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Catherine Weetman 0:02
Welcome back, it’s episode 90.
Instead of doing my usual roundup of the last series, in this episode, I want to shine a light on something that’s been worrying me. Over the last few years, I’ve come to realise that the circular economy is not fit for purpose. It’s not helping create the future we need. Instead, it’s being watered down and cherry picked. I’m seeing increasing numbers of businesses and policymakers choosing strategies that are circular, but they’re not improving sustainability. Today, I’m going to be talking about loopholes rather than loops!
I think we’re at a critical turning point. We need to evolve a circular economy into a framework that supports the future we want, the future we need, and the future we know is possible. If we don’t, we’re letting all our hard work, our innovations, our struggles, go to waste. And you don’t need me to remind you that we shouldn’t exist in a circular economy.
Back in 2010, the circular economy changed my life. And I’m guessing many of you would say the same. Through my career, I’d been proud to work for multinational companies, including Kellogg’s, Tesco, and DHL. managing projects do not designing systems and solutions. Along the way, a couple of major health setbacks got me thinking about what was really in our food, and how the system was all about cheap calories, not healthy food and farming. Over the years, that led me to choose organic food that was better for living creatures, for the workers, and of course for our health.
As time went on, I was becoming more worried about broader sustainability issues, climate, water stress, resource scarcity, pollution, and our impact on nature. Looking around, I could only see businesses making incremental improvements, most of which happily saved money to worse, colleagues and clients seem to believe that healthy, profitable business and sustainable practices were incompatible.
The more I thought about what I was doing, the clearer it became. I realised my day job, my whole career was all about helping big businesses get a bit more effective and efficient, so they could sell more stuff we probably didn’t need. In other words, I was part of the problem too. I felt conflicted, and guilty.
So in 2010, I began a quest to get to grips with the problem, the root causes and the possible solutions. But after months and months of research, I was pretty depressed. The problems were more complicated and more deeply rooted than I’d expected. And it seemed like there was no way forward. I felt like I was in a complex maze. Every turn I took hoping to find a way through, took me on a different route back towards the same problems, production and consumption. The only solution seemed to be that we’d all have to consume less, much less. And I couldn’t see anyone buying into that. But then I started to look for solutions.
Digging into the new terminology, I’d come across phrases like industrial ecology, biomimicry, even 3d printing was pretty new back in 2010. And then I came across an education publication about the circular economy. It was called Sense and Sustainability, written by Ken Webster and Craig Johnson, of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. I read that and suddenly, I could see there was a way forward a way out of the maze.
Next, I pitched for a talk to an institute group I belong to. And after that, I started to give talks to professional groups, to colleagues and customers. And at first, I had a very supportive boss, who was encouraging me to do this. But then, after a restructure, I found my new boss couldn’t care less about sustainability. If I wanted to make a difference, I realised I was going to have to quit my corporate career. So I could go all in helping people understand what the circular economy was all about, and how it could help us create profitable, resilient and sustainable businesses. In 2016, I was approached by a publisher, Kogan Page, and after some discussions about waste in supply chains I got started on writing the first edition of A Circular Economy Handbook.
Catherine Weetman 5:06
I’d already started collecting examples of businesses creating circular products, materials, platforms, and so on. And I was keen to include some examples of what big businesses were doing. So I could help convince people that the circular economy was starting to gain traction. But I was really struggling to find more than a handful of examples. And most of those were already well known. I included a small piece about Ford circular initiatives, including Ford’s announcement in 2014, about working with Heinz to find a way to convert waste tomato skins into bio plastics for cars. I felt pretty sceptical about that. And I even pointed out that the press release was dated June, so it was unlikely to be an April Fool’s joke. I suspect you probably won’t be surprised to hear that when I checked a few years later, nothing more had happened. Maybe that was a collaborative project that didn’t work out as planned. Maybe it was just a great piece of PR. I’d love to know.
A few years later in 2019 Kogan Page asked me to write a second edition of A Circular Economy Handbook. By then, I’d logged hundreds of examples in my database of companies creating circular products, materials and business models. My analysis showed that the majority of those were startups, with lots of them focused on new generation materials or recycling innovations. This time, my research uncovered more big business examples. But disappointingly, these were mostly statements of ambition, pilot schemes and experiments.
In the second edition, I highlighted the need for slowing the flow of production and shrinking our human footprint. Building on the work of scholars, including Nancy Bocken and her team, Martin Geissdoerfer and his team, John Mulrow, and Victoria Santos. I set out four goals for businesses: to slow the flow, intensify the loop, close the loop and regenerate and then to narrow the loop through resource efficiency.
I also added a section on the risks of rebound highlighting the award-winning research paper by Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer back in 2017. Zinc and Geyer define Circular Economy rebound as occurring “when Circular Economy activities which have lower per unit production impacts also cause increased levels of production, reducing their benefit.” In other words, when Circular Economy approaches make something more easily available, or affordable. I’ve included a link to their paper in the show notes.
