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Circular revolutionaries share their insights into creating a low carbon economy

Michael Worth Michael Worth

Our planet has finite resources, but our insatiable consumption of materials keeps growing. The modern ‘take, make, waste’ linear model of production is a significant contributor to climate change, with an estimated 45% of global emissions created by manufacturing products.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, we can keep our resources at their highest use-value for as long as possible so they’re not abandoned to become waste or pollution. Instead, waste is designed out of the production process and the materials we use are kept in circulation. This is the circular economy. It comes with some initial costs, but the potential benefits far outweigh them – millions of jobs, lower carbon emissions and lower energy use, just for starters.

Grant Thornton New Zealand and Sustainable Business Network (SBN) recently co-authored a report called The Circular Revolution and hosted a series of panel events to share our findings with the business community.

Minister for Economic and Regional Development, Hon Stuart Nash opened our event in Auckland and said, “I did a morning milk run, with glass bottles full of milk. Glass bottles were the classic example of a circular economy. We have lost the art of preservation in favour of disposable and convenient.”

Our panels comprised circular economy experts including business owners already putting circularity into practice. The events were incredibly informative and hopefully some of the insights from them will help to inspire your business’s transition to more circular business models. Here’s an overview of some key themes that emerged.

1. Get your team on board

You can’t do it on your own – fighting big problems requires cooperation, and that can start within your organisation. For Jan Meyer, CEO of Rutherford & Meyer, that means shutting down the plant once a month to talk to everyone in the team about the principles of sustainability and circularity.

“If the team I work with doesn’t understand what we’re wanting to do, where we’re heading, and what it means for them, then we’ve completely lost our purpose.”

As a result, the business not only produces outstanding upcycled food products – like crackers made from leftover brewing grain – but is also continuously improving its resource management.

Setting the right tone at the top is also a great place to start. If your governance and management teams lack the skills and resources to communicate the impact of the organisation’s sustainable initiatives, the time to arm them with everything they need is now. This could include education and upskilling or even recruiting an experienced leader to oversee circular practices, and take responsibility for how they are measured and reported.

2. Start with small actions

You don’t need to overhaul every process in your business at once to make a difference. Small actions add up.

For example, think about some ways you could reduce waste. Could you eliminate single-use plastics from your workplace? Could you buy your team reusable coffee cups? Ask your team to look twice at every asset before they throw it away. Could the object still have value to someone?

“Seventy percent of businesses still throw away things with value,” Ben Redwood, co-founder of Mutu, told our Auckland crowd. “We’ve created an app where you can pull out your phone, take a photo, and list it in 20 seconds. Now you have options – you don’t have to chuck it in a skip.”

Large companies often have surplus assets and materials distributed across different buildings, storage rooms or warehouses. As a result, new resources are bought when they’re not needed.

Mutu’s app makes it easier for large companies to track their assets and rehome surplus resources more effectively. Put simply, it connects people who have things with people who need them. Unwanted items are listed on the platform for sale or donation. With either option, users can promote the item in-house or with the wider Mutu network. They can also request something the same way.

You don’t have to do everything – just do something. It can feel overwhelming, but it’s not impossible, as Meyer explained:

“It’s become part and parcel of our business – we’ve embedded it in our everyday lives so it’s not a burden. Do a small bit, because every small bit adds to a bigger ball … You might think ‘How am I ever going to do that? We just look for something small each time otherwise it becomes daunting.”

3. Connect with other businesses

Cooperation isn’t only vital within your company, but also within the wider business community. As Redwood put it, being at the forefront of the circular economy is like being one of the first companies to own a fax machine. You’ve got nobody to send a fax to, or to receive a fax from, at the beginning. Once more business start to collaborate, the advantages multiply exponentially.

SBN’s Circular Economy Directory is a fantastic place to start.

It’s the country’s first business-to-business register dedicated to creating a circular economy in Aotearoa. It comprises businesses and programmes that can help you design waste out of your business, reduce carbon, help regenerate nature, share and trade your existing resources, extend the lifespan of your products, recycle and compost, and find products and supplies with circular features.

“Customers are asking for circular solutions,” said James Griffin, General Manager, Projects and Advisory at SBN. “The direction of travel is clear. New Zealand could be left behind, or it could be toward the front – and I don’t want to be left behind.”

4. Shout about what you’re doing

Reusable container provider Again Again is the perfect example of how awareness can drive demand, which in turn drives growth and potential profits. The business began trialling ‘coffee cups as a service’ at 14 Wellington cafes. It now supplies a wide range of reusable container types to a network of 200 participants across the country, and it’s growing quickly. It’s a for-profit social enterprise, and its business customers save 30% to 50% compared to the cost of single-use takeaway packaging.

“We’ve launched a nationwide system, and seeing it deployed at scale is amazing,” said Nada Piatek, Again Again co-founder. “The deeper we get in, the more amazing the opportunities to make a commercial and environmental impact.”

If your business is making a difference, shout about it. Tell everyone, on every platform, what your business is doing to shift toward circular models. This has four main benefits:

  1. Setting higher expectations so you raise the bar for all businesses
  2. Demonstrating that your business is an early adopter, and you’re thinking about a sustainable future
  3. Providing you with a point of difference compared to your competitors, which can win you new customers and cement the loyalty of your existing clients
  4. Finally, your circular credentials are a potential hiring tool. With the current labour shortage, this is the perfect time to make your company more attractive to prospective employees

For more insights about circular business models and path towards a low carbon economy for Aotearoa New Zealand, download your copy of The Circular Revolution here.