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How to tell a circular story that sticks 

Sticky notes posted on board during brainstorm session

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Corporate sustainability has a chronic communication problem — the words used to describe our work almost always are inadequate. This matters because words can catalyze or curb positive change. They form the narratives that help humans make sense of a world that is complex, confusing and in a constant state of flux. 

This is problematic, as Joel Makower pointed out recently in GreenBiz, and "as companies step up to address an increasingly broad range of social and environmental challenges... how they label their commitments, initiatives and achievements can mean the difference between glory and greenwash."

"Circularity" has become a favorite among the many etymological darlings of corporate sustainability so much so that last month GreenBiz organized Circularity 20, an entire conference dedicated to the concept. Yet, even as circularity has become a centerpiece of many a corporate sustainability strategy, companies struggle to translate this into stories that effectively inform and engage — much less inspire — employees, customers, investors and other important stakeholders. 

This is problematic because if we hope to unlock the circular economy’s full potential, we’ll need to make sure that it’s widely understood and embraced — and not just by sustainability wonks.

The circular economy is a big idea, it is about economic transformation, and finding solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face today — like climate change, waste and pollution.

Circularity’s circuitous origins

Nobody seems to know when the term "circular economy" was first coined or by whom. If you want to get technical, the concept is as ancient as nature itself. Taking inspiration from nature, in a circular economy, materials flow in cycles and there is no waste. 

"The idea of feedback and cycles in real-world systems is ancient and has echoes in various schools of thought, including cradle to cradle, performance economy, biomimicry, industrial ecology, regenerative design and the blue economy," wrote Ross Findon, media relations manager at Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in an email.

Cradle to Cradle is, of course, the concept put forth by Bill McDonough in his 2002 book, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things." While many conflate Cradle to Cradle with circularity, they are two different ideas.

"We recognize that the circular economy draws from the ideas put forth in the book, but circularity itself is only one of the five elements of Cradle to Cradle, others being material health, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness," said Tamay Kiper, project director at McDonough Innovation, a sustainability consultancy specializing in Cradle to Cradle and circularity, during a panel discussion on circular storytelling that I led during Circularity 20.

With circularity drawing its inspiration from so many disciplines, which are not lightweight topics themselves, it’s no wonder we have such a difficult time communicating it.

Passing the ‘grandma’ test

The "grandma test" remains one of our best tools for determining the effectiveness of a piece of communication. The method posits that, if you can explain an idea to your grandma in a way which she understands, then chances are almost everyone else will too. With zero offense intended for grandmas anywhere, circularity struggles to pass this test.

Just take a look at one of the best definitions of circularity we have, put forth by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and try reading that out loud. Chances are, you would lose your grandma and anybody else right around the "extractive industrial model" mark. 

"The circular economy is a big idea, it is about economic transformation, and finding solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face today — like climate change, waste and pollution," wrote Findon. While this can feel like a daunting and complex message, at its heart the circular economy is incredibly simple — and that’s what makes it so powerful.

"It’s about looking for solutions that address the root causes of challenges, not the symptoms,” Findon said. "It’s about eliminating waste, not simply managing it better or cleaning up; it’s about using materials and resources rather than using them up; and it is about regenerating our natural world, rather just trying to reduce the damage we do."

Another way to effectively communicate circularity is to meet stakeholders where they are. Nearly everyone is already familiar with recycling, for example, making it a good place to begin the conversation.

With so many organizations across sectors talking about circularity in a disjointed way, creating a common narrative is all but impossible.

"We try to articulate and introduce the concept of circularity to our employees by describing this system of ‘beyond recycling’ … moving from the take-make-waste economy to a regenerative circular economy," said Devin Giles, sustainability project lead at International Paper, during the Circularity 20 panel. Because the company’s employees already understand the concept of recycling both personally and because International Paper has a recycling business, it’s effective to frame circularity as being the next step.

"They understand that things can be reused and recycled and moving beyond that how to holistically — from the design of a product through the end of its life — creating a system that reclaims, reuses and recycles as much as possible." 

When communicating circularity, it’s also important to tailor your message to different stakeholders. "We also need to be multilingual to be able to communicate with different stakeholders and be able to speak the language of business, finance, supply chain, designers, chemists and everyone involved in the process," added McDonough Innovation’s Kiper. 

The first rule of circularity communication 

Throughout several conversations at Circularity 20, I heard one common thread: communication is one of the biggest accelerants and impediments to circularity entering the mainstream. With so many organizations across sectors talking about circularity in a disjointed way, creating a common narrative is all but impossible.

But do we even need to use the word "circularity" to talk about its concepts? With so much sustainability jargon already out in the ether, it’s possible that yet another one harms our efforts to communicate.

Giles said there is value in using the term. "Talking about circularity opens doors to define, label and bring it together," she said. "Hopefully the next step from there is to ‘not talk about circularity’ because everyone knows what it is."

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