Brands as the most powerful, inspiring platforms for change … Overcoming the “circularity gap” to drive innovation, growth and enlightened progress

October 6, 2020

The world is on fire. Global contagions and unstoppable wildfires, social inequality and melting ice caps. Demanding consumers and disruptive technologies, unexpected shocks and stagnating growth.

Human CO2 levels need to fall by 45% from their 2010 levels by 2030 if we are to avert a climate catastrophe (according to IPCC). 26 people now have more wealth than 3.8 billion people (Credit Suisse). We can’t afford to wait for political attitudes to change, or governments to act. Instead we should use the power of business to change our world.

It’s time for business to step up and be more. To reimagine brands as the most powerful, and inspiring, platform for change, driving innovation that solves bigger problems, inspiring consumers together to create more positive impact.

Think about its unique assets, resources and reach. Brands change hearts and minds, emotionally engaging with people’s aspirations and passions. Products and services can be innovated in ways that they do good as well as meet needs. Consumers and employees engage with brands every day, and collectively they can engage with each other to multiply their impact.

Watch my TED Talk, “Spider Silk and Sizzling Burgers” …

However we still have a long way to go Today, the global economy is only 8.6% “circular” (even less than two years ago, when it was 9.1%).

The global “circularity gap” is widening, according to a new report, The Global Circularity Gap 2020, published by the Dutch organisation, Circle Economy. The negative trend can be explained by three related, underlying trends: high rates of extraction, ongoing stock build-up, and low levels of end-of-use processing and cycling.

The report finds that total resources entering the global economy have increased by 8.4% in just two years from 92.8 billion tonnes in 2015 to 100.6 billion tonnes in 2017, the latest year for which data is available.

In that period total extracted resources have increased by 9%, from 84.4 to 92 billion tonnes. But the total of materials that are reused has grown by just 3%, from 8.4 to 8.7 billion tonnes, and fallen as a proportion of overall material use.

Despite all of the facts, most companies are still locked into the “take-make-waste” tradition of the linear economy.

The report finds that total resources entering the global economy have increased by 8.4% in just two years from 92.8 billion tonnes in 2015 to 100.6 billion tonnes in 2017, the latest year for which data is available.

In that period total extracted resources have increased by 9%, from 84.4 to 92 billion tonnes. But the total of materials that are reused has grown by just 3%, from 8.4 to 8.7 billion tonnes, and fallen as a proportion of overall material use.

Despite all of the facts, most companies are still locked into the “take-make-waste” tradition of the linear economy.

Traditional levers such as regulation and taxation could force change, but a far better approach is to create desirable, positive change. This is where we come back to business, aligning consumer needs and aspirations, with better ways to solve them.

Brands like Toms trailblazed this new mindset. Blake Mycoskie’s “one for one” program, giving a free pair of shoes to children in poverty for every pair bought, created a powerful, desirable brand. Many brands now put sustainability at the core of their proposition (not just a supporting “CSR” initiative), creating better products, while also doing good:

  • Adidas has just launched its latest “Futurecraft” sports shoes, spun from recycled threads that eliminate most waste, creating even lighter, better fitting shoes.
  • Eileen Fisher, the American women’s fashion brand, “upcycles” consumers’ old worn-out clothes, turning them into beautiful, individual collectors’ items.
  • Icon, has created a 3D printing process for house building, able to construct a new home for $4000 in 24 hours, in particular for refugees or disaster relief.
  • LanzaTech, a Canadian renewable energy company created by Sean Simpson, captures carbon from the atmosphere, then converts it into clean energy.
  • Selina, a Panama-based travel company for digital nomads, has created 47 beautiful vacation locations around the world, combining voluntary work with travel.

In today’s world, business can aim for a net-zero impact through a more circular economic model, but they also have the potential to do more – to create a net-positive impact.

“Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth… these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all” says Ban Ki-Moon.

We need to shift our minds from paradox to possibility – aligning short and long-terms, purpose and profit, humanity and technology, creating more from less, resource and replenishment, accessibility and exclusivity, equality and wealth.

Now is the time for a new kind of capitalism, seizing the opportunities of disruption and change, harnessing the power of business to create enlightened progress. Now is the time for business leaders to find a new code for business success.

Spider Silk

There are only 31 types of fibre in the world, the last developed in the Second World War. Indeed 60% of the world’s textiles are made from polyester, a carbon-based material that is not biodegradable.

