Earth Day Series - Part 2: Circular economy
In this article, I summarise the key takeaways from the second day of webinars held by “We Don’t Have Time”, broadcasting from Stockholm and Washington . The first article (Part 1) in the series covered the topic of ‘climate finance’, pushing for more conversations and transparency regarding clean banks and sustainable investments. It highlighted the efforts of organisations such as 2 degree investing initiative and banking on climate change that are creating a banking-preamble focussing on increasing clean and sustainable investments. Day 2 brought together speakers from the government, United Nations, university researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs to enlighten the viewers on circular economy. The startups presented innovative products that are both affordable and sustainable, while maintaining a circular business model. Let’s begin with understanding what circular economy entails.
Topic 2: Circular Economy
The concept of circular economy revolves around reducing wastes and utilizing it to increase our capital, rather than exhausting it . Changing from a linear “Take - Make - Dispose” to a circular business model is of utmost importance to ensure that we have resources for future needs. Professor Jeffrey D Sachs, from Columbia University, highlighted this point in his incredible keynote speech. He mentions that the world economy is growing at a geometric rate, causing a doubling in economic activity every 20 years or so . However, the earth does not double in its resource producing capacity every 20 years or so. Therefore, if we continue to grow and exploit it at the current rate, we will end in a catastrophe.
The speech further went on to emphasize the fact that there are several solutions already existing that can help reduce our annual greenhouse gas emissions, but the complacency of Governments and rich countries has dented the large-scale implementation of practical solutions. He quotes the coronavirus pandemic as an accurate example of what happens when we ignore signals from scientists and continue business-as-usual. We need strong leadership and collaborative actions to modernize and circularize the current consumer market.
Companies such as Electrolux offer solutions for their customers that help convert businesses’ linear models to a circular model. Electrolux vouches on savings that occur from making this transition and states that only circular model companies have a future. Signify is working on making the lighting sector more sustainable while Houdini Sportswear makes biodegradable designs that can be chosen over polyester sportswear. Both companies use materials that are long-lasting and can be recycled back into their products when end-of-life is reached.
Generally, economic advancement is directly associated with the GDP of a country. Kevin Noone, from Stockholm University, delivered a short note on using better indicators for comparing economic development. Some suggested examples to replace GDP were inclusive wealth and poverty rates since wellbeing cannot be determined by the amount of economic production alone. GDP is an accurate indicator of how linear our production systems are, where we are only focusing on output but not concerning ourselves with its effects on the environment, the people and subsequently the amount of input that we will have in the future. We need to rediscover earth and change the definition of wealth from accumulation of money and material to well being of society.
When asked about sustainable products generally being more expensive than unsustainable products or brands, Kevin asks to look at the long term returns from a sustainable vs an unsustainable brand. From purchase to disposal or recycling, what has been the value of the product you purchased. He vouches on sustainable products being higher in quality and providing more, in comparison to unsustainable products. He concludes with the fact that renewable energy itself is getting cheaper by the day, and its importance in making the energy industry more sustainable in the long term.
Carina Borgström-Hansson, a senior advisor from WWF, spoke about the importance of ‘speaking of consumption’. Currently, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are measured based on products produced in a country, rather than products consumed by the country. Sweden, for example, has a low greenhouse gas emission, as per the current method of calculation, but when the same measurement is done based on consumption, the emissions in Sweden almost double . Another shocking result of a consumption-based measurement is how richer countries are pushing all the emissions towards poorer countries that are usually the manufacturing centers for the richer economies. This brings about the importance of talking about consumption. Awareness and education from a young age are the only way we can bring in the culture of having enough, rather than having ‘over’. We do not need three winter jackets in different colors, we need one that lasts a long time. Oftentimes, the quantity of materials you possess is associated with your own personal success in life. This concept has to change, and we can only change it by educating people on the ill-effects of quantity-over-quality.
Alexandra Davidson from The Swedish Association for Responsible Consumption states that we are currently using 75% more resources than what the earth can handle. In order to start living on our planet within the planetary boundaries, she created the opposite of an event most associated with mass consumption: Black Friday. By creating the social media hashtag #WhiteMonday, she emphasises the importance of being the opposite of black Friday, to introspect on our consumption levels and be circulant in terms of the products we choose in our everyday life.
The final keynote speaker Orsola de Castro, Founder and Creative Director of Fashion revolution, spoke about the unsustainability of the global fashion industry. Mass consumption and mass production has accelerated disposal and reduced the quality of garments that we purchase. Globally, close to 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from the lifecycle of the fashion industry. Hence we as consumers must organise and unionise a culture of quality over quantity . Speaking fiber to fiber, only 1% of the garments are recycled. At a time when circular economy concept is to be pushed, having a 1% recycling rate is incredibly detrimental to the environment. Before you go shopping, ask yourself #WhoMadeMyClothes. Choose brands that focus on providing their employees with a good quality life, pick raw materials that can be recycled and are biodegradable. We need fairer fashion, and that will only come by discarding brands that are unsustainable. This is not an opportunity for us, rather, it is an obligation.
Applications and websites such as Fashion revolution and Good on you offer ratings for most popular brands around the world, ranking them on various aspects of their sustainability. Yet again, this brings us to the topic of solutions present in the industry today. They can be scaled, but we are not doing so. What we need is a massive collaborative effort from the consumers, to push unsustainable products out and force companies to choose circular business models. We have an obligation to vote for politicians who understand the importance of a circular economy and who focus on incentivising a green revolution rather than green washing corporations. What we need is leadership and a push towards this revolution, from inside and outside the Government. Let’s do our part! Let’s be responsible consumers!
 We Don't Have Time, [Online]. Available: https://www.wedonthavetime.org/.
 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, "What is a circular economy? A framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design," [Online]. Available: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept.
 P. Martin and C. A. Rogers, "Long-term growth and short-term economic instability," European Economic Review.
 SWEDISH ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, "Consumption-based indicators in Swedish environmental policy," Stockholm, 2012.
 The World Bank, "How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost to the Environment?" [Online]. Available: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente.
 Co Create SA NL, "Circular Economy Image," [Online].
Published on: 2.9.2020