Breaking Through the Circular Economy Barriers

June 15, 2017


Attend 2017 Circular Economy Summit to learn how to break through circular economy barriers within an organization.

[Editor’s Note: The U.S. Chamber Foundation’s 2017 Sustainability and Circular Economy Summit will be held on June 26-28 in Washington, D.C. The event will convene thought leaders and experts in the sustainability and circular economy field, to discuss how organizations can overcome barriers to start implementing the circular economy. Click here to register for this can’t-miss event.]

I recently spoke about corporate sustainability to Dr. Dan Fiorino’s class of highly educated graduate students at American University. When I mentioned all the exciting opportunities coming with the circular economy, I was met with a room full of empty stares. Dr. Fiorino asked me to explain what the circular economy is in a way that the students, who didn’t work in the field, would understand and admittedly, I had a difficult time explaining.

While many definitions exist for the circular economy, it’s still challenging to explain it in plain speak to our fellow employees, bosses, supply chain partners, customers, and others who we need to collaborate with to accelerate our progress. For the Chamber Foundation, the Circular Economy is designing waste out of the system and, in the process, creating regenerative value as opposed to the traditional linear economy (take, make, dispose model of production).  The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has a more detailed definition:

“Looking beyond the current "take, make and dispose” extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimising negative impacts. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital.”

While these convey a clear message to those of us already in the know, we need even more compelling ways to communicate the power of the Circular Economy to the unconverted masses, including our co-workers, our bosses, and the consumers who buy our products. In a meeting with USCCF environmental shape-leaders, defining and communicating circular economy and finding ways to engage employees and the value chain on the approach was identified as a priority for the work-program.

In addition to the communication challenges, the innovation that is central to achieving the circular economy is not easy to employ at scale within many large organizations. Some of the organizational challenges within the innovation space include[1]:

  • Risk-averse culture
  • Silos that make it difficult to do cross-functional, cross-geographical collaboration
  • Internal competition for funding within a framework of short-term ROI
  • Lack of training and awareness of innovation and collaboration tools and processes

Joseph Walicki, Vice President and President, Power Solutions for Johnson Controls, writes in this article, “As the world continues to grow, so does our environmental footprint. Last year…it was noted that three quarters of all raw materials used in industrialized countries end up in landfills in just one year...The circular economy can dramatically alter that trend and create a more sustainable and profitable future.”

Walicki goes on to note five things company leaders can do to create a truly circular economy. Read the full article here.

For some organizations, where to even begin may seem over-whelming. But it does not have to be. There are tried and true processes in design thinking, shared value creation, lateral thinking, lean startup, and other innovation approaches and tools that can be applied to the circular economy space. We will be scoping these communication and organizational challenges more at the “From Aspiration to Implementation” Circular Economy conference in D.C., June 26-28. Come join the conversation as we think about ways to arm organizations with the tools they need to scale up the circular economy.

[1] From Jeffrey Phillips, OVO Innovation, “Make Us More Innovative: Critical Factors for Innovation Success”.