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How Emerging Leaders envision the future of the circular economy

One green cactus stands out among other cacti with red-ish pink tops

Photo by SkyImages on Shutterstock.

There were more than 12,000 registrants for GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 20 conference. Among those thousands were 12 young professionals, selected to be part of the Emerging Leaders scholarship program.

Since February 2017, GreenBiz has been supporting this initiative — bringing together young professionals at each of its in-person events, all-expenses paid. This year is different with the global pandemic pushing events online. But even in the virtual world, the Emerging Leaders program lived on during Circularity 20.

This year, chemicals company BASF sponsored the program; it will be providing mentorship to each of the Emerging Leaders.

"The sponsorship underlines BASF’s commitment to supporting the next generation of problem solvers and creative thinkers to help find innovative, sustainable solutions," said Mitch Toomey, director of sustainability for BASF, North America. "We want to provide the Emerging Leaders with an opportunity to be inspired and grow as professionals."

I spoke with half of the Emerging Leaders about their experience at the conference, how they plan to incorporate lessons learned into their work and their hopes for the future of the circular economy.

"It was good to hear someone articulate the need for proactively designing systems," said Miriam Stevens, environmental and ecological engineering MSc student at Purdue University, pointing to the event's closing talk with Tim Brown, executive chair of IDEO. "We have an opportunity to avoid some of the mistakes that we've made [by] taking a proactive approach to designing the futures that we want."

You can read their responses, edited for clarity and length, below.

Miriam Stevens, environmental and ecological engineering MSc student, Purdue University

What were some of your major takeaways from the sessions at Circularity 20?

My research is trying to develop tools to measure the circularity and resilience of supply chains on more of an economy-wide level. So it was really valuable to be able to hear about tools and strategies that corporations are using to do the same thing — measure the sustainability impact of their operations within their organizations.

The right-to-repair session also stood out to me. While I'm drawn to the practice of self-repair, I don't have a natural affinity for the sort of movement work, or political organizing, taking place to make this possible on a wider scale. But that session and the session about pairing the circular economy with decarbonization stood out to me because they were addressing the fundamental ways in which we could change systems of consumption and production to accelerate more circular economy practices.

How can you apply lessons learned from the discussions to your current work?

In some of the heavier manufacturing industries, it's regulations that are going to get companies to change their practices, but in other sectors — like the intermediate, raw material sectors — it's consumer expectations that are getting them to innovate and move towards more sustainable practices. I think just understanding the different drivers of change in different industries will be important to my research, because I'll be able to ask better questions and hopefully conduct analyses that are perhaps more useful and applicable in the real world.

Avril Saunders, sustainability consultant, Companies Vs Climate Change

What were some of your major takeaways from Circularity 20?

We're all in this together, as cheesy as that might sound, but it’s true. That response was really mimicked throughout the entire conference for me. That was something that you heard most people saying. It’s not just about corporations. It’s not just governments. It’s not just about [the public sector]. It's really everyone coming together. And that's how we're going to make this work. Also highlighting the climate justice, racial justice and environmental justice and how you can't focus on one and not have the other. They're all intertwined. And that was really the overarching theme for me.

Were there any particular sessions that stood out to you?

Ovie Mughelli’s talk resonated with me. He was a football player. His parents are Nigerian. My family's from Liberia in West Africa. And I wasn’t in the sustainability space either. I worked with water resources and environmental science, but I didn't really do anything directly until I was in grad school and I had an internship with the Office of Sustainability. So it was really nice to resonate with someone who didn’t have this background but had this innate desire to be in this space. 

Emerging Leaders meet with GreenBiz and BASF staff on Zoom

Emerging Leaders meet with GreenBiz and BASF staff on Zoom.

Michelle Mestres, Sustainable Specialist, Legrand North America

With Circularity 20 being over, can you share your general impression of the event and the circular economy?

I loved hearing Ellen MacArthur speak in the very beginning with Joel Makower. Just their entire conversation was amazing. I took notes and I loved when she said, for the future, we need to decide what success looks like. I just love the idea of that because we really do. 

I also enjoyed the networking session getting to meet people from literally all over the world and that people from India and that people in Malaysia [were there]. I met people from all over the U.S. and that was really cool, because I think that a lot of those people wouldn't have really been able to join otherwise had this been in person. 

And then of course, debriefing with all the Emerging Leaders after each day because I loved hearing all of their insights and their perspectives. Every Emerging Leader is so intelligent and inspiring in their own way. So I was really happy to be able to connect with them, and the rest of the GreenBiz team.

What do you think corporations can be doing better to continue to move the circular economy forward?

One of the biggest takeaways I got was [about the importance of] collaboration and innovation. For example, all of the pitches from companies [were] so innovative, and it really gets you excited for the future of the circular economy and sustainability in general. 

I think that larger corporations should be looking at some of these startups and collaborating with them to make their practices also more circular because that kind of marries the collaboration and innovation aspects of the circular economy. 

