The next steps for a more sustainable world

8 April 2015

A group of experts recently met to discuss whether or not we are living in a new Anthropocene epoch, where the impact of human beings will shape the future of the planet. Writing in the Financial Times, author Stephen Cave suggested humanity would have to ask whether “it will be an age in which we shine brighter than ever, or in which our light burns itself out”.

The circular economy could help us ensure our light burns brightly. It provides ways for businesses to innovate and prosper while dealing with some of the environmental crises we face today.

A new approach

As we discovered at Desso, a Tarkett company, when we went Cradle to Cradle® in 2008, the circular economy forces you to rethink design, industrial processes, materials and more. The idea is to manufacture healthy goods that can be recycled, reused or remanufactured on return in a non-toxic closed loop.

Industry leaders and sustainability experts are more than aware of the challenges they face when “going circular”. Aspiring to higher standards in material health, creating technology that can separate used material and preserve its purity, and building efficient reverse logistics processes are not easy to do. It is tough, expensive and can seem thankless. However, increasingly, the circular approach is gaining ground. The world consists of finite resources and rising numbers of consumers will apply even more pressure if we stick to a linear “take, make and waste” model. Some say we will need five planets to meet the demand by mid-century. A new study from UCL claims that one-third of oil reserves and more than 80% of coal reserves should not be extracted before 2050 if global warming is to stay below the 2°C target set by policy-makers.

Change is never easy

It is easy to see that circularity makes sense. It is much harder, in a fast-changing and competitive business environment, to switch from an established system to another in one easy move. That’s why it is so important to explore how we can make that transition as smoothly as possible. At both Tarkett and Desso, we’ve been having such discussions in the Circular Economy 100 network, organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The topic is also high on the agenda at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2015. In fact, it’s been high on their agenda for a while, and we and other leading companies have been involved in their Project MainStream, a cross-industry collaboration looking at how to scale up the circular economy.

We need to pool our ideas and lessons. We’ve learnt a lot from our Cradle to Cradle® journey so far. Recently, for example, we worked together with local drinking water producers in the Netherlands to use one of their waste streams, calcium carbonate, produced in the water softening process. We now transform the calcium carbonate in the required purity for one of the stabilizer ingredients in our Cradle to Cradle® carpet tiles. We quickly saw how a waste stream could be turned into a valuable resource, and how sustainable innovation can lead to attractive products and profits. As the chairman of Veolia wrote, the circular economy enables “one person’s waste” to automatically become “another person’s resource”.

Innovators are putting life back into the world economy. The sharing economy continues to introduce exciting new businesses, such as Uber and Airbnb, that make better use of resources. They show that consumers want to make use of underutilized assets. Research suggests that world industry could generate $1 trillion a year by adopting circular methods.

Step by step, we can get closer to creating a more sustainable system. It may be that in 50 years, business leaders still meeting in Davos will look back on this era as the moment when the old linear model began to transform into its circular counterpart. That is indeed an encouraging thought.

Author: Remco Teulings is Chief Executive Officer of Desso & President of Tarkett EMEA