The Urgency For Creating a Circular Economy

What feels outlandish today will be the norm in a decade. Circular change is coming, embrace it!

We’ve been working on our sustainability plan, Plan A (because there is no Plan B for the one planet we have) for 10 years now, with 296 individual commitments completed and 21 not achieved.

This summer we updated Plan A for the third time, to take us out to 2025, with a new set of 100 commitments covering everything from human rights to mental wellbeing; a Science Based Target to a commitment to ensure all our products have multiple sustainability attributes.

But this time we’ve added a much clearer commitment to engage our 32 million customers in our Plan A 2025 journey, not just to inform them about what we are doing but also to engage them in sustainable behaviour change too.

…we’ve added a much clearer commitment to engage our 32 million customers in our Plan A 2025 journey.

We cannot expect our customers to remember all 100 commitments that we’re working on! So we’ve listened to them to help identify 3 overarching goals that they feel they can rally around too. These are:

  1. To help 10 million people live happier and healthier lives
  2. To help transform 1000 communities for the better
  3. To become a zero waste business across all that we do.

Today I joined Zero Waste Scotland at the Scottish Resources Conference 2017 to discuss what this latter challenge means in practice.

It was great to be joined in the session by Bea Johnson, the inspirational zero waste campaigner (@zerowastehome) who offered not just a vision of living a zero waste life but the reality too.

We ranged over many topics but let’s pick out a few.

Do we need to change?

Yes! We could almost leave it there but let’s remind ourselves that the global economy is unsustainable. We are starting to see very tentative signs that we are ‘bending the arc’ on our collective global carbon footprint with emissions stabilising as the renewables revolution takes hold. But on the interlinked issues of resource use and waste we are still galloping ever faster in the wrong direction. Putting trillions of items on the global marketplace made from unsustainable raw materials and for which there is no way of capturing them for reuse/recycling at the end of their initial ‘life’.

What do we need to change?

So we need to change, not a little but a lot and there is a lot to change. Even for an M&S, a mid-sized retailer on a global scale, the amount we have to change is staggering.

We have 1400 shops around the world, buy products from roughly 3000 factories, supported by 20,000 farms and many 1000s of raw material sources. We sell 3 billion items (many packaged) to 32 million customers. All this needs to become zero waste individually and circular in total.

Can we change?

Many of the solutions we need to create a circular economy exist. For example:

1) Simplification – We know we need to simplify the raw materials we use. Fewer of them, used in a ‘purer’ form and designed for reuse from the beginning.

2) Move up the waste hierarchy – We are building our confidence as we stop sending material to landfill and now we need to drive ourselves up the waste hierarchy.

3) Customer Engagement – We are finding ways to engage customers. In Swadlincote in Derbyshire Sainsburys has worked to engage a whole town in food waste prevention. WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign has connected with consumers in the home. M&S is using Neighbourly to donate surplus food from 100s of stores each day to local food banks. We are working with Oxfam to encourage our customers to donate 3 million garments per annum.

4) Scale – We recognise that a few best practice examples are not enough, we need scale across all that we do. At M&S all 600 of our food suppliers are engaged on a bronze/silver/gold ladder of continual sustainability improvement with 70% now sending zero waste to landfill and all of them seeing business benefits from being more resource efficient. Soon all our clothing, home and property suppliers will join the same journey.

We recognise that a few best practice examples are not enough, we need scale across all that we do.

5) Made to last – M&S has always had a strong commitment to high quality clothing that’s made to last. Now we will complement this with a Repair service for clothing and Circular Economy Design Principles.

6) Managing trade-offs – We recognise that the future is not simple. We need to manage trade-offs such as food waste vs packaging that are scientifically informed as well as engaging for customers.

7) Making the market – We need to create a market ‘pull’ for recycled raw materials. We and others have done this for packaging. Now we are committing to 25% of our clothing and home products having a 25% recycled content by 2025.

8) Focus – The 80/20 rule says get after some ‘big wins’ on key waste problems – carrier bags, coffee cups, straws, black ready trays etc. M&S is the third biggest coffee shop chain in the UK and 95% of our coffee and tea is served in reusable china cups but we need to address the 5%!

9) Partnership – We are developing partnerships with the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) to drive global change. Tesco and its CEO Dave Lewis in particular have championed a global solution for food waste (Champions 12.3) and more locally Zero Waste Scotland and WRAP are models for leading collaborative sector change.

10) Technology revolution – finally the 4th Industrial Revolution (blockchain, Internet of things etc) is making what we dreamt of possible. For the first time we can imagine cost effectively tracking and tracing the 3 billion items we sell to enable a circular economy.

Are we changing fast enough?

So to the $64,000 question! And of course the answer is no. We need to do 3 things better to move faster:

1) Strategy – we need to develop a truly joined up vision of the circular economy we desire that allows us to make informed policy and commercial decisions about whether, for example, a deposit return scheme (DRS) is the right approach to tackling plastic bottle litter. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work on the New Plastic Economy shows how we can create this big vision to allow us to make the right tactical decisions.

2) Local – at the other end of the spectrum we need to make a circular economy feel a lot more local to the streets, communities and towns people live in. Big visions are needed in Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels but for most people circular needs to be about where they live.

The consumer goods market is about to be massively disrupted by its approach to the circular economy.

3) Innovation – finally we need a mindset change in business that moves beyond seeing waste as a risk to be managed to circular economy as an opportunity to be seized. The consumer goods market is about to be massively disrupted by its approach to the circular economy. Just as the car sector is now being by EVs. Not just through regulation, tax and reputation but because a closed loop done well gives consumers the benefits they want. Fail to deliver a circular future and you might well not have one at all!

Let me leave the final word to Bea. She described a family life that creates just one quart/litre of waste per year. Surely impossible for all the most impassioned and committed? Well hear her tale, buy her book and you’ll realise much of its doable for us mere mortals. What feels outlandish today will be the norm in a decade.

Circular change is coming, embrace it!

This article was originally published on Mike Barry’s LinkedIn Page
Mike Barry is Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at the UK retailer Marks & Spencer where he was part of the small team that developed the company’s groundbreaking Plan A; a 100 point, 5 year plan to address a wide range of environmental and social issues. You can follow Mike on twitter at @planamikebarry