September 2014’s NWSBQ: The circular economy

“It’s not rocket science”: some of Steve Wallace’s first words as he took centre stage to introduce the concept of the circular economy (CE) to everyone attending the third NWSBQ of 2014. As always, our attendees were treated to wonderful speakers, stimulating discussion, amazing views and delicious food. We would like to thank Bruntwood for hosting us at their City Tower venue yet again, as well as Axion Consulting for sponsoring the GoodMoodFood buffet. It was a winning combination.

Steve, a director of the Aldersgate group, kicked off the first of three talks by describing how CE thinking is simple – resources equal money, so use less and save more. The ‘resource revolution’ involves closing the materials loop so that waste products (i.e. wasted money) don’t fall out of the end. Steve spoke about how business models need to change to take part in this revolution, e.g. by selling services (not products), by leasing out goods, and by incentivising consumers to do something other than just throw their widget in the bin once it’s no longer fashionable. He also shared examples with us of how some companies are embracing these ideals and ensuring everyone gets the service they want without any product ownership changing hands. Steve spoke about the REBus project too, which provides funding for companies to pilot and develop Resource Efficient Business models. Steve finished off with the sobering reminder of what CE thinking all comes down to: we have just one planet with just a certain amount of stuff on it – and we’re running out.

To see Steve’s slides, please click here.

Next up, Matt Polaine shared a snapshot of BT’s CE journey with us. He referred us to the Better Future website for full details – he also made it very clear that it’s not dry CSR stuff, so it’s worth taking a look! For example, watch this two minute video (and expect the tune to get stuck in your head…). Matt has led BT’s CE approach, making the decision to focus on engineering a physical product around CE principles for maximum reputational impact. This product was the Home Hub. Design changes to new models of the Home Hub were incremental, yet cumulatively they were game-changing. For example, they sent consumers a ‘swapbox’, making it as easy as possible for customers to delight in getting a new model, but then send the old one back to BT. They also made the decision to slim line the home hub to fit through the letter box, eliminating the need for customers to trek to their post office to collect their missed delivery (and all the wasted delivery miles this entails). And slim lining itself needed a whole host of design changes; everything from adding spring-loaded feet to removing the need for installation CDs. Matt’s message was clear – through these incremental changes, and upping the stakes very gradually, CE concepts are making their way into large corporate environments such at BT.

The last speaker of the evening was Rudi Daelmans who flew over from the Netherlands to speak at this event. He told us about Desso’s CE beginnings in 2007, when they first began thinking in a Cradle to Cradle way (C2C; a product certification scheme). Just several years later, Desso now have the goal for all products to achieve C2C by 2020. However, this is a tall order – it’s not very practical to manufacture carpet that biodegrades after a few years, so they’ve had to look at other green possibilities! Rudi talked us through the roadmap of their CE journey; he was keen to clarify that CE is about so much more than just recycling, and that their C2C products are not just about minimising their negative footprint, but maximising the good. For Desso, this has involved focus on many aspects, such as ensuring the water quality coming out of their manufacturing process is not just safe enough to be discharged into waterways, but will actually have a beneficial impact on local biodiversity. It is clear that Desso is innovating hard to address their impacts in lots of different areas. Rudi followed on from Matt’s conclusion by saying that evolutionary action is indeed necessary, but it must be preceded by revolutionary thinking.

To see Rudi’s slides, please click here.

What followed was a lively Q & A session. Interesting discussions included that perhaps it is our generation that serves the greatest barrier to large-scale embracement of CE thinking – millennials are happy to borrow, lease and rent, while it is the older generation that’s stuck in the mind-set of ownership. The Q & A session also saw us questioning whether the skills to support C2C thinking are being fostered through the education system. Our speakers thought that the innovative thinking needed is often in fresh young minds… but is often quickly knocked out. Matt mentioned how a big challenge is changing mind-sets within a business, and mentioned the importance of making the people at the top think an idea is theirs for full acceptance of it! Another interesting point raised was to ask whether CE is just a rebranding of the good practice of generations that have come before us, where people were in the habit of building products to last, looking after them, passing them down, and repairing them. A return to this way of consuming products would most definitely help us on the CE road!

Please see the additional post for the roundtable discussion notes (September 2014: roundtable notes).


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