Fast forward to my work now, I’m trying to highlight the connected challenges we face and Nexus with a fragile planet, finite resources and people everywhere under pressure. Whatever we do in one area impacts the other two issues.
I’m saying the circular economy is not fit for purpose. Let’s dig into that. For years, I’ve been telling everyone that the circular economy is the best tool we have to create more sustainable business models. But I’ve realised that we’ve got no control of how it’s interpreted how it’s put into practice.
You may have come across a study a few years ago by Kircherr, Reike and Hekkert, which found over 100 different definitions of the circular economy. And even experts aren’t aligned. One author of a popular Circular Economy book talks about deep sea mining being part of a circular economy. The multiple definitions and different takes on principles and loops means the circular economy can be cherry picked, so that people can choose the bits that suit them.
Increasingly, though, I see a focus on circulation, not on slowing the flow and shrinking our footprint. That’s led us to a situation where businesses are using circular solutions to just keep selling more stuff, pushing more resources through the pipeline, focusing on growth. Yet we know that production and consumption is responsible for over 95% of all global water stress. Virtually all of global biodiversity loss and over half of greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions pollution and destruction from production and consumption causes harm to people and harm to our living planet at every stage of the process. Just swapping virgin resources for renewable or re recycled materials doesn’t really help shrink the footprint of production and consumption. And that’s what we’ve got to focus on.
Catherine Weetman 10:08
On top of that, I’m worried that the circular economy isn’t addressing the social issues highlighted by many leading thinkers, including Kate Raworth with her Doughnut Economics model. Things like affordability, a just transition, meaningful jobs, and the colonialism of waste. That feels like a big gap. In the shownotes. I’ve included a link to a paper showing how circular economy and human development indicators can be combined to measure country’s national progress. The paper was presented at the World Resources forum last year by Patrick Schroeder, who advocates for a just transition and is at Chatham House (the think tank), with Alex Lemille and my colleague Peter Desmond, co-founders, of the African Circular Economy network. It feels like the circular economy concept is becoming better understood and gaining traction. So you’re probably feeling that we need to keep the momentum going not muddy the waters. But I’d argue it’s being diluted to the point of being ineffective. Businesses and consultants are just using it to focus on growth. Plus, I’m seeing lots of what I call false solutions, where Circular Economy solutions are not improving sustainability.
Like me, you’re probably noticing lots of new generation materials, recycling innovations, and new biological materials that allow people to avoid using finite resources. And that sounds like a good development. But it’s not that straightforward. For example, most vegan leathers are made with biological resources. Some are agricultural byproducts, or waste from the agri food system, but others are being grown, especially for those vegan fabrics. Currently, the majority of them are blended with synthetic materials to give them the necessary strength and structure. So now we’re using land to grow materials. And then we’re still creating something that’s not recyclable, and it’s still part of the fast fashion model. Some of these new materials also require the application of solvents, crosslinking agents, or plasticizers, to achieve suitable material properties. So there might be a toxin or health issues.
Another thing that really worries me is recycling, and especially that petrochemical companies are seeing recycling as their get out of jail card. In a recent article in the IEMA transform magazine, Professor Alice Mah pointed out that, by developing recycling solutions dependence on chemicals, the plastics industry can continue to produce as much as it likes, just by changing the inputs and technologies. In other words, chemicals for recycling can replace the revenue lost from a reduction in production of virgin plastics and virgin textiles. The link to Alice Mah’s interview is in the shownotes.
People are excited about another new generation material, recycled polyester or rPET. clothing brands are going all in on this using it to tout their green credentials. But virtually all of it is made using PET bottles from soft drinks and bottled water. If those bottles stayed in the food system, they could be recycled over and over into new bottles. But when they go into the textile system, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be recycled at the end of life. Only about 1% of textiles are recycled globally. And there are other issues. We’re becoming more aware of the microplastics that are shared from polyester garments, particularly fleeces, that happens when we wear them and wash them. And recycled polyester creates over two and a half times as many microfibers as virgin polyester. So again, we’ve got a circular solution that causes more problems than the linear system we started with. I’m frustrated that I’m seeing hardly any examples of products designed to last longer and be easy to repair and upgrade. Nor am I hearing much about business models that take responsibility for keeping things in circulation with leasing and take back schemes. When I was growing up my focus goodbye household electricals cars, clothes and shoes that lasted for decades. So how is it that we’ve forgotten how to design for durability?
Catherine Weetman 14:59
And of course, we haven’t forgotten. It’s just that now products are designed for emotional and planned obsolescence with sophisticated marketing that helps to nudge or shamers into buying new stuff. Let’s come back to the risk of rebound, highlighted by Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer. We know that sharing and paper use systems are an important part of the circular economy, helping us get more use and value more productivity if you like from fewer objects. Car sharing could be one way to get more use out of fewer cars. However, you might have read the press a few years ago, highlighting the fact that after ride hailing apps like Uber, and Lyft have moved into US cities. The result was an increase in overall car miles. The deep pockets of the investors behind Uber and Lyft allows him to undercut the prices of competitors, including public transport. And we know that those ride sharing systems often use gig economy models. So they’re not helping provide secure fairly paid jobs either. So again, we’ve got something that’s circular, but that’s not helping improve sustainability outcomes.
