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It's Our Way of Thinking That Has to Change

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"The biggest barrier is the mindset of reimagining your business," said Kingfisher chief executive Sir Ian Cheshire at the launch of a new World Economic Forum project on the circular economy, Project MainStream . This project sets out to show how the circular economy can be spread more widely leading to significant costs savings, avoidance of material waste and new jobs.

Indeed, Dominic Barton, Managing Director of McKinsey & Co., who are supporting the project, noted in an interview with The Guardian, the UK newspaper, the potential upside of the circular economy as well as the folly in letting the waste continue:

We have to demonstrate this is a win win, that you can make money and use resources more sustainably...This is not a CSR or a sideshow, but is fundamental...The world economy is $72tn in size and if we applied the circular economy, this would lead to at least $1tn in savings now - and it can become significantly higher. Every day we are losing the equivalent of $3-4bn worth of materials. If that was a financial loss, it would represent a continuous series of black Fridays, but we accept that value loss.

As with Dominic Barton, most of us recognise there are some fundamental reasons why a 'business as usual approach' won't work anymore.

One, toxicity in materials and in the air we breathe is harming human health and the environment. Two, we cannot continue drawing on the natural resources of this planet in a wasteful way to satisfy consumer consumption indefinitely. Three, we have to deal with the problem of climate change, in part created by our use of fossil fuels.

The positive response to the problems we face is to create a more regenerative economic system that leads to non-toxic closed loops. The best way to get there is to make practical first steps in your own business, which is what we at Desso have been engaged in since 2008.

My predecessor Stef Kranendijk, set this radical shift in motion at our company, putting us on course to redesign our products according to cradle to cradle design principles. Others are doing the same and more can follow.

Indeed, the goal of Project MainStream is to have the circular economy more widely adopted. It is here that we need a major mind shift, not just among business leaders but other influential groups such as the media, science and technology, government and business schools.

Feike Sijbesma, chief executive of Dutch life sciences and materials sciences company DSM (also a supporter of Project MainStream) understands that we need to shift from selling products to selling the benefits of them. But making this change seems intractable. He told the Guardian:

The mind thinks it's totally impossible until it is done - our own brain is the limit.If you actually stop to think, there are no scarce materials; what we do is we take them and we put them somewhere else - nothing leaves the planet except for a small amount of helium. Rare metals still exist but they are spread in polluted waste products.

The subject is gaining traction today and this is encouraging. Sustainable Brands , an event held in San Diego in June, is putting the circular economy at the centre of the debate, where I and other business leaders are presenting talks on the issue. The World Economic Forum will be promoting practical change and discussion through MainStream through to 2016. This points to the fact that people's minds are changing in the right direction.

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