Two Steps Forward

Around and around on circularity

Circular Economy
ShutterstockBsWei / theromb

My head is spinning from all the talk about a circular economy. Where it stops, nobody knows.

I’m just back from two weeks in Europe, where the conversation about circularity is going on in earnest. Not surprisingly, the conversation has hot spots, such as the Netherlands, where the national government has stated a goal of achieving a circular economy by 2050 (and a 50 percent reduction in the use of materials, fossil fuels and metals by 2030).

It’s the most ambitious goal, even if three decades away, of any nation so far. The Dutch government has selected five economic sectors and value chains to be the first to switch to a circular model: biomass and food; plastics; manufacturing; construction; and consumer goods.

That list doesn’t include apparel, but don’t tell that to the innovators at Fashion for Good, a combination museum, incubator, co-working space and showroom focusing on circular and sustainable apparel in a five-story building in the center of Amsterdam. On the day I visited, it was bustling with activity as it prepared for a new exhibition — on color and how to produce it at scale without toxic ingredients — as well as for an upcoming "demo day," in which a dozen or so startups presented their innovations to investors and others.

One of Fashion for Good’s partners is the five-year-old Amsterdam-based nonprofit Circle Economy, which works with organizations and cities around the world to accelerate the transition to circularity. I had lunch with its CEO, Harald Friedl, a high-energy social entrepreneur who previously co-founded Myanmar’s first "pre-incubation" program for social enterprises. Circle Economy is working with Fashion for Good to accelerate recommerce and rental business models in the apparel industry.

Friedl and his group are working with cities — in Europe, Asia and North America — that want to use circularity as a "solution framework," as he explained. His group works with business, government and civil society to break down silos. He asked: "What is a thriving city? What should a city look like that is really working for the people?" (You can hear my interview with him in a recent edition of our GreenBiz 350 podcast.)

Visiting Amsterdam, it’s easy to view a glimpse of what’s possible through vision, leadership and collaboration.

The anchor of my Europe trip was the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Annual Summit last week in London. The one-day event brings together a diverse group, primarily from Europe but also beyond, including from both North and South America. It’s a high-energy day that reinforces the momentum building on circularity around the world. I had the opportunity to speak to the group about what's going on circularity-wise in North America.

There were other events in Europe last two weeks that I didn’t get to: the third annual World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki; and the EAT Forum last week in Stockholm, where the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced that it will work with Danone, Mizkan, Nestlé, Novamont, Veolia and Yara to develop circular economy solutions to the problems of today’s food system, beginning in three flagship cities: London; New York; and São Paulo.

All of this, of course, took place in the run-up to this week’s Circularity 19 in Minneapolis, our premiere annual event on all things circular. If participation in the event is any indicator — we’d originally planned for 500 attendees but finally cut off registration last week at 850 — there’s an extraordinarily high level of interest about this topic in North America (although attendees will be coming from more than a dozen countries, from Switzerland to South Africa, the Netherlands to New Zealand and Israel to India).

Clearly, this is a moment, the beginning rumblings of a revolution that stands to upend products, services and systems of commerce. The challenge for all of these organizations and events is whether and how much circularity can move beyond incremental tweaks to disruptive transformation.

If the level of enthusiasm around the world is matched by a concomitant level of action, our circular future will be bright.