Friday, April 11, 2014

What is the circular economy?

BSI, the UK standards organisation, hosted a stakeholder day on Waste Prevention and the Circular Economy this week. I joined a round table discussion on "What is the circular economy?"

The definition we came up with was:

“Sustaining economic viability without compromising resources, including land, water and living space, or compromising the environment.”

There was a wide range of opinions and ideas. Some saw little difference between our definition and sustainable development. The implicit “fair shares for all and fair access to materials” is very similar to the original definition of sustainability in the 1987 Bruntland report. 

We turned our attention to how we would achieve the circular economy. Legislation will define what is needed whilst standards will show how it can be done. We need something like a Kyoto agreement for the circular economy, hopefully more successful than the original Kyoto agreement. EU regulations for eco-design, material circularity and so on can contribute to the establishment of the circular economy, but we need global action both by governments and companies. 

Marks and Spencer was cited as an example. They demand that their Turkish suppliers measure their carbon footprints  - something they would never consider doing without pressure from M&S as a major customer. 

Legislation and taxation imply penalties but it is far more important to have incentives at all levels. We need clear strategies, tools, research and education, including education for both designers and consumers. Clear communication and explanation of the ideas can generate more consumer and employee loyalty.

The question was raised whether the circular economy could apply to all sectors and all industries. We thought there should be an overarching concept but that standards should be more local as components of the whole. Some thought that the definition of the circular economy would change as we moved forward and get tighter and tighter. Others pointed out that there are already some 200 environmental standards and surely yet another standard is not needed.

We looked at how different nations will achieve the circular economy at different rates. For example, in some emerging economies the establishment of landfill sites is an advance, so there is an awful long way to go towards achieving zero to landfill. On the other hand developing nations are used to scarcity of resources and in many cases are far better at making good use of resources as a result.

You could say that the circular economy is work in progress.