Steering businesses towards a circular economy

As I have previously blogged about, the students in my master course ‘measuring sustainability’ at NHH have analysed and proposed indicators that H&M and other fashion companies can use to steer their business towards a circular economy. We are very thankful to H&M and sustainability manager Luisa Book for collaborating with us on this case. The topic is very much of the moment as an increasing number of companies, just like H&M, aim to become circular but then also need appropriate tools to help steer their operations in this direction.

Some of the indicators the students proposed, such as amount of recycled material out of total use of materials, are maybe not new but are crucial when a circular business is the target. Moreover, the number of times a material can be recycled needs to be monitored in order to make sure that recycling is not just a prolonging of a linear path (see Circular Flanders great illustration of this to the left). In an ideal world, materials can be recycled indefinitely.

The students also argued that it is key to keep track of collecting initiatives i.e. when brands collect used or discarded products. How much of what is sold returns to the company for recycling? Moreover, companies need to monitor what happens with collected garments- are they recycled into new garments or in fact only downcycled (used for other less valuable products)?

One reason materials cannot be recycled is because the materials are contaminated for example by chemicals that hinder recycling. The students here proposed to measure the use of such chemicals or substances. By monitoring, the company can also try to minimize such use. To know if the product is made with substances that might hinder recycling, you need proper information about what the garment is made of and how it is made. Here the students proposed that H&M could develop more elaborate tags with information about the item which could help the customer to take care of it and, eventually, facilitate the recycling of the garment.

Another point that is crucial to circular operations is to keep the materials in the processes. In the textile industry, a lot of fabric gets wasted and does not end up in any garment. Consequently, some students suggested to measure the amount of material that ends up in a garments in relation to total amount of materials used. Ideally, all materials used should end up in a garment. Similarly, the students also identified microplastics as a threat because it means that small amounts of plastic fibers continuously leave the circular flow and non-renewable materials are subsequently lost.

Another aspect commonly discussed in the context of circular economy is the slowing of the circle i.e. the prolonging of a product’s life span. Here the students reintroduced the idea of enabling users to repair their clothes, for example by making sure all items come with threads or buttons necessary for repair or providing repair services in stores. The company can track both the use of repair services and number of items that customers could repair themselves.

I hope that H&M and other companies will find the students work helpful. How to measure a circular business is really at the forefront of both practice and research. In fact, two research colleagues and I just last week got financing for a project on circular business practices by Vinnova. That the students managed this task so well and were able to develop these very helpful indicators show, to my mind, that we at University teach students useful and up to date skills. We educate students that can in fact contribute to and improve current business practices.

Almedalen: sustainability, research and politics

Last week I attended Swedish politics week, Almedalen, for the very first time. The occasion was a seminar about sustainability professionals in companies, their work and competences that my employer, Örebro University School of Business, hosted. We are starting a new master profile in sustainable business this autumn and have thus thought a lot about what knowledge and competences sustainability professionals need. So I represented our school and shared our experiences. When developing this master profile, we have been supported by representatives from businesses and student organizations, some of which- Nordea, Grant Thornton, Spendrups,  SEK, Telenor, Young Sustainability Professionals and Sustainergies– joined us for the seminar in Almedalen (which was recorded and can be found here).

Already there, I had the opportunity to attend over 4000 seminars arranged during the week. There was no way to attend all of them, sadly since a large proportion dealt with sustainability issues. However, I managed to attend some seminars on sustainability and some others on research politics.

The panels discussing sustainability and consumption were very gloomy. ‘Consumption has to decrease’ and is ‘destroying our environment’ and ‘the politicians are not doing enough’ seemed to be the general message. I have some major issues with these kinds of statements. First, one has to define what is meant with consumption. Services such as child care and going to the hairdresser are also consumption. We can consume second hand items and probably should increase this type of consumption. Basically, we have to differentiate between different types of consumption and their effects on the environment. Instead KTH researchers from Mistra’s project on sustainable consumption painted with very large brushes and suggested we should both consume and work less. I don’t see how they arrived at this conclusion and am consequently not convinced. Neither are my consumption researcher colleagues when I’ve discussed the issue with them. Consumption per se is not evil, but certain types, such as flying or single use plastics, are bad for the environment.

