How adopting a circular economy could help us avoid disaster

If you’re anything like us, it’s more than likely that the heart-warming pictures of azure Venetian canals, pristine skies over notoriously perma-smogged Los Angeles, and goats descending into the empty streets of Llandudno to eat the local’s potted plants brought a smile and a sigh of relief during the hard months of lockdown. The idea that the environment, the world we call home and the only home we have (at least until Elon Musk terraforms Mars) could recover from the damage wrought upon it by humanity since the Industrial Revolution seemed like a mirage shimmering before our eyes in the desert that was once Cornwall.

The trouble was always going to be that these gains were temporary, and now lockdowns have ended, we have seen a reversion as the traditional linear economy that has created so much waste and environmental devastation over the last century and a half.

The political and economic fallout from the global pandemic may, however, have given the world the opportunity to drastically rethink the way we operate our businesses, and elevate the concept of the circular economy from corporate jargon to the ethical and environmental business model it should be.

Circular business models.

A business model run on the system of a linear economy essentially treats the environment as a stockpile of renewable and non-renewable resources to be exploited. It is often defined as the “take, make, dispose” model and functions on the idea that any waste material or products that cease to function will be disposed of rather than being recycled or repurposed. To contextualise this think of the nightmarish scene in ToyStory 2 when a broken Woody is thrown into the bin by Andy, in a circular economy the sheriff would have been passed onto another child or fixed, rather than condemned to the carbon and tear producing incineration that awaits him in the third film. (I’m not apologising for omitting a spoiler warning here because frankly the film is ten years old and you should have seen it by now.)

A circular business model aims to hugely reduce, or hopefully entirely eliminate the waste from production, and it is gaining traction across the world. By recycling as much of raw materials used for production AND the products themselves companies and entire countries are hoping to develop a model that entirely avoids the need for excess waste.

At first glance the idea of a circular economy may seem like little more than advanced recycling but, in the same ignorant way that I find yoga to be like advanced leaning, there is rather more to it.

Circular business models are radically rethinking the way companies are set up and, by designing products to be more repairable and reusable, are paving a way for a greener global economy, and a way to avoid the world becoming more steadily like The Road.  

Of course, in a world where the one of the most powerful and heavily armed nuclear super-powers regards even basic health care provision as some kind of communist plot it’s difficult to imagine that the mass-restructuring of the economic principles that govern our markets will godown particularly well.

Having said that, there is growing evidence that businesses and nations across the world are waking up to the idea that without a deep structural change in the way that we produce goods, the world will not be able to cope with the waste.

Companies adopting circular economy practices.

The Dame Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been campaigning and raising awareness of the circular economy model for a decade, and it is beginning to pay off; not only has the European Commission begun to implement aCircular Economy Action Plan as part of the basis of it’s Green Deal, but evenChina has started to implement the plan in order to offset the adverse environmental effects of being one of the world’s largest producers.

Ikea has introduced a buyback scheme beginning at the end of this month in order to ensure the furniture you’ve had enough of (we’re looking at you Viktigt) doesn’t end up in landfill, Timberland has partnered with Omni, a tire manufacturer, to produce the soles of their shoes from recycled rubber ,and

There are many examples of fast fashion brands, and companies from across the product range making the switch to the circular economy, and it is steadily becoming more than a marketing ploy. Achilles and the Tortoise, birdsong, MAGA and countless other fashion brands have signed the circular fashion pledge in support of UN sustainable development goals.

The global adoption of circular economies begins small and medium businesses, and within each of those it does not have to come as a directive from the top. It’s always struck me a little condescending when articles tell you what to do but, given the alternative is total environmental annihilation within our lifetime, I’ll take the risk. Wherever you are in your business, it’s vital to get these ideas of the ground by talking about them (think of the wildfire spread of Kony 2012 but without the mass disinformation).

Introducing the ideas of the circular economy to your colleagues and line managers is a fantastic start but it’s imperative that the principles of the circular economy are adopted for every company project.

From redesigning product to running seminars raising awareness it’s time to make people realise that blowing up great swathes of the world to harvest shale gas is completely fracking useless.

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