Thinking outside the box: going circular

Many businesses now recognise the importance of moving towards a circular economy; the environmental imperatives stare us straight in the face. We cannot continue along a linear path of take, make, dispose forever, or indeed for much longer. It is simply not sustainable for the planet nor for long term value creation within business. The potential size of the prize of a more circular approach for the economy and society is also large.

Thinking outside the box: going circular

Put to the test, many of us would be able to cite examples of some of the circular solutions bubbling up; from reusing and refurbishing items that would normally be thrown away to designing products that last and leasing instead of buying equipment. Yet despite this increasing awareness of the imperatives for change and the solutions, examples of ‘circular solutions’ breaking through and reaching scale remain isolated, and a long way from the systemic change needed if the circular economy is going to truly take off. We seem so embedded in the linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model and our economy is so vast, interconnected and complex that it can seem impossible to know where to begin. Once systems are in place, they can be very difficult to break away from, particularly where change needs to happen simultaneously within sectors and supply chains to achieve this.

But change is afoot. Talk to most businesses and you will find that they are beginning to look seriously at how they can take real and very practical steps to become more circular. They are seeking to understand what opportunities it brings now and into the future – for the way in which they operate and for the design and delivery of the goods and services they provide. They realise that change is inevitable and want to be leading this change rather than playing catch up. 

Yet even at this point, it takes a leap of faith to take the next step and get off the starting block. The key here is that it is much easier – and much more impactful – to take this leap together rather than going alone. Collaboration is critical to unlocking the circular economy. Businesses need to come together to share, learn and try new things at a very practical level. The challenge then is to identify common ground and a non-competitive space in which to do this.

And this is where Business in the Community’s Circular Economy Taskforce see the potential in the ‘office’ and why they have come together to launch the new ‘Circular Office Campaign’, to drive a more sustainable approach to the places we work.

The Taskforce reflects the diversity of the UK economy – with a range of businesses including banks, consumer product manufacturers, construction companies, resource management companies, IT providers, retailers and consultancies. These companies have very different offerings and ways of working. Yet the one thing that they all have in common – as with all businesses – is an office or workplace. What better starting point to come together to try out new things and to seek to achieve greater circularity? 

As well as housing a workforce, the office is home to a vast range of natural resources, providing the ingredients for the fabric of the building, and for its contents, from furniture to IT equipment, food, uniforms, lighting and carpets. And instead of using these resources and disposing of them once they’ve reached the end of their useful life for the company, there are a growing number of opportunities to extend the life of products, to reuse and remanufacture them and to recycle them.

The business case is clear – using resources efficiently and avoiding waste can save money, enhance productivity, unleash new business opportunities and increase employee morale. Committing to creating a more sustainable office also provides great opportunities for employee engagement – in specific functions such as facilities management (looking at how, for example, to minimise waste and to reuse office equipment and materials), procurement (seeking to buy or lease circular solutions) and more broadly with all employees in thinking about workplace behaviours – how the office is used, how their lunch time purchasing decisions impact on office waste.

The circular office also presents an opportunity to show how environmentally driven action can create broader social value. Recycling Lives’ pioneering work to establish prison academies in the north of England, providing training and employment for offenders in the remanufacturing of used office IT equipment, demonstrates just what is possible.

Several companies have already done some really good work within their operations – PwC with its Going Circular Programme, Lloyds Bank’s repurposing of office furniture and GSK’s in-house waste analysis to name a few. Other companies are offering ‘circular’ solutions – from Ricoh’s remanufactured photocopiers, to Philips’ leasing of lighting solutions, Rype Office’s remanufactured furniture and Interface’s recycled and biobased inputs into carpets. What we now need to do is to join the dots.

Business in the Community’s Circular Economy Taskforce have set themselves an ambitious vision: to bring organisations together to share their stories and to catalyse a movement of businesses committing to greater circularity in their offices. They are spurred on by the belief that this could provide the critical spark that turns talking into action and begins to create the systems change we’re all looking for.

And why stop with the office? It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to look forward to seeing circular retail stores, hotels, cafes etc being developed. Watch this space!

Libby Sandbrook is Business in the Community’s Senior Advisor on the Environment and is responsible the the group’s work with businesses on resource management and the circular economy


Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie