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In the Loop

Trying to measure circularity? Here are some tools to consider

The development of specific and actionable metrics at the systems, business and product levels will be a key accelerator for scale.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

This week, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released Circulytics, which it’s calling "the most comprehensive circularity measurement tool," according to the announcement. As more companies set ambitious — albeit loosely defined — circularity goals, the critical need for standardizing definitions and metrics is becoming increasingly clear. 

Circulytics aims to fill this gap, helping companies such as IKEA and Unilever assess their organizational circularity, including "Enablers," mechanisms such as strategy, infrastructure and external engagement, as well as "Outcomes," operational inputs and outputs. It's only the latest of a growing circularity toolkit helping to define and formalize circularity.

At the systems level, measuring circularity is primarily understood as a matter of quantifying material flows. At the business level, companies are beginning to use circularity frameworks as an internal tool to assess the full scope of materials associated with their operations and to understand the potential value and progress of circular strategies and tactics in action. And, at the product level, new metrics can build on and contextualize go-to tools such as the life-cycle assessment to understand the holistic impacts of design decisions. 

Companies are beginning to use circularity frameworks as an internal tool to assess the full scope of materials associated with their operations and to understand the potential value.
Here are some additional players I’m tracking in the circular metrics arena: 
  • Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute — Set to launch later this year, the fourth version of the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard will feature an updated Product Circularity category, focused on sourcing, design and systems. 

  • Global Reporting Initiative (PDF) — Launching its updated standard in Q1 of this year, GRI will be the first global standard that includes principles of circularity into waste disclosures, shifting the framing from an unwanted burden to a holistically managed material. 

  • UL Environment — Companies can pursue certification of UL 3600, which measures and reports on the circularity of products, facilities and organizations.  

  • U.S. Green Building Council — In late 2019, USGBC launched a circular economy pilot credit in its LEED rating system, which includes considerations of supply chain circularity, zero waste manufacturing, circular design and closed-loop systems. 

  • World Business Council for Sustainable Development — Set to launch next week at the World Economic Forum, Circular Transition Indicators provides a framework to assess a company’s circularity, and quantify the value of shifting towards more circular approaches. 

Each tool grounds a circular economy’s promise in data, breaking intentions and aspirations into the calculable, trackable and comparable bite-sized pieces that make up this new economic model. 

At all levels — systems, business and product — the development of specific and actionable metrics is a key accelerator for circularity at scale. Of course, the operative word is actionable. Quantifying circularity proves valuable only to the extent that they align with planetary boundaries and science-based climate targets.

Further, a myopic understanding of data points and material flows won’t define the future of circularity on its own. The human, on-the-ground realities of shifts and changes must be tracked and understood through a qualitative lens as well. 

To read more about the growth, potential and gaps within the emerging category of circular metrics, I invite you to read the 2020 State of Green Business report, released last week, in which GreenBiz identified circular metrics as one of 10 key sustainable business trends for the year ahead.

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