One take away from Almedalen is thus that it was engineering researchers that discussed economics and business issues such as GDP, growth and consumption. One panel even stated that ‘it is probably just as good that there are no economists on the panel’. I, however, was missing the economics and business researchers and I believe that our presence on the panels would have improved the discussions. Instead, I was sitting in the audience wondering how they defined growth and how they could state that Sweden has substantial GDP growth (clearly they did not consider GDP per capita). Of course research is interdisciplinary, but when it comes to basic definitions in business and economics, researchers in these fields have an advantage: we have worked longer with these concepts.

Attending the social events, generally organized by companies, was a more encouraging experience. I ended up having drinks with the electric cars lobby (who knew they existed?) and attending Atea’s afternoon around the topic of sustainable supply chains in the IT sector and conflict minerals. It’s really encouraging that so much is happening on both these issues. Our partner for the master program, Spendrups, invited us to an entirely organic dinner celebrating that they are now the world’s largest producer of organic beer. My take away from the company discussions is that a lot can happen in a short period of time in the corporate world. And as soon as there is something that looks like a business case for addressing a sustainability issue, companies will race their competitors to get there.

The research politics seminars were also a positive surprise and dealt with topics such as research communication and open science. As for the latter, the panel agreed that professional research communicators are needed and that we today lack incentives for researchers to address the general public. If we want to communicate outside of academia, we have to do it in our spare time. As for the latter topic, it seems as if open science is coming our way and it’s just a matter of time and of exactly how the solutions will look like. The Swedish Research Council (‘Vetenskapsrådet’) is arranging a conference in November about open science which I will try to attend.

Overall, Almedalen was a highly inspiring week that was well worth attending even for a researcher (there were very few of us there) and I hope there will be opportunity to be back next year!

The alternative facts debate: In defense of questioning the facts

It’s challenging times to be in the knowledge business. Twitter followers question whether climate change is real and FB-followers question facts because they are published  in unknown media. And when you don’t agree with someone else’s statement you call it alternative facts. This is, I guess, a sign that parts of the public question some commonly held facts.

While some see this as a dangerous development, that people question commonly held facts and hold alternative views, it is also an opportunity to dive further into the questioned facts and learn something in the process. To proclaim that ‘this is a fact, deal with it’ is unlikely to convince anyone. We teachers know that when our statements are questioned it forces us to learn and ‘know’ the issue on a more detailed level. Having commonly held facts questioned is a challenge for sure, but if we can defend them it’s generally worth the effort.

Unfortunately, some argue that those questioning our facts are driven by emotions and thus that logical arguments do not work. This is not a helpful picture to paint. Of course all of us are motivated by emotions. But if we would apply this at universities, that emotion is the motivation for questioning our teachings and that logical arguments is not an appropriate response, it’s a dangerous path to follow. Nobody wants to be treated as an emotional creature that cannot be reasoned with. In contrast, I would argue that many of us are convinced by logical arguments and remain unconvinced when we are left with incoherent arguments and told to ‘trust the expert’. Instead, if our commonly held facts are questioned, let’s sharpen our arguments further.

Increasingly, researchers are called upon to tell us if a fact is true or not. Are researchers suitable in the role as ‘ fact experts’? Why should researchers, and not others, be able to do this? Researchers are not experts because they work at a prestigious institution, have the professor-title or speak in a charismatic way. They are not better equipped to judge value issues, such as if one political measure is more valuable to the population than another (although we often think so ourselves). However, in certain cases researchers can help us when it comes to facts. It is true that researchers are, generally, good at handling facts because:

  • We are up to date on facts within our own field of research. This field, however, is usually quite narrow!
  • We use facts to test theories and potential explanations and are thus used to questioning and interpreting facts.
  • Occasionally, we develop facts. If facts are necessary for our research but unavailable, we might create them in order to conduct our research. These facts, such as the amount of plastic in the ocean or amount of companies with a sustainability strategy, can be of interest to the general public too.

Instead of raging against those that do not share our facts, don’t agree there is climate change etc., and labelling them alternative facts or anti- this or that, why not look at the explanations we provide. How pedagogical are we? Where are the weak points in our explanations? Which parts of the argument do they question? Do they have reasons to question these points? Can we support our statements further? We might just learn something about the issue and communication in the process.