It’s Time to Talk about Systems Change

20 September 2018

Katie Thomas, our Circular Economy Lead, asks, “when a multi-billion dollar business admits its biggest competitor is a trash can, surely something is going wrong with our economy?”

At the international launch of Ashoka’s circular economy leadership programme, Circular Futures, we heard from eBay’s Olivier van Duijn, that the company’s continued challenge to growth and main source of competition was in fact consumers putting their stuff in the bin (rather than trading it on their site). This wasn’t the only surprising thing I learnt…

Last weekend, I was one of 33 participants in the Circular Futures programme. I was looking to seek inspiration from award winning sustainable business models, like that of B-Corp certified outdoor clothing and equipment company (Patagonia) and the man behind the world’s first ethical, environmentally friendly modular smart phone (Fairphone). I was struck by the honesty of these companies. Firstly, representatives from Patagonia admitted that they don’t actually consider themselves as ‘sustainable’, yet; taking resources from the planet at a faster rate than stock can regenerate naturally. Furthermore, Fairphone admitted that they have child labour in their supply chains.

What’s going wrong here? If some of the most sustainability-minded organisations in the world are struggling to be truly sustainable, is the system inherently flawed? With widening poverty gaps and environmental degradation increasing at an alarming rate, despite economic growth, our existing economy fails to meet the needs of all and protect the environment.

Currently, a ‘take, make, dispose’ model governs our economy and it’s not working. There is a growing, global momentum, across a whole spectrum of businesses, to move towards a new economic model – the circular economy – which is restorative and regenerative by design. The circular economy fosters effective systems, maintains resource stocks and fundamentally decouples economic growth from resource extraction. In a circular economy, materials and resources stay circulating in the economy for as long as possible, and at their highest value. Resources aren’t ‘wasted’, or leaked from the system, resulting in economic and environmental losses.

It’s clear we need to change the systems in which our economy operates to enable a shift towards a more circular economy. With less than 60 years remaining of topsoil and more plastic forecast to be in our oceans than fish by 2050, are we making progress fast enough? It is this timeline that has driven Ashoka and key partners, eBay, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Patagonia, to develop the Circular Futures leadership programme that aims to drive collaboration and create real eco-systemic change. With a diverse range of participants from global companies, such as IBM, PwC, Unilever and Accenture, innovative start-ups and EU policy makers, there was certainly an air of excitement about the impact we could achieve collaboratively when we first came together last weekend.

Throughout the course, I will be focusing on our journey to a ‘circular’ Yorkshire. Since joining the York, North Yorkshire & East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership back in May, I’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes – engaging with stakeholders, gathering resource data, mapping out the circular opportunities within our patch, and identifying the systemic changes needed. The next phase of development is to facilitate a co-created circular vision for Yorkshire, which brings focus and solutions to our systemic challenges. Yorkshire – the Circular Economy needs you!

Do you want to join us? We’re hosting our first stakeholder workshop on the 18th October 2018. You can book your place by clicking here.

Why should you attend?

  • Be part of a programme with global ambitions. We’re thinking big. We want to lead the way towards a more sustainable future, and reap the benefits for our citizens and businesses.
  • Shape support programmes for businesses. Tell us what you’d need to be able to move towards more circular business models and realise the financial benefits.
  • Find out and be inspired by best practice in the region and beyond – including case studies from Nestle, Yorkshire Water, the Biorenewables Development Centre and Advance London.
  • Meet other businesses, representatives from local authorities, academics and circular economy experts!

If you’re not able to attend, but would like to see how you could get involved with the programme, please get in touch: [email protected]

NB: Some of the learnings from the Circular Future’s first module are already feeding into the design of our Circular Stakeholder Workshop, so it’s set to be an exciting start to our Circular Yorkshire journey.

Photo Credit: Photos by Ashoka Netherlands

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