made available during the product’s warranty period – those are a real hindrance. Today there are some appliance manufacturers directly lobbying EU officials with the sole intent of limiting the reuse of their products. Some producers are inclined to make it increasingly more difficult for us to reuse their products – where does that leave the ambition for a circular economy?

Looking at the public sector, there are some real opportunities for local authorities to scale up their activities on reuse. The initial reaction is to tell the public about reuse operators and divert the waste to them, but this needs to be preceded by a change in infrastructure from the councils.

Interestingly, one question that has been put to me recently is, ‘Do local authorities need to be involved in reuse and waste prevention? Could waste prevention be the sole responsibility of society and communities?’ The majority of our members are there to support those in poverty and people with other social needs so my first reaction would be that the sector cannot subsidise the state on waste as well as on welfare.

That said, the options of such devolved responsibility could be explored. We work across different government departments and agencies, where there are real and quantifiable benefits to be achieved through reuse – we basically need their leadership.

Because of austerity and welfare cuts, the reuse sector is doing what it can by stepping up to help those that cannot help themselves, but we need ambition and action from all stakeholders to make reuse more sustainable and more impactful as a business activity and to ensure that the social and environmental benefits are preserved and increased.

Here’s an idea to ponder. Does a better society equal better business? Can a practical and focused CSR strategy bring business more profit and profile? The private and public sectors have long avoided such disruption, seeing it as a problem or risk. For the resources sector it seems this kind of disruption is welcomed as a possible future, and as future business.

If the various sectors have the audacity and scope to make the circular economy vision a reality then let’s start with reuse and get the retailers, manufacturers and consumers involved and on-side.

Craig Anderson is chief executive of Furniture Reuse Network

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