The link between circular economy & sustainability- a case with H&M

This morning, I introduced the case we will be working on this autumn on my course at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH): managing business towards a circular economy and sustainability. The case is in partnership with H&M who is also a partner of the Ellen MacArthur circular economy initiative.

As I’ve written about before, I was not an early adopter of the circular economy. I do, however, teach circular economy as a trend in the sustainability area both at Örebro University and NHH. The more I reflect on the concept, the more of a convert I’ve become. So I thought I’d share some of my aha-moments about the circular economy and sustainability with you here.

First of all, what do we mean with sustainability? The established definition is from the UN Brundtland report (1987):

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

As Kuhlman & Farrington (2010) (one of our key references in the NHH course) writes, this sustainability definition addresses the tension between mankind’s aspiration towards a better life on the one hand and the limitations imposed by nature on the other hand. This tension between social welfare and natural resources is more often than not ignored in the business debate on sustainability. We often pretend it does not exist. And of course, there are many win-win situations where environmental or social measures also bring down costs and/or increase income.  There are definitely low hanging fruit, efforts that are win-win or at least come at no cost.

However, there are cases where tension between social well-fare and environmental sustainability undoubtedly exists. The pharmaceutical industry is a prime example. The industry argues that it provides tremendous social benefit by saving lives (or at least reducing suffering) but the environmental pollution, especially chemical and water pollution, is high, both at production  and consumption sites. Why do such tensions between social well-fare and natural resources occur?

Operating in a closed system

Some of you might have heard about the Planetary Boundaries. Professor Johan Rockström and co-authors defined nine environmental boundaries we should stay within to ensure a stable living environment (see picture, borrowed from the 2015 article). What this figure tells businesses is that we are operating in a closed system. If we mismanage certain environmental resources, such as biodiversity and chemical pollution, we cannot compensate for these in other ways. If we cross these, there is no functional living environment we can operate within.

 

Why a linear business model does not work in a closed system

Now the problem with a linear business model (which most businesses have and what we often teach students) is that it treats input to businesses (and its outputs) according to the value chain- the business uses certain input and through a number of processes produces some outputs. These inputs, resources, the business uses appear to just exist. The environment is there for us to use and not affected by our use. Likewise, outputs and externalities from our production  just go somewhere. However, as the 1990 chapter on circular economy by Pearce and Turner states, eventually the waste we produce will affect the availability of new resources. And the accumulated waste affects our well-being too. The fact that business operates in a closed system has to be taken into account. Certainly for global businesses.

Now from the planetary boundaries perspective, the best would of course be to minimize consumption and for us to produce less in order to spare the environment and stay within the boundaries. This is in line with the minimalism and anti-consumerism movement. If we consume less, we do not need to produce so much. We can share, mend and repurpose etc. This is admirable and has a place, especially in societies with overconsumption. It is my approach to my own wardrobe situation. However, at this point in the debate, someone will throw in the argument that we cannot deny developing countries the same social benefits we have allowed ourselves. If we have been flying for decades, why shouldn’t they be able to?

Kate Raworth, with a background at Oxfam, illustrated this pedagogically in her ‘Doughnut Economics‘. It is a fact that there are large groups of people that are not getting their basic needs met. And to achieve progress on this point will in many cases require use of natural resources. Here, the tension between the social development and the availability of natural resources the Brundtland report sought to address is very clear.

Consequently, Raworth put those basic social needs into Rockström’s figure, in the middle, to illustrate that we want to maximize the social well-fare of people while at the same time staying within the planetary boundaries. We want to operate, she argues, within the green ‘doughnut’ formation in the figure.

Sustainability is getting the maximum social value while staying within the planetary boundaries

Working along the lines of minimizing and restricting consumption can, at least in some cases, thus deny us social value. Similarly, what many sustainability-minded businesses do is to try to minimize the waste and externalities from production. To reduce the ‘shadow’ of business, make them ‘tread lightly’ on the environment. There are many impressive initiatives with zero waste factories and water reduction regimes. These are all good, no doubt about it. We need these kinds of initiatives. However, the circular economy further adds that ‘waste’ should not simply be removed but could also become a resource for us to use. It’s a fact that we need some amount of production and that it uses resources and that there will be some amount of waste. What can we do with the remaining waste? How can we turn it into resources?

As this post is long enough, I will simply have to write about the challenges with making waste into circular resources in a follow up post. Still, I hope you see, like I do, why there is a case for circular business in a sustainable society. And I’m so excited about our case with H&M and what the students will come up with.

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