Why Transparent Communications Is a Key Driver of the Shift to the Circular Economy

There is a big prize to be won for those nations that make the radical shift to the circular economy, a message that is increasingly articulated by leaders in politics and business from the meeting rooms of Davos to the workshops of the Circular Economy 100, organised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. And the EU Commission is soon to present a "more ambitious" circular economy strategy that it claims will "transform Europe into a more competitive resource-efficient economy".

A new book by strategic thinkers at Accenture, Peter Lacy and Jakob Rutqvist, Waste to Wealth pinpoints a $4.5 trillion opportunity in turning current waste into wealth by 2030. Based on extensive research, they say:

"That's not just waste in the traditional sense of rubbish, but the enormous underutilization of natural resources, products, and assets. It's about eliminating the very concept of 'waste' and recognizing everything has a value."

This was the dream of Cradle to Cradle® pioneers William McDonough and Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, outlined in their seminal book, Cradle to Cradle: Re-Making the Way we Make Things, first published in 2002. In their 2009 edition, they wrote:

"If humans are going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature's highly effective cradle-to-cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist."

And in the past decade, companies like ours have committed ourselves to the task of creating a new design mindset and circular processes, operations and supply chains. We find that this has the benefit of driving innovation and added value for customers, whilst striving to have a positive impact on the planet and people's health and wellbeing.

One issue that is often overlooked is the best way to communicate to stakeholders during this transition to circularity. It is, I believe, crucial to do so in a transparent and open way. In our case, we have two clear assessments that are made public: one is the ongoing process of Cradle to Cradle® certification for our products, independently certified by the C2C Products Innovation Institute in the US.

The second, and just as crucial, is to produce a Corporate Responsibility (CR) report with the most relevant KPIs to assess our impact on the environment, society and the economy. We opted for conducting this type of reporting in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) , which has built a reputation for offering a rigorous methodology for organisations to report on their sustainability achievements with reliable, relevant and standardised information. So far, we have produced two CR reports, both of which have been externally audited and verified.

In implementing our C2C and circular economy strategy, we have seen at first hand why transparent communications is so important. First, you need to engage your employees, the creative engine room of change. If you don't engage them, your project is less likely to succeed. There are no maps to help guide your journey. Therefore, you need your people to be willing to embrace the change and draw fast lessons from their experiences be that on the factory floor or in marketing and sales or elsewhere in the organisation. Explaining the long-term goals and providing clear and updated facts and figures is crucial to sharing the responsibility with your people and inviting them to offer useful and concrete feedback.

Second, circularity based on Cradle to Cradle® material health standards, means having to get a huge commitment from suppliers and partners. They have to rise to the same challenge of identifying the makeup of their materials and ensuring they are positive to human health and the environment, according to the C2C criteria. Not all of them will be interested in doing so. But you will be far more likely to engage the progressive ones if you are open and honest about what you are setting out to achieve and where you have got to.

Based on this kind of approach, our R&D team, for example, entered into discussions with local water companies in the Netherlands. This led to a three year search for a way to convert their residual chalk (that is left over after water has been softened) into a chalk material pure enough for the C2C production of carpet tiles at Desso. A process was found and we were able to cease using newly extracted chalk from the ground and switch to a brand new C2C material stream instead, a perfect example of how waste can be turned into wealth.

Third and by no means least, it is vitally important to promote strong collaboration with other organizations which also want to transition to a circular economy business model. We are among the pioneers in this process and therefore feel it is our responsibility to share our key learnings. On that basis, we have joined workshops and meetings with the CE100 or have taken an active part in circular economy discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Michael Meehan, Chief Executive of GRI has also described on GRI's website how this reporting process encourages business innovation by fostering a spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness in the reporting field.

As the world's leaders are soon to gather at the UN's COP21 meeting on climate change in Paris, we know we cannot move in the circular direction soon enough. And developing systems and processes that truly contribute to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit will be strongly dependent on all circular economy companies opening up their communications and being willing to share their best practices in this field.