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The circular economy : why it’s a global sustainability priority

September 2015

In the past few years, rising global sustainability developments have paved the way for surging numbers of corporate commitments and more decisive action by national governments. Even if sustainability is showing new signs of life, there are still major and challenging issues that need to be addressed that will lead to prosperity, writes Michael Spanos, managing director, Global Sustain.

In times where material wealth is cherished, the global population is rapidly rising and there is ever-growing consumption, the process by which products and services are delivered to our doors has become increasingly complex. On the other hand, decisions and actions taken by consumers may have a serious impact on the environment and consumers lack the necessary information so as to make smart decisions. The question, therefore, remains as to how far we can go without changing the way goods and services are produced and consumed. In a world of close to 9.6 billion people as the UN predicts by 2050, the challenge is to manage these interdependencies in a way that human development makes advances without causing harm to the environment and our planetary boundaries.

At the World Summit Rio+20 of 2012, the need to change the unsustainable way our societies consume and produce was recognised as one of the three overarching objectives for sustainable development. The need to change the pattern of production and consumption was also acknowledged in the first World Summit for the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1992), and in the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (2002). Moreover, the European Commission identified Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) as a key objective in its renewed European Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS 2009) and is expected to propose a “circular economy package” by the end of 2015. The latter will be the first crucial piece of policy intervention that will lay down the transition path for different economy sectors. In addition to that, the Mediterranean is the first Region in having SCP as a top priority in its Sustainable Development Agenda and is currently preparing a specific Mediterranean Action Plan for SCP as part of the EU funded SwitchMed Initiative.

Sustainable production refers to manufacturers who ensure products are designed and manufactured with minimal impact on the environment throughout the product’s life cycle. Sustainable consumption refers to the understanding of “circular products” by considering the entire life cycle that allows consumers to make better purchasing decisions, use, maintain, reuse or recycle the product. Sustainable consumption and production provides the opportunity to harness creativity and create circumstances for a better future. It maximises the business potential to transform environmental and social challenges (fresh water quality and depletion, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, growing emissions, poverty etc.) into economic opportunities, innovation, restorative industry, job creation, GDP growth and better life quality.

Sectors influenced by circular economy on which we have to plan policies to mainstream SCP are among others: Food and Agriculture, Tourism, Housing and Construction, and Goods Manufacturing (including textiles, cosmetics, electrical and electronic equipment). Examples of SCP policies are renewable material strategies, eco-design, consumer campaigns, and so on and so forth. In terms of sustainable consumption, the Nu Spaarpas approach launched in the Netherlands is indicative of the things we can do in order to encourage it. Consumers earn green points when they separate waste for recycling, use public transport or purchase locally-produced, fair trade, or green products. The points can be redeemed for public transport tickets or discounts or sustainable goods.
According to a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, shifting towards a growth within model - based on getting value from the existing stock of products and materials - would deliver better outcomes for the European economy and yield annual benefits of up to €1.8 trillion by 2030. Moreover, primary material consumption measured by car and construction materials, real estate land, synthetic fertiliser, pesticides, agricultural water use, fuels, and non-renewable electricity could drop 32% by 2030 and 53% by 2050, compared with today.

For circular economy to achieve results in a shared society, active participation and collaboration between relevant stakeholders is deeply needed. There are several players that are required to take action, since the successful implementation of SCP cannot be achieved as a standalone, without certain organisations taking part. Instead, it requires a holistic view of the role business of all sizes, public bodies, civil society and investors have to play. The challenge is to inspire a whole generation to adopt circular principles reflected in their daily personal and professional activities. Game changers that are willing to change their obsolete lifestyle is what we really need.

Taking all the above into consideration, once more this year, Global Sustain mission is to challenge, inspire and raise awareness about a critical sustainability issue. “Circular Economy: Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production” is the theme of our publication, the 2015/2016 Yearbook, that aims to trigger a global discussion on these topics for the ninth consecutive year. The 9th Global Sustain Yearbook will feature leading CEOs, corporations and organisations from all around the world, but with a specific focus on the Euro-Mediterranean region, whose SCP efforts are well-integrated into their organisational fabric.

The SwitchMed Initiative will be a collaborator in the preparation of the Yearbook. The publication will include the viewpoints of top experts, decision-makers, policy formers, and community leaders who will share their vision and expertise regarding this timely subject with a global audience. Particular topics that will be featured are: sustainable lifestyles, new consumption models, life cycle thinking, sustainable value chain, policies, strategies and action plans, eco-innovation and communication. In fact, contributions from big companies, small businesses, development agencies and policy-makers will start to be submitted around the time for SwitchMed Connect 2015, slated to take place in Barcelona on October 29-30, 2015.

At SwitchMed Connect, there will also be sessions exploring leverage areas for scaling up circular economy and sharing economy business models.




Global Sustain | Global | circular economy

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