Skip to main content

Two Steps Forward

10 takeaways from Circularity 19

A few sips from the firehose of insights that spewed from three days of North America's largest circular economy event.

It was, by all measures, a success: a high-energy, sold-out event attended by passionate professionals seemingly aching to become a community. Last week in Minneapolis, they did just that.

That’s my take on our recent Circularity 19 conference, where 850 souls came together for North America’s largest circular economy conference to accelerate their work to create products, services, companies and economies that keep molecules safely and perpetually in motion.

If you weren’t able to join us, you can still catch a replay of the three days of mainstage action via the free virtual platform. And there’s always next year, May 18-20 in Atlanta.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 takeaways from the week — a few sips from the firehose of insights that spewed from keynotes, breakouts, tutorials, expo booths, networking events and a half-day summit.

Plastic waste is Americans’ No. 1 environmental concern, according to Shelton Group polling. Indeed, it has surpassed climate change as their principal worry. Equally important, "plastics in the ocean" is the environmental issue Americans feel they actually can do something about. "Can your brand help concerned consumers kick the single-use plastics habit?" asked Suzanne Shelton. She suggested that corporate inaction could put brand loyalty to the test and leave customers frustrated and discouraged.

Large companies are beginning to step up in big ways. More than four in 10 conference attendees hailed from companies with over $1 billion in annual revenue. Several announced circular economy initiatives or provided updates on previous ones:

  • Google said it had set a goal to maximize the reuse of finite resources across its operations, products and supply chains and enable others to do the same. "Waste is a data problem," said Kate Brandt, the company’s chief sustainability officer. "What if we saw stuff as information? This is an inspiring question to us at Google. We love a good data challenge."
  • Best Buy, which says it has collected 2 billion pounds of e-waste, regardless of where it was purchased, said it has deputized its 20,000 Geek Squad tech-support reps, who repair 5 million items a year, to collect electronics from clients’ homes for recycling. "We really want those products to stay in use as long as possible, and this extends to our repair business," said Alexis Ludwig-Vogen, Best Buy's director of corporate responsibility and sustainability.
  • 3M announced it was joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100 Network, a group of leadership companies seeking to learn and build new collaborative approaches to circularity.
  • Apple reported on its circularity goals. "We have to go material by material and close those loops," said Sarah Chandler, senior director of operations and environmental initiatives. "Our ambition to end mining is as big as anything we've undertaken at Apple, and it's inspired some of our most innovative solutions."

It’s not just tech. At Circularity 19, we heard from companies taking ambitious and innovative measures toward circularity from food and agriculture, hospitality, apparel and footwear, retail, water and other sectors. For example, Fashion for Good managing director Katrin Ley joined C&A CSO Jeffrey Hogue and Cradle-to Cradle co-founder Bill McDonough on stage to talk about the challenges and opportunities of designing apparel from materials that safely can be turned back into new materials or compost. General Mills and Pepsico talked about innovations to increase agricultural yields while reducing or eliminating food waste. 

For Target, circularity goals have helped increase employee engagement, while at 3M they have improved recruiting, innovation and collaboration opportunities.
Circularity offers non-environmental benefits. For all the environmental good that comes from reducing waste, resource use, energy and emissions, a circular economy offers other benefits to companies. For example, for Target, circularity goals have helped increase employee engagement, while at 3M they have improved recruiting, innovation and collaboration opportunities with partners and customers. Indeed, for some it’s not even about sustainability. Ellen MacArthur Foundation CEO Andrew Morlet described how his company avoids using the S-word. Talking instead about "economy" opens more conversations, he said. "It’s about creating wealth versus extracting wealth."

We need metrics. The acceleration and mainstreaming of circularity will require standards and metrics that don’t yet exist, although some are in the works. For example, Bill Hoffman, senior sustainability scientist at the standards organization UL, discussed a new white paper (PDF) from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UL showing how a mass-balance approach to content measurement provides a way for companies to measure and communicate their recycled content efforts. Lots more to come on that front.

There’s a generational divide. Younger consumers cotton more naturally to circularity. "The research is telling us that 50 percent of millennials and Gen Z will participate in the resale economy next year," said Yerdle CEO Andy Ruben. His panel, which included execs from Arc'teryx and REI, reported that designing for durability, repair and rental is paramount to the survival of business models, as millennial and Gen Z consumers step into their purchasing power.

It’s the infrastructure, stupid. Pretty much anyone who discussed recycling lamented the sorry state of recycling in the United States and around the world. Many recycling systems are in need of repair, if they exist at all. Solving the infrastructure challenges — including building new ones in Asia, where the lack of such systems has led to waterways spilling over with plastic waste — will be one of the biggest hurdles ahead. Without companies’ ability to capture waste and put it back into production, closing the materials loop will be all but impossible.

It’s not just about closing the loop. While recycling still dominates most conversations about circularity, there’s a lot more to the topic than that, as the Circularity 19 program and speakers made clear. "We will not recycle our way out of this problem," said Kate Davenport, co-president of Eureka Recycling. Conversations and session — mainstage and breakout — looked at recommerce, reuse, remanufacturing, repair, reverse logistics and the other "re's" of circularity.

Circularity must be inclusive. The closing mainstage session focused on "Power, Privilege and Bias in a Circular Economy," an acknowledgment that the emerging circular economy needs to benefit those at every rung of the economic ladder, including those in marginalized and frontline communities. That means creating not just opportunities, but actual wealth from circularity for entrepreneurs and communities of all stripes. Said Tawanna Black, CEO of Twin Cities-based Center for Economic Inclusion: "We must invite everyone to the table to speed up the outcomes we need — for both our local communities and the global economy."

There’s lots more innovation to come. At Circularity 19, we heard from more than a score of startups offering recycling logistics, reusable shipping containers, textile recycling, alternatives to single-use food packaging, a nature-inspired surface design platform, reusable cups, a biomimicry-inspired insulation grid and many other promising innovations. These and hundreds of other great ideas, including some from larger companies, will be key to moving the field forward.

That’s just a taste. Lots more to glean from all those conversations and connections. Feel free to tune into the archived livestream and our continued coverage of these topics.

And, as I said, there’s always next year.

More on this topic