A few months ago, we took the opportunity to arrange a public screening of the world’s first feature-length documentary on the circular economy. Closing The Loop explores diverse businesses making the change from a linear (take-make-waste) economic model to a circular (zero waste) economic model. The film takes an in-depth look at business sites from the UK, Europe, Latin America, and South Africa. Created by Emmy Award winner, Graham Sheldon & Dr. Wayne Visser, Professor of Integrated Value at Antwerp Management School; Closing the Loop debuted on Earth Day in April 2018 and was screened in over 38 countries.
Moving to a circular economy is not only essential and urgent but is entirely possible if we take inspiration from the pioneers, such as those featured in the film. In support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 12 on Responsible Consumption and Production), the documentary explores five key strategies for achieving circularity – reduce, reuse, recycle, renew and reinvent – by showcasing examples and featuring insights from experts from the likes of the World Economic Forum and the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. The documentary provoked an insightful discussion with the audience and brought up the challenges and potential limitations of such a paradigm shift. I caught up with Dr. Wayne Visser afterwards to ask him a few questions of my own.
Q: One of the things that really stuck with me after watching your documentary is that a circular economy is essential if we are to maintain our current lifestyles. With a growing global middle class, this is absolutely paramount in order to create a more sustainable world by reducing our demand for finite resources. Here in Sweden, we’re seeing growing trends in vegetarianism, and for consumers to buy second-hand and to borrow rather than buy. What do you think our future holds?
Wayne: I do think that conscious consumerism will continue to grow – certainly manufacturers and retailers will increasingly be expected to have return and repair options. And plant-based diets will grow strongly as the evidence of links to climate change, environmental impacts, health concerns and animal rights become more compelling – and as the alternatives (like the Beyond Burger) improve in quality. But we should not expect that everyone will become an ethical consumer. The point of the circular economy is to make that matter less, i.e. to decouple consumption from impact.
Q: A challenge for businesses that try to do good is promoting it in a way that resonates with consumers. Have you come across any great business examples or marketing mechanisms that really get consumers on board with circular initiatives?
Wayne: I think M&S’s schwopping campaign and Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative have both been very successful. Interface has been a role model for sustainability and the circular economy for decades. In this case, I think their Mission Zero campaign has been the marketing tool (and I like this Unlikely Hero video), much like Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan has been a way to engage with all stakeholders, including customers. The Body Shop is another company that has always been strong on marketing, using cause-based campaigns in their stores to tap into the passion and values of their customers.
Q: You touched upon the short-termism of governments in planning for the future. From what we’ve seen in the last decade, China has made huge progress in the area of environment. How do you think democracy can be used to enable circular economic development?
Wayne: It is true that strong-state governments like China’s can drive sustainability to scale more quickly than in democracies – and they have been key in scaling many solutions like solar, wind and batteries, and look set to do the same with electric vehicles. The approach in democracies is different: here we have to do far more engagement and activation of citizens. It is difficult in a world of political apathy and Facebook “slacktivism”, but we start to see it happening on key issues like climate change. For example, ahead of the COP24 climate meeting, 65,000 people marched in Brussels to put pressure on the politicians to take bold policy action.
Q: I was at a seminar recently where the Head of Sustainable Finance at Nordea was calling for decoupling GDP from economic growth and instead combining it with sustainability… What are your thoughts on this? Is it something feasible? And what would need to happen for this to come into effect?
Wayne: There are many alternative measures of progress, and have been for decades now. The important thing now is to give them the same media attention and political credibility. That could be the Social Progress Index, the SDGs, carbon budgets, Ecological Footprints, or some other indicators. We can’t be anti-growth, since we need growth of sustainable solutions – like clean energy, vegan products, etc. – but at the same time, we need to track the overall impact this has. I find Doughnut Economics is one of the most elegant and powerful models to do this, and already there are national “doughnuts” available.