The One Planet MBA puts the Circular Economy model to work

Circular Economy

Unilever sells some 400 brands across the world with 2016 revenues standing at some €52.7 billion. Despite the products’ vast popularity, much of its packaging ends up on landfills and oceans, not recycling bins. How can Unilever start reducing waste, especially from plastic, while putting the circular economy model to work? Gavin Warner of Unilever presented the challenge to the cohort of the University of Exeter’s One Planet MBA on Monday and by Friday the students were to present their ideas on how to repackage an item as ubiquitous as a shampoo bottle in order to create a solution fit for the circular economy. The quality of shampoo and its price, however, were to remain the same.

The dragon den panel of judges consisted of IDEO’s Chris Grantham and Sally Spinks, Unilever’s Gavin Warner and completed by Ken Webster, head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading think tank on the circular economy. Before the challenge began, Chris and Sally hailed from London for a day to present the beta version of the circular design guide. The cohort made a strong contribution and helped finalise the guide. The principles and guidelines of the circular economy had to be at the heart of the shampoo bottle solution.

Adam Lusby, lecturer and Senior Circular Economy Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Business School, set up the challenge. “We connect different purpose driven organisations across the learning experience. The challenge Unilever presented calls for a circular solution, not a linear one. The current economy is one of take, make and dispose. We take stuff out of the ground, we make it into something and we use it and throw it away. The circular economy – in short, is the extension of value. It’s restorative and regenerative. By utilising the design guide by IDEO, and creating solutions together with Unilever, students try to take on a task this complex and unpack it by applying the circular economy mind set. Many MBA programmes offer these types of challenges. But ours is steeped in creating change through doing good. This is what Unilever and many other companies are actively seeking,” Adam adds.

Nicolas Forsans, One Planet MBA Programme Director says, “For the students, the challenge was more than just re-inventing the shampoo bottle. It was about re-thinking the very business model that will give Unilever’s value proposition more legs. Every single stakeholder along the supply chain had to be convinced. This is exactly why Unilever came to our programme – our thinking and commitment to circular economy aligns with theirs. In fact, two of the students’ proposals are now being considered and progressed through the organisation.”

Delfina Zagarzazu, one of the students on the programme describes the challenge as a “unique opportunity in the middle of the year to grapple with a real life case.” She says, “Above all, the programme wants to see that we are grasping business and sustainability principles that will ultimately determine if our solutions are viable,” Justin Turquet, a fellow student, says, “Corporate challenge, though still academic, was an incredible, stimulating project that helped us balance the tension between our academic knowledge and practical skills. There was no blue-sky thinking. The solution had to be sustainable, it had to be smart and practical and above all, it had to be possible to execute.” Justin’s and his fellow students’ idea involved implementing new technologies for Unilever’s niche brand, Ren. “With a smaller brand like this, Unilever can give our solution a try and see how it goes. If successful, it can migrate to other brands,” he adds.

Adam says the results of the challenge were impressive, and described as realistic and innovative. “We engaged with progressive organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, IDEO, and Unilever. And as a result, our programme created a first class learning experience that can be applicable to many other business challenges,” he says.

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