Insider Perspective: 2017 Sustainability and Circular Economy Summit, “From Aspiration to Implementation”

June 29, 2017

Takeaways

Key takeaways from the US Chamber Foundation's 2017 Circular Economy Summit, with partner WBCSD and others.

The event theme, “From Aspiration to Implementation,” drew over 250 business leaders from North America and Europe to share examples, learnings, challenges and stories of how to get stakeholders into the “circular mindset” and implement the circular economy.

Overall, participants showed optimism and enthusiasm for the circular economy as an up-and-coming sustainability solution, but agreed that there’s still a lot of work to do in building the basis for a large scale “circular” transition.

One of the key topics that emerged was the need to increase general understanding of what the circular economy is, and how to foster large-scale implementation.

Andrea Brown, Director of our Circular Economy program, kicked off the conference alongside representatives from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In her introduction, Ms. Brown spoke about the need to “demystify” the circular economy as a key way of enabling business to mobilize.

“We’re working to translate thought leadership into tangible action,” Ms. Brown said in her opening address. “That’s going to be the best way to move circular economy momentum forward.”

The first step is helping business leaders, policymakers and financiers understand circular economy benefits, and provide them with a basis for getting started.

During the Summit, WBCSD launched the Practitioner Guide to the Circular Economy in efforts to bridge the circular economy knowledge gap. With content contributions from over two dozen member companies and financial support from the European Union’s Climate-KIC program, the Guide provides over 70 strategies, 100 resources and tools as well as a glossary of over 125 concepts on the circular economy.

The optimism and momentum behind the circular economy is energizing,” said Maria Mendiluce, Managing Director of WBCSD’s Natural Capital Area. “Our goal is to help businesses implement circular solutions at all levels, and the Practitioner Guide is a necessary first step putting together a list of actions and processes companies can use to transition towards circularity.”

Many of our member companies attended the event, including Accenture, Dow, DSM, Tata, UPS, Walmart and Veolia. And our Knowledge Partner, Arizona State University (ASU), also held a successful one-day executive certificate course on the topic.

The ASU event convened professionals from multiple sectors and industries, with the goal of enhancing their knowledge and understanding in the basis behind circular economy principles.

Another emergent theme over the course of the event included tackling the circular economy transition “one step at a time.”  

Participants highlighted the $4.5 trillion opportunity associated with the circular economy transition – but highlighted that businesses would not be able to capture that economic benefit “overnight” – so to speak. Moving towards the circular economy is a process, requiring patience and persistence.

“It’s important to put a dream out there,” said Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, “but you must take small steps with positive ROI (return on investment) and celebrate your successes” along the way.

 As with all sustainable development strategies, there’s a long road ahead and we need to continue building the momentum, pushing forward at every opportunity.

High-level business leaders and many of our members demonstrated their willingness to be circularity pioneers in this way.

For example, Jarod Davis, Global Product Sustainability Leader of Packaging and Specialty Plastics at The Dow Chemical Company, shared his view on the circular economy as “keeping molecules in play for as long as possible.” He also shared the latest lessons Dow has learned in adopting 2050 sustainability goals – and outlined the company’s plans to advance the circular economy through six major projects.

This kind of uptake and enthusiasm, participants agreed, is exactly what the circular economy needs to break into the mainstream.

Additionally, Hugh Welch, President and General Counsel at DSM North America, presented the company’s DSM-Niaga technology – describing their new innovative design process that aims to simplify material inputs and manufacturing processes to make end-of-life recovery and recycling economically viable. This innovation aims to address the 1.8 billion kilograms of carpet that winds up in US landfills every year.

Clearly, companies are taking an active role in exploring and demonstrating the innovative opportunities associated with moving away from the linear “take-make-dispose” model to one that’s regenerative by design. 

In general, business leaders were enthusiastic about the new excitement generated by circular economy initiatives, but most everyone agreed that where the field is going is even more invigorating.

“Where the circular economy is right now is interesting. Where it will be in five years is fascinating,”  Bill Burkart, President of The Investment Integration Project (TIIP).

Our jobs now are to make sure we keep the momentum going and get the right people on board to drive circular efforts.

As such, we continued to share our new CEO Guide to the Circular Economy as a powerful introduction to the complex concept, and as a good outline for the first steps a company can take in their transition. 

Empowering leaders with critical information allows them to ask better questions and refine their circular strategies.

So far, the process seems to be working.

In understanding the circular economy, “We didn’t just create a new product. We created new systems. Entire new business models have opened up,” explained Hugh Welsh, DSM North America.

Now is the moment to capitalize on the excitement, to ensure that business continues to move in the right direction: towards circularity.

We look forward to continuing the circular momentum from this conference and the World Circular Economy Forum as we head into the summer and towards our Council Meeting in Mexico City.

We welcome all members who are interested in the circular economy to join Factor10, our circular economy program. What are you waiting for? The future of business is circular.

Please contact Andrea Brown if you’d like to get involved, we look forward to seeing you soon. 

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared here.]