I think that it's so important for larger corporations to be looking at their supplier portfolio, making sure that they have a good mix of Black-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, small businesses and innovative businesses to help them reach their circular economy goals. And that's also something that I'll be taking back to the ground and presenting to the product sustainability team, and especially to our purchasing team because they're the ones that really make these decisions when it comes to our supplier portfolio. I think that's definitely a really good first first step for corporations to be looking at their supplier portfolio and making sure that they're collaborating with the right suppliers, and that they're innovating.

Tolulope Falade, sustainability project engineer, Avery Dennison

How can you apply lessons learned from the discussions at Circularity 20 to your current work?

I went to a roundtable about how we advance circularity that was led by Waste Management. I actually decided to join the roundtable so it was good to actually be a part of the discussion. What I took away from that discussion is that we need partnership, and I think that’s tied to one of the keynote speakers on the main stage that said this is not going to be a one-man show or one-company show. It's going to be partnerships. It's going to be the different stakeholders either supporting each other or enabling each other.

What do you think corporations can be doing better to continue to move the circular economy forward?

Establish partnerships. I think a lot of companies have started to do that. So that's moving in the positive direction. But I think besides joining all these external partner organizations that bring people together, just having companies take that initiative themselves, no matter the industry, because I think we can learn [from one another], regardless of the industry that a specific company is in. 

I think just bringing people together is going to be the way forward because we can learn. From paper to packaging to building installations to foods, there’s going to be something that one industry can possibly replicate from the other. I think this continued partnership is what companies can continue to do.

George Thomas Holmes III, agricultural systems engineer intern, HATponics

Were there any particular sessions that stood out to you, and what were your takeaways from them?

The talk with Garry Cooper of Rheaply. Hearing that talk really solidified or summed up everything that I've been thinking and saying and hearing. Just hearing him talk about brain chemistry and neurons, about how they communicate with each other to make the brain work.

I feel like whatever entity I get involved with will be connecting a corporation with community members or policymakers with companies and community members. I feel like that's where I would fit into this. So hearing about and talking about how all these circular systems are almost acting like neurons and how they can work together for one large efficient system, hearing about his work and him studying that and hearing him present it that way, I feel like I can directly apply it.

Unwanna Etuk, Partnership Research Fellow, Ray C. Anderson Foundation

What were some of your major takeaways from Circularity 20?

I was really impacted by hearing the different candidates for the Ray of Hope prize and hearing the fastpitch series. And that just got me really excited about the work that I'm doing.

Another takeaway from the event was about standardizing metrics and methodologies across states, municipalities and just in general. That's especially important for getting corporations involved since they exist kind of above the steer of all of our different jurisdictions, and with these new innovations, I would love to see that as well. So that’s what I'm keeping in mind as we're doing for this work. I'm reading out what we've done in the past, what hasn’t worked in the past and what shouldn't be standard and what can be phased out, specifically in terms of highway and transportation. That has looked pretty much the same for the past 70 years since the last major push in creating highways. So [we have to be] very intentional about leaving room for growth at the same time that we want to, to a certain degree, standardize practices.

What do you think corporations can be doing better to continue to move the circular economy forward?

More transparency and awareness is needed. I think there were representatives from Walmart, Nestle and other big corporations. They're saying, "Push us. Hold us accountable." I really like to hear that but I also want to see the company step forward and do that themselves and make those proclamations and be very explicit about their language.

Corporations can be very impactful in that they exist outside of jurisdiction so they can really help align or unite all of the different states or even countries because they exist above all of that.

While I didn’t speak to every Emerging Leader, they all bring a lot to the table, and I anticipate seeing them shake up the sustainability space in their own ways. Here's the rest of the Circularity 20 Emerging Leaders:

  • Jasmin Lopez, engineering student, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Ignacio Franco, planning technician, city of Piedmont 
  • Matthew Rodriguez, graduate research assistant, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Ellen Li,  master of environmental management, Duke University and Investment Analyst 
  • Cayla Allen, marketing / marketing manager, Resinate Materials Group, Inc.
  • Oppong Hemeng, sustainability program specialist, North Carolina State University 

When this program launched, it was an effort to empower a diverse group of up-and-coming leaders by giving them a front-row seat to important conversations happening in sustainability — and encourage them to participate in the dialogue. This continues to be important.

As Holmes wrote in an email to me after our interview: "Young people can bring very interesting and new perspectives, but oftentimes college students and other young people feel a great disconnect from the decision-makers and that can add to distrust and even further separation. So empowering young people to feel responsible for the systems and practices happening around them is a beautiful step for a cleaner future!"

Want to be an Emerging Leaders at our upcoming VERGE 20 conference? We’re accepting applications until Oct. 9. Apply here

Interested in sponsoring the GreenBiz Emerging Leaders program at a future event? Please contact [email protected]

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