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The circular economy professional gets promoted

Elevator buttons with up button lit, with circular economy sign over it

Image collage by GreenBiz. Elevator via Shutterstock/lassedesignen; Circular economy via LSE.

Adapted from the 2022 “State of Green Business,” published earlier this month by GreenBiz Group. Download the report here.

There’s been plenty of talk within companies in the past few years about the circular economy. In fact, "circular economy" was the fastest-rising skill among all LinkedIn users in 2019, according to that year’s State of Green Business report. But just as architect and author Bill McDonough often says design is the first signal of human intention, headcount is the first signal of meaningful corporate action.

There’s a new role appearing on org charts at companies across industries: the circular economy lead. Responsible for curbing a company’s role in the linear systems of extraction, manufacturing, consumption and disposal, the emergent head of circularity has the potential to influence an entire organization. This strategic lens can be applied to nearly every material flow and business model, and in late 2021 more than 1,200 circular economy jobs were listed in the U.S. alone.

The rise of the corporate circular economy exec is following a maturity curve similar to that of the sustainability professional. It’s taken over two decades for the sustainability title to move into the C-suite. As the circular economy concept is still in its relative infancy, the job of helping to advance it inside a company is gaining momentum and similarly evolving in scope, scale and influence. High-level titles are cropping up on org charts across the tech industry, for example, at companies including Amazon, Cisco and Google.

What's in a (job) name?

The corporate circular economy role typically begins as a potpourri of existing tasks and projects reorganized and rebranded under this thematic umbrella. In many cases, it’s an internal hire with the words "circular economy" aspirationally appended to their title — just as the sustainability headcount often sprouted from a corporate social responsibility or environment, health and safety role when it emerged in the 1990s. Most of these new circular economy roles evolve from a sustainability hire that’s tasked with "figuring it out."

In this first phase, the individual is typically more aspirational than effective, with little influence across the organization. They reactively manage waste or optimize a discrete material flow and occasionally focus more on reputation — sitting within marketing or public affairs — than on transforming core operations. At its inception, this role is often more of a label than a strategy.

In the next phase comes a pilot project. The circular economy lead identifies an opportunity to bring a circular lens to one facet of the business. Dozens of such pilots capture headlines each month: a consumer electronics company sourcing a specific reclaimed material; a retailer offering a product takeback or recycling initiative; an apparel company piloting a resale program — something that’s an easy win for the company with strong storytelling potential. These projects are time-bound and limited in scale, sometimes serving as jumping-off points for a broader initiative. Primarily, they serve as a catalyst for internal collaboration and demonstrate the potential of circularity internally, whether measured environmentally, economically or in terms of engagement.

As the circular economy role matures, it focuses on setting strategy. Engaging with teams across the organization, the professional is responsible for the development of crosscutting goals and charting a course of action to maximize the reuse of finite resources across operations, products and supply chains.

What circular jobs at Philips, Google and more companies entail

Philips, one example of a company supporting a mature corporate circular economy program, began that journey in 2010. "We are responsible for helping our businesses, markets and functions to achieve our circular targets, and we have worked hard to embed our circularity ambitions into all of our strategies," explains Harald Tepper, global leader of the circular economy program at Philips.

At more mature organizations, the role is characterized by its intention: influencing design, sourcing and business models to design out waste from the onset and identify new opportunities. This requires thoughtful communication, weaving value propositions and benefits for diverse stakeholders internally and externally to clients or customers.

As lead for circular economy at Google, Mike Werner says he is "responsible for the development of our company-wide circular economy strategy and achieving our mission to maximize the reuse of finite resources across our operations, products and supply chains, and enable others to do the same through the use of our technology." At European e-commerce company Zalando, Head of Circularity Laura Coppen explains that she leads the circularity strategy and is responsible for driving our product, service and business model goals.

A mature corporate circular economy practitioner holds a product-, business- and systems-level lens. They cut across internal silos and operate with an understanding of the economic, environmental and political context, both up and downstream.

Through industry partnerships, the circular economy leader works to create the conditions for circularity at scale, which fall beyond a company’s individual sphere of influence. This includes engaging in pre-competitive collaboration to build infrastructure, research and develop new technologies, test new business models and share best practices. One example is the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners which brings together brands, investors, NGOs and industry leaders to identify, test and scale circular economy solutions for systemic challenges that extend beyond one company’s operations. The Center’s Beyond the Bag pilot project brought together leading retailers including Walmart, Target and CVS Health to address the industry challenge of plastic bag waste.

Building a well-rounded circular team

The end state is not a robust team of circular economy practitioners at every company. The trajectory of the role plateaus to become a core team of generalists that influences the entire company. Internally, they serve as both strategic leaders — setting and advancing a vision — and tactical consultants — supporting initiatives across the organization. They continue to launch new projects and pilots, but these are handed off to other departments for long-term ownership.

At Cisco, the circular economy team acts as a program management office. Katie Schindall, director of circular economy, explains: "My team is responsible and accountable for setting and implementing strategy — but we do that in a very networked way." Schindall’s team convenes internal advisory groups to increase executive buy-in and engage employees from across the company on circular economy topics. "When you're trying to transform the entire business, everyone has to feel ownership and accountability."

To ensure the ongoing operationalization of circularity, circular economy teams work to upskill colleagues across the organization, providing the tools, resources and training necessary to apply a circular economy lens to their work on an ongoing basis. This could mean working with sourcing teams to prioritize non-virgin materials; training designers to make products that will be disassembled, repaired, durable or recycled; partnering with the supply chain team to establish reverse-logistics programs and end markets for materials and goods, to name a few.

Following the path of the corporate sustainability professional, it’s only a matter of time until we see more heads of the circular economy added to the payrolls of most large companies around the world.

Key players to watch

Amazon — its recent establishment of a global circular economy team, $10 million investment in the Closed Loop Infrastructure Fund and notable circular economy hiring spree makes Amazon a player to watch.

Circular Economy Institute — it offers a circular economy certification program, providing training, tools and credentials to people looking to advance their work in circularity.

Cisco — its holistic circular economy strategy serves as a model for how to structure and implement the principles of circularity across an organization.

Circle Economy’s Circular Jobs Initiative — it defines the skills, education and training programs needed to upskill and reskill the workforce to advance circularity at businesses and in governments.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation — its network brings together circular economy professionals from companies, cities and universities to share insights, participate in events and contribute to research-based projects.

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