Sustainability & circularity isn’t enough. We’ve already over-exploited natural resources, exhausted and destroyed land, forests, oceans and rivers, and created waste and pollution that is breaching our planetary boundaries.
We need to build back better – FAIR businesses create a better world, for all of us.
Over the seven years since founding Rethink Global, we’ve realised that circular isn’t the answer. Don’t worry, we’re not discarding (!!) all the work we’ve done to help people use the circular economy to build better businesses, and a better world.
Circular isn’t the answer, but it is part of the solution for the multiple crises facing all of us: climate, living systems, human health, inequality and poverty.
We use the Natural Step Sustainability Principles. Developed in the 1990s, these are science-based, and simple to understand. Three of the principles relate to materials and our environment, and the fourth principle defines how business should support society. The Natural Step approach says that “in a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…
- …concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust (such as fossil CO2, heavy metals and minerals)
- … concentrations of substances produced by society (such as antibiotics and endocrine disruptors)
- … degradation by physical means (such as deforestation and draining of groundwater tables).
- And in that society, there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning.”
To find out more, have a look at the Natural Step webpage. We also like this short video explainer by our friend Alex Magnin from Sustainability Illustrated.
However, because we’ve already over-exploited natural resources, exhausted and destroyed land, forests, oceans and rivers, and created waste and pollution that is breaching our planetary boundaries, it’s not enough to be ‘sustainable’.
We believe we need to go beyond circular, and we need to make sure businesses meet the ethical standards that people expect. That means providing good jobs, supporting nature and communities, using safe materials and processes (at every stage from farming and extraction through to use and end-of-use).
So over the last couple of years, we’ve been thinking about how to sum this up – our manifesto[i], if you like – and we’ve decided to sum it up with an acronym: FAIR – the building blocks for a better world (and a better business). FAIR stands for:
- Fair shares – committing to fair trade, fair labour and fair taxes.
- Authentic – being open, honest, transparent and trustworthy about all that you do.
- Inclusive – this means more than just being welcoming! We believe business structures themselves should be inclusive – for example, cooperatives, employee ownership, social enterprises and community interest companies.
- Regenerative (AND circular) – given the damage we’ve already done to our planet and society, ‘sustainable’ isn’t enough. We need to regenerate our resources, regenerate living systems and regenerate communities.
Let’s dig into those in a bit more detail, to underline why we think they are important, and what they mean in practice.
[i] A manifesto is a published declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government. A manifesto usually accepts a previously published opinion or public consensus or promotes a new idea with prescriptive notions for carrying out changes the author believes should be made. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifesto
Fair shares - fair trade, labour and taxes
Fair shares – we believe it’s important to share and circulate value, balancing effort, risks and rewards fairly. We think organisations of all shapes and sizes should commit to fair trade, fair labour and fair taxes.
All too often, business owners can find they are prioritising their own financial needs at the expense of others. If you’re familiar with Permaculture, you’ll recognise Fair Shares as one of the three Permaculture Ethics.
But supply chains can’t survive and thrive on a ‘cost down’ approach. Forcing prices down may mean suppliers can’t afford to invest in building skills, in paying living wages (including sick pay etc), in safe working conditions, and so on. If the employer can’t provide this, then those costs are passed onto society, or worse, they result in precarious, unsafe, underpaid work, and even in modern slavery and child labour.
There are recognised organisations that help businesses to implement fair systems, and to signal this to their employees, customers and other partners. Have a look at the websites of FairTrade International, the Fair Labor Association, and the Fair Tax Mark.
Authentic and trustworthy
Authentic means being open, honest, transparent and trustworthy about all that you do. That’s harder than you might think, even for small businesses. Often, we rely on suppliers that are bigger than our own organisation, or are overseas and difficult to check up on.
How do we know what they’re really doing? Are we confident they are using safe materials, meeting our standards for employment, ensuring they don’t pollute the environment, meeting our quality standards and so on?
So it’s important to be honest and open about what you are doing, and what you can’t yet do, or what issues you’ve uncovered that you’re going to deal with next.
Inclusive – this means more than just being welcoming!
We believe business structures themselves should be inclusive – for example, cooperatives, employee ownership, social enterprises and community interest companies. Inclusive business models support and build value for all stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders, supporting the community around the business, too. They can be ‘for profit’ or ‘not for profit’, and are not philanthropic models – they aim to be sustainable businesses that ‘do well by doing good’ (to use our favourite Ray Anderson quote):-
“taking nothing, wasting nothing, and doing no harm — and doing very well by doing good, at the expense not of the Earth, but of less alert competitors.”
Ray Anderson (1934-2011) Founder, Interface Inc.
Regenerating resources, nature and communities
Regenerative AND circular – when we consider the damage we’ve already done to our planet and society, ‘sustainable’ and ‘circular’ isn’t enough.
We need to regenerate our resources, regenerate living systems and regenerate communities, and then continue to build the health of society and our planet with regenerative and circular systems.
These regenerative systems learn from nature, to use everything, valuing diversity and resilience.
Regenerative agriculture works with nature, helps lock carbon back up into our soils, reduce water and nutrient run-off, and at the same time improve the health of all living things – including us humans!
For ‘technical’ resources (metals, minerals, plastics and so on), we should be recycling what we already have instead of creating more destruction and pollution by mining new sources. Often though, we’ve buried things in landfill, or just allowed them to decay (eg microplastics from ‘biodegradable’ plastics). So regeneration might include ‘urban mining’ – recovering ‘lost’ resources from landfills and discarded waste.
We need to regenerate communities too – those communities that have lost their industries (mining and steelmaking in the UK), that have lost their agricultural self-sufficiency after being encouraged to focus on cash-crops, or that lose their ability to rely on soil, forests and oceans after over-exploitation of resources or ‘land-grabs’ by big corporations. Often, regeneration projects can produce multiple and transformational benefits. For example, the Loess Plateau regeneration project in China has improved the livelihoods of millions of local people since it began, back in 1995.
To find out more about the circular economy, why not listen to Episode 1 of the Circular Economy Podcast, read our guide: What is the Circular Economy, or buy Catherine Weetman’s award-winning Circular Economy Handbook, which explains the concept and practicalities, in plain language. It includes lots of real examples and tips on getting started.
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