Spider silk has long been the Holy Grail of material innovation. It’s strong, biodegradable, and it can be used in everything from cosmetics to clothes. Many have attempted to grow the material in labs, but only a few companies have succeeded.

Dan Widmeier of Bolt Threads uses genetically modified yeast, sugar, water and salt, to develop a closed-loop process to bio-engineer a new protein fibre mimicking the structure of spider silk. It requires neither the polluting chemicals of petroleum-derived materials nor the land, water and pesticides of conventionally farmed fibres.

Sizzling Burgers

Biochemist Pat Brown wanted to create the world’s best burger. But he also wants to eliminate animal-sourced meat from our food chain, given its huge damage to our environment, from the destruction of rainforests to the emission of carbon.

Brown realised that the challenge was not to persuade vegetarians, but meat eaters. And they loved the sizzle, smell and taste of real meat. He created Impossible Foods, and identified methods and ingredients to naturally recreate everything – the sights, sounds, aromas, textures and flavours. The result? This impossibly delicious game changer of a burger.

“Because we use 0% cows, the Impossible Burger uses a fraction of the Earth’s natural resources. Compared to cows, the Impossible Burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s 100% free of hormones, antibiotics, and artificial ingredients.”

Here are 30 facts about sustainability:

  • The term sustainability has its most known roots in the 1987 Brundtland Report which officially defined sustainable development for the first time.
  • In 2016 many world leaders adopted the United Nation’s 17 global goals/Sustainable Development Goals to improve life all around the world and preserve the earth’s resources and fight climate change.
  • The concept of circular economy looks beyond societies’ current take-make-dispose model to create a more restorative economy which designs out waste, keeps products and materials in use for as long as possible and regenerates natural systems.
  • Climate change is defined as “a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, that alters the composition of the global atmosphere, and that is in addition to natural climate variability over a comparable time period.”
  • China is the world’s top polluter emitting 10,357 metric tons of carbon dioxide, followed by the United States, India, Russia and Japan.
  • Mpumalanga province in South Africa has the highest levels of air pollution in the world, in terms of nitrogen dioxide levels, due to a high concentration of coal power plants.
  • Human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide need to fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero around 2050 to limit climate change catastrophe.
  • Energy is the dominant contributor to climate change, accounting for around 60% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • If people worldwide switched to energy efficient light bulbs the world would save 105 billion euros annually.
  • Lighting accounts for 15% of global electricity use. Switching to LEDs will use 90% less energy and last far longer than with the use of incandescent lights.
  • 70% of the world is covered by water, yet only 2.5% of it is fresh and only 1% of it is easily accessible for human use.
  • The right to safe drinking water was first recognized by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council as part of binding international law in 2010.
  • Water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.
  • The use of water efficient fittings and fixtures has the ability to cut water use in homes by 45%.
  • If the entire world ate like the average American, there would not be enough water in the world to sustain the global population.
  • Plant-rich diets reduce emissions and tend to be healthier, leading to lower rates of chronic disease.
  • Agricultural Emissions could be reduced by as much as 70% by adopting a vegan diet and 63% by adopting a vegetarian diet.
  • Nearly half of the solid waste produced globally is organic or biodegradable.
  • When organic matter is landfilled it decomposes and produces gas methane which is up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a century, thus contributing to climate change.
  • When organic matter is composted, organic matter is converted into stable soil carbon, “while retaining water and nutrients of the original waste matter.” This results in carbon sequestration and the production of a high quality fertilizer.
  • Recycling one ton of paper saves 2584l of oil, 26498l of water and 2.5 cubic meters of landfill space.
  • Germany has the best recycling rate in the world followed by Austria, South Korea and Wales.
  • Recycled paper produces about 25% fewer total emissions than conventional paper.
  • Recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees.
  • The process of Aforestation (creating new forests where there were none) creates a carbon sink. This draws in and holds on to carbon and distributes it into the soil.
  • The production of plastic is largely reliant on fossil hydrocarbons, which are non-renewable resources which contribute to climate change.
  • Plastic bags and Styrofoam containers can take up to thousands of years to decompose leading to marine animal death and the contamination of soil and water.
  • The most common finds during international coastal cleanups are cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, glass beverage bottles, other kinds of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers.
  • 36 million people live in modern slavery today, many of who are working in the supply chains of Western brands such as that of the fast fashion industry.
  • The world’s indigenous population makes up just 5% of the global population yet protects 80% of global biodiversity.

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