An efficient circular economy scrutinises the use of material resources, from design to disposal. When manufacturing a product, it’s vital to consider how it might be disposed of and how long the product’s life can be extended through repair and reuse.
Jane Stephenson has a wealth of experience in this area. For the past 30 years, she has been working on material resources at Bristol Green Capital partnership and SevernNet Community Energy. In dominant manufacturing models that overvalue financial capital, Jane is emphatic that businesses shift the emphasis onto social and environmental measures. Instead of asking only what can provide the highest financial return, we need to ask how manufacturing impacts is people and the planet.
Approaching production in this way is becoming increasingly important. The next 100 years will see a continued population boom that will be relying on ever diminishing resources to deliver the clothing, food and products they need. Changing the way we do business doesn’t just make economic sense; 60% of ecosystems are already degraded or used unsustainably (UNEP). Business must also begin to repair and divert some of the damage that has occurred to our natural environments and resources.
There are already projects in action that show how, with some infrastructure alteration and a culture shift, companies can begin to operate in a way that reduces negative impacts while also providing economic longevity.
What is a circular economy?
Our industrial and manufacturing economy is based on a ‘take, make and dispose’ linear model. In a circular economy the concept of waste is eliminated and products are designed for safety to human health and the environment. Circular economy thinking challenges our value systems: moving from material products to services, and shared rather than personal ownership.
Why is it important to rethink our supply chains?
Our economic system, which was built on cheap, easily accessible materials and energy, is reaching its physical limits. The United Nations Environment Programme report that 60% of our ecosystems and 33% of our soils are already degraded and from a human health perspective there are over 400,000 premature deaths annually in the EU due to air pollution.
“Benefits include social cohesion and cost savings through initiatives such as repair cafes, libraries of tools, toys, swap shops and more”
Jane Stephenson, Business Development Director at Resource Futures
Who benefits from a circular economy?
Business benefits from resource efficiency and cost savings. The environment benefits through reduced material extraction and pollution. Individuals and communities benefit from social cohesion and cost savings through initiatives such as repair cafes, libraries of tools, toys, swap shops and more.
How can business drive this transition?
Financial institutions can introduce circular economy thinking to financial risk assessments, for instance the impact on natural capital, material security and changing consumer demands.
Businesses can engage in sustainable business networks, like BCorp. The BSI standard on the Circular Economy (BS8001) provides practical ways to secure small quick wins, right through to re-thinking holistically how resources are managed to enhance financial, environmental and social benefits.
Where are the major obstacles?
Whilst some businesses have begun to measure success in terms of positive environmental and social impacts as well as financial returns, there is a long way to go to mainstream this reporting.
Governments have a role to play and whilst the UK Industrial Strategy calls for cleaner and smarter energy systems, almost nothing is said about improving efficiency of material resources. At a corporate level, there is resistance from manufacturers to wholeheartedly embrace the repair economy.
What are some practical actions we all can do?
We can all reduce, reuse and recycle. We can check the reparability, recyclability and energy rating of products we buy. We can introduce circular economy thinking at work and engage in community activities.
Here in Bristol we have Refill Bristol, jumble trails, repair cafés and numerous re-use and food re-distribution charities. There is much to inspire us to turn the way we manage the world’s resources on its head.
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