Spinning up the Circular Economy

The climate crisis, spiralling energy prices and struggling supply chains all make it clear: we need to forge a circular economy — and fast.

The need for a circular economy has never been clearer than in the last few weeks. As goods thin on some shelves, and energy prices rocket, green initiatives that looked expensive a year ago, rapidly start to look very cost-effective indeed. The planet needs us to change — but our business survival does, too. 

As we’ve already established, sustainability is the new digital. In particular, just as with digital, the earlier you incorporate sustainability thinking into your work, the more fundamental its impact will be on your product, your services, and your company. Many companies have tried sprinkling digital “pixie dust” on their products or services, and found themselves rapidly outclassed by those who have fundamentally re-engineered their companies. 

So, too, will it be with sustainability. You can greenwash an exploiting products and services offer — or you can rethink your whole process with environmental, business and social sustainability in mind. All three are equally important. There’s no point in being an environmentally positive company, if you shut down, or you harm society in the process. 

The Sustainability Adventure ahead

And here’s where digital and sustainability part company. In digital, it was just about competitive advantage. With sustainability, it’s more about preserving a functioning society and economy to support your business… We need those businesses that fundamentally transform themselves around sustainable principles to succeed. That will help us in the global fight against the climate crisis.

It will take all of us — politicians, business people and consumers — working in concert to address the challenge ahead. It is truly the great adventure of our age. We are rethinking how we live and trade in a way that preserves our planet for the future. 

These are all very worthy words. It’s easy to pay lip service to being green. But you actually need to do the hard work to effect that transformation. And you’ll need some sort of framework to do that.

Activating the circular economy

Happily, work is underway on exactly the kinds of resources businesses will need. On October 22nd, 2021, Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive like NEXT, and Fraunhofer IZM, launched the first version of their Circular Activation Guide. This is a work-in-progress guide to rethinking what you do and how you do it, along circular economy principles. 

It has to be a work in progress because we’re at the very beginning of this adventure. It’s the challenge of our lifetime, and any guide like this will grow and improve through use, implementation — and interrogation. This is absolutely an area where even competitive businesses need to work together and share information. A world that no longer supports human life in the way we know it is not good for anyone’s business.

Fjord are sharing this information to help kick-start what they’re calling the Circular Wave:

Employees, customers, regulators, and investors are demanding evidence of an applied social or environmental purpose — a demand companies can meet by employing circular models and scaling sustainable solutions, minimising waste and pollution, regenerating environments and communities, all made possible by working with the planet, rather than against.

Circular economies beat stretched supply chains

If anything, the last few months of growing supply chain crises globally have made it plain that a circular economy is not just a planetary necessity, but sound business sense. As precarious global supply chains that we’ve relied on for decades collapse, creating exponential “bullwhip” effects through market after market, the need to simplify our product cycles is clear. 

Building products that we can recycle and this reclaim as raw materials for a new round of products becomes an investment in our long-term prosperity as a business, not just in the planet. Switching to renewable resources isolates us both from volatility in the gas market — and from its carbon-emitting consequences. 

The earlier we work this into our planning and design phases, the sooner we can start operating as truly circular businesses. 

One more step on the sustainability adventure

Nobody — least of all us — is saying that we all have to become perfect circular economy companies overnight. But a significant number of companies moving the right way, even if it’s imperfectly, will make a huge difference to the challenge ahead.

In the end, though, it will come down to competition, as it needs to. Those businesses that transform themselves and thrive will eventually force those who don’t make the transition out of the market. And that will complete our transformation into a circular economy.

That is, even with the very best of intentions, probably decades away yet. But the sooner we get started on this adventure of re-engineering how we do businesses, the better. We need to move from just trying to make our businesses less bad for our world, to making them a positive force for good. 

Is this new Circular Activation Guide just a single step? Sure.

But all the greatest adventures start with a single step.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash