Lancashire businesses learning to manage the Circular Economy

With ever looming environmental challenges and financial pressures, waste reduction and better use of resources is high on the agenda for many organisations. Alison Stowell highlights how businesses can learn to manage the Circular Economy through shared practice, drawing on her experience delivering workshops to local businesses as part of a low carbon innovation.

The SMEs that come on the Low Carbon Innovation Forum have a particular mindset already but are looking for ways to improve. I want them to be able to walk away with something concrete they can do.

I’m a social scientist who’s interested in discard studies. In my previous career in IT, I became curious about electronic waste: what happens to your computer or mobile when it gets thrown away. When I moved into academia, not many people were looking at this but, since then, the unintended consequences of progress have really caught the public’s attention. Now my research is focused on social, organisational and management responses to the challenges of waste. A key concern I have is how we create a responsible and inclusive circular economy, because discussion of these ideas is often focused on physical resources; people are excluded.

As an Associate Director for the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business – a transdisciplinary research hub drawing on expertise from across Lancaster University – I lead on their Waste and the Circular Economy theme, which forms part of a holistic view of a low carbon economy that is restorative and regenerative in design. I am also first point of contact with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a worldwide organisation of 200 multinationals and 5,200 SMEs.

My client engagement responsibilities put me in a good position to develop a productive dialogue with businesses on the subject of low carbon innovation and the circular economy. One of the challenges business has – and one of the things that academia is getting better at – is translating trends and scientific data into business terms. And like it or not, the way business decisions are made are based upon the business case. Centre’s Director Professor Gail Whiteman’s creation of the Arctic Basecamp at the World Economic Forum at Davos, where the team of scientists use this as a vehicle to bring the urgent message to Global leaders about the global risks of Artic climate change, and increasingly about the planetary reach of waste problems such as plastics which now are showing up in Arctic ice. The key is to give businesses access to expertise that they might not have in their own organisation – then, as experts within their own context, they can apply this into something meaningful.

This emphasis on practical support and tangible impact underpins the Low Carbon Innovation Forum. A six-month programme for Lancashire SMEs, it has grown out of the University’s commitment to introduce like-minded senior decision-makers to one another – and then, as a group, to the enormous opportunities presented by the transition to a low carbon economy. Whether they are just starting out or preparing an established business for the next stage in its development, they can equip themselves with new tools and techniques, share best practice in a confidential setting, and get expert help with rethinking business processes for the future.

The workshop that I deliver is called Managing the Circular Economy. Here I introduce the delegates to the principles of a circular economy – as opposed to a linear, ‘take-make-waste’ economy – and why business should care. We examine one of the most popular models, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, where the key is to design waste and pollution out of the system, to keep products and materials in use and to regenerate natural systems, and then we look at what this actually means to them. So, for example, the delegates might map the inputs and outputs from one of their products or services, identify its users and stakeholders and how they value it, then compare their findings with the group. It’s a way into identifying things like products with wasted lifecycles or capabilities – and then into examining opportunities such as keeping products in consecutive cycles and cascading their use, as in the example of clothing being reused in insulation.

We look at the ReSOLVE framework used by both governments and businesses. Working through this model enables us to examine practical solutions at every stage, from shifting to renewable energy (REGENERATE) and the potential to SHARE assets such as cars and spaces, through ways to OPTIMISE performance and efficiency. The model continues with LOOP, which can include remanufacturing as well as recycling, VIRTUALISE, which involves ways to dematerialise, including moving platforms online, and the EXCHANGE of old for new, be that new product ideas or new technologies such as 3D printing.

The experience is very different from lecturing. I’m in a room of experts, so I perceive my role as sharing knowledge, examples, tools, and introducing activities that they can use to apply to their own businesses, with a view to taking an action back to the workplace. The great thing is that it doesn’t have to come from me; it can come from the rest of the group. A key element of our approach is to recognise those things that you are doing well, which creates opportunities to share ideas and even resources.

Along the way, we emphasise that this is something doable – but also help them to recognise that it is no longer something they can, or need to, do alone. It also provides the opportunity to question and challenge assumptions. For example, one participating company was making a product that already contributed to the low carbon economy, but they still benefitted from us working together to help them see the wider life cycle: where do you source your materials, what energy are you using, and how do you make it – do you create modular designs?

I hope that they can come away with an idea of some low hanging fruit, such as waste that can be addressed immediately through effective rather than efficient use of resources, as well as more fundamental changes that will make them more future-orientated. They can reduce costs by sourcing secondary materials, reducing energy consumption and achieving leaner production. They can explore the benefits of new technologies, for example offering a product as a service. They can get ahead of new taxes and regulations. Increasingly, they can also build reputational capital with customers.

With the current climate emergency, we all have to act quickly and businesses coming on the Forum understand that. Because the University has no vested interest other than trying to resolve the problems, what we can do is to help them understand how the science informs business risk, and how that insight can mobilise change, for the benefit of their business, the environment and society as a whole.