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Dell Identifies UK as 'Hotspot' for Circular Economy Conversation

Image credit: Acceleratio

Corporate circular economy strategies are starting to mature: A recent survey on this topic found that 28 percent of organizations now consider their own circular strategies to be highly advanced, and core to what they do. However, a significant number (19 percent) are just starting out on this journey and exploring ways in which they can integrate circular principles into their business models.

Whatever stage a business is at with this agenda, there are some common threads linking this transitional shift — collaboration, transparency, cost-mapping and corporate/social buy-in to name a few. If the bottlenecks associated with systems change are to be unblocked then companies need to come together, perhaps in more honest and informal ways than before, and build their own platforms to share best practices.

Knowledge exchange across geographical borders can be particularly useful on this front, particularly for multinational firms. Last week, a small group of business leaders convened in London to participate in a circular economy roundtable discussion hosted by Dell. Representatives at the table included brand leaders, system thinkers and emerging innovators — BT, Forum for the Future, Accenture and Innoverne were among those present.

According to Dell’s VP of corporate responsibility, Trisa Thompson, the UK not only represents one of the company’s biggest markets in Europe, but is one of the nations demonstrating real leadership on the circular economy right now. Speaking to Sustainable Brands (SB), she said Dell was keen to find out more from its British counterparts about the perceived boundaries and barriers to circularity, as well identifying possible solutions.

“We wanted to start somewhere and this is a good place to start. We do perceive the UK as being pretty progressive on some of the environmental areas. We can learn from the UK and the companies that are located here,” Thompson explained.

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The roundtable dialogue was moderated by Dr Wayne Visser, founder and CEO of CSR International. He began by framing some of the context around the circular economy, pointing out it was not a new concept as such; the roots of the movement date back to the 1950s and the Spaceship Earth philosophies. “It’s not new, but we are getting more sophisticated about it,” he said.

Visser also drew on research from both McKinsey and Accenture, pointing out the macroeconomics – that the circular economy represents a $1 trillion opportunity — and also that circular business value chains have the potential to be up to four times more productive.

All well and good. But what are companies doing in terms of drilling down on the microeconomics? To what extent are they are engaging in circular cost-mapping exercises across all tiers of their business, not just on a case-by-case basis? One participant commented: “It’s extremely  complicated [to do] — the challenge is one of change. You have to change every aspect of your business … it requires a lot of business modeling.”

Another delegate pointed out that such transformational systems thinking “flies in the face of business as usual” while others questioned where the innovation should come from within a company to assist in this type of ambition. Should it be tasked to R&D departments? Design engineers? Material technologists? It was noted that educational establishments have a key role to play here as very few design courses are doing work around the circular economy.

Collaboration was another big theme. Some around the table highlighted a need for more targeted alliances to help accelerate action on the ground. If so, how do stakeholders resolve legal issues around competition and intellectual property? Working out how to engage pre-competitively with others to drive circularity requires some sensitive navigation.

“What does that collaborative space genuinely look like?” asked one participant, while another suggested that having a neutral third party to facilitate dialogue might help.

Businesses are still very much at the brainstorming stage with circularity right now, and there is a real need for more success stories to surface. But some participants felt that performance could be just as usefully measured in terms of trial and error.

“We need a conversation around failure as well … we need more cases studies that haven’t worked, as well as those that have,” one remarked.

Reflecting on some of the takeaway messages from the discussion, Thompson told SB that circularity needs to be made relevant if it is going to mainstream within the corporate environment.

“We need to use the language of business to have those conversations and that’s got to be the starting point. Instead of talking to them about being ‘green’ or the circular economy and sustainability, let’s talk to them about CAPEX and OPEX and margins of revenue.”

On a wider level, she pointed to global developments, such as the US-China climate deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as evidence that the tide was turning.

“These are monumental shifts and changes that are occurring, it gives me a very positive outlook. The momentum is there and growing — and a piece of that is the circular economy.”

Maxine is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk.

[Read more about Maxine Perella]

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