Even rental and resale can create rebound by making things cheaper, and guilt free. You might remember the headlines a couple of years ago, claiming that renting closes less green than throwing them away with transport and dry cleaning making it the worst option if you are trying to make a greener choice. The study chose to compare different use options for jeans that were worn on 200 occasions. That probably wasn’t the most helpful example to use. Many of us would have guessed that owning jeans will be better than driving to a store to swap them for a new pair every couple of weeks.
Instead, I’d like to see research focusing in on the grey areas, the outcomes, we’re not likely to be able to work out with informed guesses. We can envisage scenarios where renting has a smaller footprint than owning, for example, children’s clothes or outfits for big occasions that we won’t wear more than a couple of times. But there’s a risk that brands see rental and resale as a way to keep pushing the fast fashion model. As consultant Deborah Campbell has warned about. I’ve written more detailed articles on both fall solutions, and rebound. And I’ll include links to those in the show notes, as well as the genes rental research.
Maybe you’re thinking that all of us, together with lots of people and organisations all around the world are working hard to accelerate progress towards a circular economy, so you’re worried that changing costs or highlighting loopholes could undermine it. I believe we need to evolve the Circular Economy concept rather than to undermine it or ditch it completely.
A couple of years ago, after recognising that there are gaps and grey areas in the circular economy model, I started to think more seriously about what sustainable businesses should look like. I came up with what I call the FAIR manifesto. F stands for Fair Trade, Fair taxes, fair labour. A stands for authenticity, honesty and openness. I means more inclusive business models, like employee ownership and cooperatives. And R is for Regenerative – recognising we need to go further than circular and regenerate resources, the biosphere, and communities all around the world.
I think we need to create a better, stronger definition of what a circular economy is a definition that can’t be watered down or customised to suit different agendas, a definition without loopholes. A definition that when applied to business and legislation does move the dial in the right direction towards a future where we’re living within the boundaries of one planet Earth. For our resources, land and water. We need a system which sets out how businesses help create the future we can be proud of, instead of focusing on selling more to make profits at the expense of people and our living planet. I worry that if we just continue with the circular economy as it is now. We’re all helping support meaningless action, and we’ve become part of the problem.
Catherine Weetman 19:47
Here are three things I invite you to take away and think about.
Firstly, we need to get clear on how to make the circular economy fit for purpose. So that circular does improves stainability by regenerating nature, resources and communities, shrinking our footprint, not just supporting faster systems of circulation with slightly cleaner flows.
Secondly, we need solutions that address societal issues with meaningful jobs, vibrant communities, healthy food and environments.
And thirdly, we need a way of protecting the intellectual property around the circular economy, not to make money out of it, but to prevent it being diluted and cherry picked in the service of selling yet more stuff we probably don’t need. So, what should we do?
These are the questions I’d like us to think about. How do we define what’s needed? Should it be informed by things like Doughnut Economics, the Natural Step’s four system conditions, or regenerative economic principles?
What are the most important missing aspects? Is it around the social dimensions? Is it about the need to slow the flow of production and shrink our footprint? Is it about a just transition?
And how do we prevent the new definition from also being hijacked by people who just want to continue with exploitative capitalism?
Back in 2010, I realised that I was in service to big business, helping it get more efficient and effective at selling more stuff we probably didn’t need. I was working against the fairer, more sustainable world, I believe was possible and necessary. Many of us have woken up to the realisation that something we chose something we fell in love with an idea we bought into turns out to have flaws. I get that it’s hard to be critical to be objective, about something we’ve invested in something that we might see as defining us. But if we don’t recognise the flaws, limitations and loopholes, in the way the circular economy has developed, and resolve them, then we’ll just become part of the problem too.
I’m seeing signs that the circular economy is not fit for purpose. We need something better. If we don’t act on this now, we’ll lose more time and allow more policies and business strategies that just focus on growth that’s a bit less bad, but still comes at the expense of people and planet.
We need a circular economy that’s fit for future generations. A framework, a toolkit that supports the future we need, that encourages durability instead of disposability, reuse instead of single use, and helps us get more value from less – using less and wasting less.
If you feel the same, please share this episode to spread the word, and let’s explore how we can co-create a circular economy that means we can have enough, for all of us, for ever.
Want to dig deeper?
Why not buy Catherine’s award-winning book, A Circular Economy Handbook: How to Build a More Resilient, Competitive and Sustainable Business. This comprehensive guide uses a bottom-up, practical approach, and includes hundreds of real examples from around the world, to help you really ‘get’ the circular economy. Even better, you’ll be inspired with ideas to make your own business more competitive, resilient and sustainable.
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