Don't let the 'big picture' paralyze circular economy projects

A few things will get in the way of making the circular economy and its iterations — such as the New Plastics Economy — a reality, if they are not confronted and overcome. As an increasingly complex world accelerates, and planetary boundaries begin to limit human survival and potential, the corporate world is right to think big and act fast. 

Unfortunately, vestigial challenges still exist even within forward-thinking companies wishing to implement projects to support circular economy models, for a variety of reasons. First, sustainability professionals face cultural and organizational friction when they try to make change; second, short attention spans in leadership when it comes time to implement may create disconnects; and third, an overly narrow notion of, and obsession with, "scalability" of sustainability initiatives may limit our paths to evolution.

Thinking about these challenges differently and aligning our actions with our intentions in a more authentic way can help make the shift to a circular economy a reality.

Reports such as "The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action" are useful because they give professionals language and images with which to talk about how to overcome complicated environmental challenges. They also turn up the heat for companies to set ambitious goals to make circular economy come to fruition. But, if change is ever to surpass new language and goal-setting, the way that professionals process and perceive their own work and others’ must undergo a painful transformation.

People should at least be open to imperfection

There appears to be ubiquitous yet unspoken pressure in companies from not only leadership but also the broader organizational culture for each sustainability initiative to be, in many or all ways, perfect — or future-perfect. Each one must accomplish many impressive things at once: help the company meet a corporate goal; make money; advance the careers of each individual involved; win the brand media attention; get more followers on social media; and make everyone feel warm and fuzzy — all for little to no investment. I don’t have an MBA, but this can appear mathematically impossible, if not laughable.

This philosophy may be rooted in the tenet that every project must not only "maintain" but also "build” "value" for the "brand." What can be problematic about measuring the good of any project via the notion of "value" is that many people, no matter how kind-hearted or bright, may have a dated or at least limited notion of what value means.

For example, despite overwhelming evidence that the biggest and most influential generation of the moment demands and expects transparency — and wants the companies they buy from to be leaders in sustainability — some marketers still default to the notion that labels such as How2Recycle may only be worth adopting if they instantaneously and forever create dollar revenue, and they demand airtight, impenetrable data demonstrating such. This is especially surprising as many sustainability leaders have called How2Recycle "the lowest hanging fruit" in more than one public forum. Maybe it’s because one great benefit of How2Recycle is that the labels catalyze conversation within brands about the recyclability of their packaging — because sometimes their packaging isn’t quite as recyclable as they thought.

Moreover, by linking the idea of value exclusively to one’s own "brand," it can be enormously difficult to persuade some companies to adopt an initiative unless it immediately fits a distinctive, boundaried story that links together the constructed identity of a group of products. It also assumes that anything circular is only worth doing if you can both customize it and get fuzzy, but full, public credit for it. At times these considerations may make sense, but it always steepens the slopes of the sustainability game — sometimes to the point of becoming impassable cliffs. If a brand’s way of doing things is too sacred, will any meaningful initiatives from the outside world be able to get in?

By being open to imperfection and reconceptualizing the idea of value, companies will have more options available for them to meet their circular economy goals. If you wait for a project to be perfect before committing, you may lose your opportunity to be a leader or to shape what the future looks like.

Sustainability is change: change requires risk and also pain

Another challenge for circular economy initiatives is that many corporate professionals appear to be trained to avoid uncertainty at all costs — or in other words, to commit resources to initiatives only when absolutely guaranteed returns or advantage over a competitor. In this way, building value is often only analyzed via a short-term lens, not the long-term lens (and boldness in the face of risk) that sustainability quite literally requires. It also forecloses any incentive to experiment or play.

This doesn’t mean that demanding that a project builds value is unreasonable — in fact, that attitude is what we can attribute much of human progress to, and to do otherwise probably would be a waste of time. In contrast, it means that a traditional conception of what value looks like, and when it needs to reveal itself, holds sustainability back.

In the words of writer Kate Carraway, "real and meaningful change is actually pain." There is an irresistible force within the individual and collective human brain to just keep things as they are. Some individuals within companies use status quo as their North Star and interject the impact upon it, due to any new project or task, into every point, in every conversation, with relish. Don’t they realize that’s kind of the point? Or some people will say yes to something, but then never follow through on actually making it a reality — perhaps because some part of their life experience tells them that progress somehow magically occurs. Or maybe it’s fear of failure.

What this suggests is that people seem to like the idea of change, but not as much actually changing. Or some people only want to change if they can maintain a sense of style and comfort while doing so, or if someone hands it to them on a platter. Unfortunately, change means erasing and rewriting, and rewriting again; shuffling, deleting, destroying, expanding, abandoning, jumping, shrinking … waiting, rushing, waiting again. Testing, failing, being confused, not knowing what comes next. Sweat, tears, blah blah blah. In other words, it’s really hard work.

