What’s missing from the circular economy, according to 10 emerging leaders
It’s been half a decade since the start of GreenBiz Group’s Emerging Leaders program, which has the goal of supporting students and young professionals who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of color and are working to become sustainability leaders of the future.
With all of the cohorts that I’ve had the privilege of meeting, two characteristics they have in common is their desire to address climate change and their push to make the sustainability field more inclusive and ambitious in its actions.
In our last Emerging Leaders piece, I wrote, “For the business community, climate action requires listening to and learning from one another.” That includes learning from the younger people in the rooms, as well. The Circularity 22 Emerging Leaders cohort was made up of 10 students and young professionals — based in cities across the United States, plus Vancouver, British Columbia. And their expertise comes from a variety of areas: engineering; reuse; and fashion, to name a few.
We asked them, “What do you think is missing from conversations about the circular economy and corporate action (using circular economy principles) on addressing the climate crisis?”
Here are their responses, in alphabetical order by last name, and lightly edited for clarity.
Researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
A circular economy and a sustainable future cannot be achieved if the corporate world remains operating within silos of [diversity, equity and inclusion], environmentalism and financial planning. These concepts are not mutually exclusive in reality and need to be addressed collaboratively in the corporate space, both internally across departments and in the larger industry. Conferences like Circularity 22 are a great space to spark this collective thinking, but it needs to be backed with movement on these crucial topics.
I challenge every head of sustainability, ESG analyst or lead experimenter to bring the notion of circularity out of abstraction and into action. Schedule a meeting with your company’s DEI team to have a critical discussion on how a transition to a circular economy can be equitable and inclusive of marginalized communities. Engage with those responsible for budgeting and planning the next steps for your company to establish a baseline and map out what a path to circularity would look like. And share what this collaboratively designed vision of circularity looks like for your company with leadership so you can garner the support to really start transforming. These are my thoughts, but as an expert of your company, what do you think YOU can do to get the wheels moving on circularity?
Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Environmental Engineering Student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Since we are living in a world where prior assumptions about environmental conditions are no longer valid, I believe we must reimagine circularity principles to involve previously unheard or erased voices. More specifically, I think giving environmental justice a larger platform and bringing more awareness to it is a critical piece in conversations about the circular economy and corporate action. Providing marginalized communities the voices they deserve in talks about systems change and a regenerative future is important to guiding the circular framework. I believe their stories, concerns and knowledge drive the sustainability agenda and cannot be looked over or abused. These communities, usually comprised of countries in the Global South, have continuously suffered from our current economic model and have not had proper representation in global discussions.
While I was able to engage in eye-opening discussions and learn about how companies are working towards more sustainable practices, I was most impacted on the last day of the conference, where I attended the “Justice-Centered Strategies: Regenerating Communities through Economic Inclusion” breakout session. One of the panelists, Michelle Wiseman [director of waste diversion and outreach at the city of Atlanta/Mayor’s Office of Resilience], stated that historically, when big corporations come into people of color (POC) communities, they are extractive and arrive with an agenda to operate this way. However, their agenda overlooks the needs of these communities and puts them second. It became apparent after hearing her and the other panelists talk about their real-life experiences with environmental justice in their own cities that a true circular economy cannot be achieved without including and lifting marginalized voices.
California Sea Grant State Fellow at the California Coastal Commission
I think what is missing from the circular economy and corporate action conversation is authentic partnerships with people and places. Using circular economy principles to address the climate crisis is critical, though isolated efforts are not enough. The conversation needs to move beyond buzzwords such as “equity” and “justice,” and corporations need to do the work to authenticate these claims. Engaging with local communities that are bearing the brunt of injustice, investing directly into grassroots efforts and hiring community leaders and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) individuals who have vested interests on the local level are some of the ways in which this can be done.
