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  • Writer's pictureDonald Eubank

'Harnessing the Circular Economy' session report for 'From Vision to Action' at TUJ:

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

‘Harnessing the Circular Economy’ Session Outputs

October 28, 2019

Two major themes came out of "Harnessing the Circular Economy”, the second session of “Vision to Action: Sustainability in Business": 1) the pilot projects that companies promote as Circular often still have much work to do and, 2) when you start to design Circular approaches to business problems, there is a danger of unintended consequences from unleashing disruptive forces.

To sum it up, the Circular Economy, even within a single business, requires a true whole systems view to be meaningful and additive to the creation of solutions, rather than implementing half measures which could result in new problems.

Nevertheless, with examples from DSM and The Netherlands, we saw that Circular thinking can be applied to resolve structural environmental and social problems in an economy that have been recognized or chosen to be more strictly managed, such as setting national limits on the amount of nitrogen that is produced and consumed; and it can help businesses to find new opportunities in their product and service lines and improve their position within the market and society.

As mentioned during the session introduction, theoretically there are four million Circular Economy Business Models–finding the one that that works for your company, can be a challenging but rewarding endeavor that will strengthen your business if you can overcome the obstacles and apply the concepts comprehensively.

Our full session synopsis:

“Is this Circular?” Breakout

SOURCE: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, SUN and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment; Drawing from Braungart & McDonough, Cradle to Cradle (C2C)

Discussion groups were presented with three case studies: Adidas shoes made from recovered and recycled plastic, the Sort Systems from CP Manufacturing for Waste-to-Energy facilities, and Zara’s in-store clothes recycling program.

Participants were asked to rate how Circular these case studies were on a scale of 1 to 10, suggest how managers can be better equipped to bring Circular solutions to market, and discuss whatever challenges you might encounter in trying to make a case study more Circular.

CASE STUDY: Adidas shoes

Taiwanese inventors make fabric from ocean plastic for upper part of sports shoes

— Discussion of the product/service

  • Highly profitable

— Questions about the product

  • Where are the materials sourced?

  • What is Adidas’ after use plan?

  • Can customers return the product?

  • Is it returnable if it’s damaged?

— What managers would need to develop, launch, and manage this product over time

The ability to:

  • Track the design stage

  • Control real-time supply chain

  • Deploy after service management

  • Control safety issues

— General discussion

  • Store employee-level education is required about the product + Adidas clerks would need to know details of the shoes’ materials and lifecycle management aspects (e.g. options for disposal, etc)

  • Is a leasing model possible? + Leasing model struggling to achieve profitability + Nike proposed leasing model for children shoes - Children grow quickly and don’t wear out shoes so a good proposition + Philips light rental - Customers need to come back for Philips light bulb and light tube

  • Need to start thinking about "singularity" at the design stage

  • KEEN footwear provides a model + Durability model - Detachable parts resolve issue of wear and tear

  • Start with a products-as-a-service strategy + End-of-life perspective from DSM - Before: Saw oil as raw material - Now: See final product, such as cellphones, as raw material

CASE STUDY: Waste-to-energy technology

— Discussion of the product/service

  • It offers an alternative to landfill + Innovative waste management

  • Not entirely circular + Waste is burned

  • Circular features + Circulating waste-to-energy + Separation technology

— What managers would need to develop, launch, and manage this product over time

  • Knowledge around how to manage emissions

  • Perspective on to improve on: + The separation technology - Separate all the different types of plastics - Remove recyclable, non-burnable waste

— General discussion

  • There is policy momentum in South-east Asia for this kind of waste-to-energy technology

  • Communities should steer away this model + Waste needs to recognized as a potential resource + Using waste as an energy source incentivizes producing more waste - Learn from the Singapore case study

  • The model only adds a loop to the existing linear model

CASE STUDY: Zara in-store clothes recycling

On a scale of 1 to 10, would give it a 2 in regards to Circularity

"Consumers believe they’ve contributed positively to addressing the issue, but they didn’t solve the problem"

— Discussion of the program

  • Actual commitments should be disclosed + How much is recycled? Reused?

  • Reused: Not a perfect example of the Circular Economy + Warehouses are filling up with reclaimed, used clothes + But there’s not enough of a market for all the items that are reclaimed

  • Recycled: Technology is available + Dutch company Mud Jeans that leases jeans from recycled materials + Need to understand real statistics around recycling better

  • Charity: Model is disrupted donations being redirected

  • There are major issues with volume of clothes being disposed of + 60 percent of used clothes end up in landfill + In-shop recycling is not an impactful solution

— What managers need to know

  • That this business model is not circular + It only dresses up a linear model with few loops

  • Why this is not the best solution?

  • Where do the clothes go?

  • What are alternative solutions? + H&M’s “no landfill” policy + Investment in technology + Collection companies - Though, the quantity of clothes collected becomes burden

— General Discussion

  • The fashion industry has been working on this problem for 50 years + Garment design and technology are the forces stopping progress

  • Agriculture used to be purely circular 100 years ago – need to revisit those models + Production processes changed + Impacts from outside led the changes, i.e. Industrialization

  • The Circular Economy requires adopting a different lifestyle

Find more materials on the Circular Economy and how businesses are embracing sustainability at the 'Vision to Action' Resource Center


Read the Air—Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank are cofounders and principals of Read the Air, a Tokyo-based specialist advisory service that enables companies to put sustainability at the core of their business, for purpose and profit. Read the Air guides commercial enterprises in designing, implementing and executing powerful business strategies that create sustainable business models.

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