So even if individuals or teams can identify specific, actionable ways to pull their companies out and through circular economy challenges, there is still the enormous task of convincing everyone around and above them to also embrace those solutions, if imperfect. That’s why CEO-led initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy are constructive at stirring up a top-down ambition to get at these solutions. Still, it isn’t enough. Business cultures and professionals must accept that risk is required, and that change is often difficult.

A troublesome gap

One could suspect that when it comes to the day-in-day-out business of real life problem solving — which is to say, climbing over mountains of stacks of documents of the-way-things-are-done to try to find the zigzag path beyond them — corporate leadership that’s focused on only a macro but blurry version of sustainability may just end up losing interest.

The assumption is made by some leaders that everyone "below" in the roles of implementing "will just figure it out" or even assume that it’s already figured out. I have observed senior-level executives amusingly remark at SPC Advance, "Wow, I didn’t realize what you all did was so technical!" Impatience seems to rear its head when "granular" (anything that isn’t exclusively high level seems to be deemed "granular" these days) conversations on "tactics" should be "taken offline." Or the heartbeat of a project gets siloed into sober spreadsheets or boring PowerPoint presentations with little fanfare or robust discussion. 

In its best light, respectful deference to one’s colleagues over project realities can be a positive and motivating driver, as well as efficient. However, it may become a problem if it creates a mental or decision-making boundary between what leadership chooses to enthusiastically support and the texture and spirit of what is actually required in order to get stuff done.

A leader may say or assume they like something, but if the implementers tell them the headwinds just got stronger, will they stay true to it? Will they have enough patience? What’s possibly more: have implementers been granted enough authority, autonomy and resources to push through the road bumps that inevitably will occur?

If everyone’s attention spans are short, and if sustainability is about playing the long game, the disconnect between expectations and reality could inhibit progress. Building a culture that acknowledges that the devil is in the details may be a way out of this quandary. We may also want to ask ourselves whether we are being patient and humble enough with one another.

[Learn more about the circular economy at VERGE 17 in Santa Clara, California, Sept. 19-21.]

Are we overlooking potential right under our noses?

What the "Catalyzing Action" report is able to help drum up is corporate buy-in for packaging initiatives that are "able to scale" in order to build a New Plastics Economy. After all, if that report has any single thesis, it’s that all this stuff the industry is already doing needs to be "scaled."

Similarly, at the GreenBiz conference this year, in almost every session there was mention of "scaling" and questions from the audience in workshops such as, "Is this pilot project scalable?" "How can it be scaled across other sectors?" and so on. It’s only reasonable for sustainability professionals to feel a sense of irrepressible urgency when you consider our culture’s digital acceleration and the impending point-of-no-return of climate change.

However, this fixation on scalability may be unduly narrowing our perspective, and may be a close cousin of impatience in detail. The "New Plastics Economy" report argues, "many — often local and small scale initiatives aim [to improve plastic packaging quality and recycling], but collectively they have not scaled up to the extent required." While the report is undoubtedly on point that we all have to hurry up and go big if any of this is ever going to work… the criticisms in each section of the report over scale of existing solutions beg pragmatic questions.

How is scale even defined? Do different types of solutions get held to different standards of scale? Is there any initiative or tool that the circular economy community would ever deem successful at "scaling" if the dream is everything, nearly all at once? Is it even reasonable to fantasize about a uniform, global solution to each set of multi-faceted, highly fragmented set of problems, that also happens to be effective in every context? Can a pilot project experience meaningful success if it’s prematurely peppered with a hailstorm of criticisms about scalability? And most important, what if some smaller scale initiatives are actually poised to immediately scale, today, if given the opportunity and resources? Who’s to be the judge of that, and who’s going to give them the spotlight?

This is not to say that change should be incremental, nor that mediocre projects should receive acclaim or funding merely because they exist. It’s just that we should challenge whether transformational change always must be built, from the start, in a global way — or with an immediate pledge of billions of dollars. Change can be well-designed and lasting even if that change can’t or isn’t yet applied to all other neighboring circular economy challenges or to all aspects of that particular challenge.

This suggests we may want to put our expectations in context when we talk about scaling, or at least be more specific about what those expectations are and should be.

Get your hands dirty

Given all this, how can the circular economy become real? "Catalyzing Action" is a seductive title for an ambitious manifesto under circular economy, but catalysis may not be what is most needed right now.

What is needed right now is investment, commitment and a willingness to live at the edge of uncertainty. Sustainability leaders should embrace the complex details of bringing circular economy initiatives to life. Similarly, sustainability implementers should try to simplify their work in order to make it more accessible and meaningful to their colleagues.

Sometimes these aspects of change are stimulating and rewarding, but sometimes they are tedious and inane. We in sustainability are pioneers, so we don’t have the luxury of only participating in the fun bits or fast-forwarding to the glamor. All this just means is that we must stay grounded. Chop wood, carry water.

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water;

After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.