Instead of asking, “How can we help this community?”, the question should be directed at the community itself to learn what it wants or needs. Creating solutions for vulnerable communities that cannot actively participate does not address the climate crisis. The effort needs to be collaborative and move beyond just bridging a gap in resources to enact system-wide change. A circular economy cannot exist if half of the community is unable to engage. These conversations are beginning to occur, but not at the speed or scale that is needed to effectively revolutionize the economy into a circular one.
Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Business Student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Attending Circularity 22 as an Emerging Leader was an eye-opening experience into the conversations that are happening about the circular economy at a corporate level. I attended panels and networked with professionals about what their companies are doing to follow the principles of a circular economy.
There is great progress being made regarding a circular economy. I believe there is a lack of conversation about incorporating social justice into the actions taken by corporations. The first session I attended at the conference was “The Race to 2025: Achieving Plastics & Packaging Goals.” During this session, I learned how rePurpose Global is working with companies in using plastic credits to fund waste management infrastructures in communities around the globe. One community they invest in is Malappuram, a city in the state of Kerala, India, the state my family is from. I was ecstatic to learn about how a company is preventing plastic pollution in a location that is home to members of my own family. I thought it was a great step in the direction of the circular economy principle to eliminate waste and pollution. Waste management infrastructures around the globe need to be improved, but for communities like in Malappuram, creating a strong waste management system is difficult without proper funding. Climate change is a global issue and by incorporating social justice into the CSR goals of companies, I believe effective action could be taken to aid communities that are impacted heavily by pollution that they did not contribute to.
MBA, Sustainability Candidate at Bard College
Policy engagement and actions in favor of a just transition to the circular economy.
During Circularity 22, I remember a recurring question was how to involve policy in the transition to a circular economy, considering the wheels of government move too slowly to enact the level of action needed to prevent the worst outcomes globally. There is a need for more extensive efforts to address this challenge as aggregated steps will create longer-lasting impacts. How can we co-create concentrated efforts that design community-focused systems convenient to the everyday consumer adjacent to significant policy reforms?
There were also many conversations about envisioning a just transition. Two of my favorite questions from the conference were, “How well do you know your supply chain?” and “Can you name your waste pickers?” I would like to see companies become more involved in this transition through partnerships that support skill-building for a greener economy and investing capital in a future that will be profitable in the long term. Companies should take accountability for the harm they have caused and work with those stakeholders to erase harmful operations and collaboratively create better systems. Invest in and empower your current workforce. And start investing in programs that will build the next generation of diverse and innovative leaders in the circular economy.
Environmental Engineer at LA Sanitation & Environment
Since the Industrial Revolution, the relationship between industry and nature has been parasitic, in which one benefits and the other is harmed. The Industrial Revolution started a fossil fuel-based economy, where a high amount of materials were made or run by fossil fuels. This led to extreme environmental devastation as demand increased industries, creating massive pollution, high amounts of waste and exhausted Earth’s resources.
As a whole, we need to shift away from a consumerism mindset. This is achieved through producing high-quality products that are durable, reusable, made to be made again, safely recycled and contain renewable inputs. Changing the way corporations conduct business first requires changes to how we sell, make and buy everything. In Janine M. Benyus’ book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” she discussed the 10 commandments of the redwood clan, which are natural strategies [“adopted by all complex, mature ecosystems”]. They can help in creating a more circular corporation/organization. Here are six of the 10:
Use waste as a resource
Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat
Gather and use energy efficiently
Optimize rather than maximize
Don’t foul their nests
M.S. in Sustainability Management Candidate at Columbia University
There’s a lot missing. Political will, equity and inclusion, a more ambitious mindset. Quite honestly, as a young person in the sustainability space, it can be frustrating thinking about the complacency of the current moment. So recently, I have begun thinking instead about a different and more productive question: How do we advance the conversation? How do we come back to next year’s Circularity conference with a greater, stronger and more diverse coalition?
