UK Overshoot Day: Three transformational ways businesses can help move the date

Friday 19 May marks Overshoot Day for the UK. In her latest blog, edie’s senior reporter Sarah George proposes three impactful steps businesses can take to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

UK Overshoot Day: Three transformational ways businesses can help move the date

Humanity has been taking more resources than Earth can replenish each year since 1970. The point in the year at which we have taken more resources than can be renewed is known as Earth Overshoot Day, an occasion that serves as a reminder of the impacts of our ‘take-make-dispose’ economy.

In the UK, where edie is based, Overshoot Day is this Friday. We are in the middle of the pack globally, with 32 nations set for a later overshoot (meaning they use and waste less) and 32 having already marked their overshoot (meaning they use and waste more).

The worst offenders are Qatar and Luxembourg. By mid-February this year, they had their overshoot days. But this is, by no means, evidence that the UK is a leader.

The UK Government likes to claim it is world-leading on climate, as it was the first major economy to set a legally binding net-zero target. Yet we know that 45% of annual global emissions are connected to the ways in which we use resources, so we won’t reach net-zero without a more circular economy.

This does not entail simply tinkering at the edges and maximising efficiencies in existing business models. Transformational changes are needed and this blog outlines three of them, which could be pioneered by the private sector.

1) Retrofitting before reaching for the wrecking ball

Green Alliance recently confirmed in a new report that construction, demolition and excavation account for 62% of the UK’s solid waste each year. This exceeds the global average share of 40%.

A transformational way of reducing waste in this space would be exploring retrofitting before demolishing buildings and erecting new ones in their place. Experts at the Architects’ Journal estimate that around 50,000 buildings are demolished each year in the UK. By some estimates, retrofitting them instead could generate £35bn of economic output each year.

There are many policy levers that could be pulled to encourage – or even mandate – a retrofit-first approach. Some have called for an incentive-based model, such as reducing or axing the 20% rate of VAT currently applied to most refurbishment work, considering that most new builds benefit from a VAT break.

Others, like the British Property Federation, have gone further and called for mandatory requirements on developers to at least consider retrofit, and to design buildings with components that are easier to reuse if they are building new.

But, in the absence of policy mandates, and despite potentially prohibitive costs, some truly innovative retrofit projects are being completed. For example, the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL) recently moved its headquarters to a building called ‘Entopia’. This is a retrofitted telephone exchange building, first constructed in the 1930s. And Grosvenor Group is retrofitting a redbrick office building near Sloane Square, to become its first net-zero carbon office building, Holbein Gardens.

2) Adopting more dynamic approaches to procurement

WWF has stated that claims around 30-33% of all food produced globally going to waste are likely to be underestimated. It places the true proportion at 40%.

The majority of food waste in the UK occurs at the consumer level. Globally, though, more than half of food waste occurs before food even reaches retailers, restaurants and homes. Regardless of what stage in its lifecycle food is wasted at, the waste impacts our overshoot day as well as our climate impacts. The wasted food could also have been used to feed those in need.

And, regardless of when wastage occurs, implementing more dynamic procurement could be the answer, experts on an ECIU briefing call held ahead of the Government’s food summit this week agreed. Instead of overstocking tomatoes, for example, supermarkets could stock some and then top-up if needed. This could be paired with moves to farmers diversifying their crops, producing smaller lots of a greater range of foods, to prevent waste from shifting to the farm level.

Dynamic procurement could also be applied in sectors like fashion and home goods. We will all have seen stories of goods like handbags, shoes, vases, makeup and candles being either damaged and thrown away or burned. What if manufacturers had better-anticipated consumer demand in the first instance?

There are already examples of made-to-order and dynamic procurement models becoming a success. Clothing brand Rapanui, based on the Isle of Wight, prints shirts to order rather than mass-producing, offering a range of print options on several different base colours. The base shirts contain recycled content and can be returned for recycling.

3) Making a step change in marketing

The third and final point for this blog will doubtless be the most controversial. Simply put, the UK hits overshoot earlier than the global average because most organisations, households and individuals simply buy and waste too much stuff.

Most of us are sitting on at least 31 items of underutilized clothing and will toss at least £728 worth of food each year. More than a quarter of us buy a brand-new smartphone at least every two years. By their 13th birthday, British children will have recieved almost 500 toys.

It is estimated that one-third of the average UK citizen’s carbon footprint is attributable to goods and services that they would not have purchased if it were not for advertising. The proportion has risen in recent years and may well rise again, with the boom in popularity of platforms that enable mindless impulse buying such as TikTok Shop.

Advertising and marketing firms should be making their ESG strategies truly credible by pledging to work with clients that offer lower-impact goods and services. Many are. What far fewer (if any) are doing is helping citizens to avoid purchases that do not serve them – items that aren’t in their budget, items they already own, items designed to break. Promoting business models like repair, rental and as-a-service models would be a more mindful alternative.

Join the conversation at edie’s Circular Economy Action Sessions 

On Thursday 25 May, edie is hosting an afternoon of live, interactive webinar presentations and discussions – all dedicated to capturing the business opportunity of a resource-efficient, zero-waste economy.  We have confirmed guest speakers from organisations including BT, The Body Shop and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The Circular Economy Action Sessions are free-to-attend and registration grants you access to a recording of the event on-demand once it has finished.

Click here for a full agenda and to register.


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