I believe at the moment, the circular economy conversation is perched at the high macro-level or in the halls of academia. Even those who are aware of the term and what it represents see it as some sort of pipe dream — as represented in Circularity 22 when one speaker commented that we should settle for “semi-circles” instead of a true circular equitable economy. Constantly, I felt the conversations were cloaked in buzzwords and that the big problems were often reduced to catchy soundbites.
However, there were certainly some special moments where passionate conference-goers reset the tone. I got to hear BanQu CEO Ashish Gadnis gush about how informal waste collectors in South Africa are breaking the cycle of poverty while increasing recycling rates. Erica Nunez, a program officer at the Ocean Foundation, got candid about all the frustrations and struggles in the run-up to gaveling the historic global plastic treaty. Co-founder and Managing Director of the HBCU Green Fund Felicia Davis also shared her deep bank of knowledge on how to meaningfully integrate diversity into public-private partnerships. And there were so many others — other speakers, fellow attendees and (especially) the young Emerging Leaders and young volunteers — who were brimming with passion about the transformations underway around the circular economy.
Herein lies part of the answer on how we move the circular economy conversation forward. We need passion, authenticity and connection to a deeper purpose. The best conversations I had were when people could connect their own high-level vision of a circular economy with the realities and livelihoods of everyday people. It’s exciting! As an industry, we must move away from abstractions and ditch the corporate jargon in how we talk about the circular economy. We need to be real with ourselves to make the circular economy real for others. This means expanding who is part of the conversation, elevating the stories and the work of the exceptional people on the ground — even acknowledging there will be some tension and disagreement. For instance, some circular economy policies might hinder equity and justice because of affordability or other constraints. Are we willing to make that tradeoff?
It won’t be easy but only by expanding who is represented in these conversations can we inch closer to our vision of a more just, inclusive world.
M.S. Sustainability Management Candidate at Columbia University Climate School
In discussions with so many accomplished professionals at Circularity 22, I felt like my mind was constantly being engaged to think through the tough questions about sustainability. Integrating a circular economy into an already established linear economy is a daunting challenge but one that is definitely possible if we take quick action based on these conversations we’re having.
In a society that is inherently driven by economic growth and profit generation, I felt like there was a crucial point missing from most conversations: to make something new is in itself unsustainable. For circular ideas and principles to become mainstream, we need to talk about not just innovations around redesigning products but about the lifestyle changes that we all need to collectively consider to reduce our consumption.
I also found it interesting how so many companies were focused on achieving net zero or on simply reducing emissions. While I don’t want to discourage important progress for the sake of perfection, I found myself thinking about why the target for most companies was simply to return to a baseline to only avoid the worst effects of climate change, rather than focusing on being net positive and actually innovating to give more back than was taken. It’s as circular economy expert William McDonough always says: We need to do more good, not less bad.
Founder and Executive Director of Threading Change
For me, what’s missing in our conversations about the circular economy is that we’re still having these conversations through a lens that’s deeply rooted in colonialism. In the case of fashion, clothing production is mostly produced in countries that are getting past colonialist rule: Bangladesh, India, Hong Kong and China. Clothing donations are going to countries where they don’t have the infrastructure set in place to necessarily reject them, such as the Katanmanto market in Ghana.
We cannot only use westernized solutions in circular economy solutions. For decades, the western sustainability narrative has focused on: “How do we buy into sustainability, to drive impact? What is the triple bottom line?” These are not the only questions we need to focus on. We need to be centering BIPOC communities, whose culture has always had a symbiotic relationship with the natural world, who have been practicing concepts of the circular economy and circular relationships for centuries, before it became a Westernized “marketable” aesthetic. Circularity in the fashion industry is one in which waste and pollution are designed out, products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, including through reusing and recycling, and where natural systems are regenerated.
This is where Threading Change comes in. We are a youth-led nonprofit focused on embedding intersectionality and circularity in the fashion industry.
Our mission drives us every day, the 6Fs: working for a feminist, fossil-fuel-free fashion future. We work at the intersections of consumer education and industry transformation through our tri-impact model of education, innovative storytelling and policy research.