Value creation and waste reduction in a circular economy

The Business Leaders Forum (BLF) is a regular event run by the University of Exeter. Aimed primarily at chief executives and senior management, it is a membership-based organisation that enables influential business people to stay up-to-date with current trends in business. Julie Whittaker, a Senior Lecturer in the Organisation of Markets at the University of Exeter Business School, gives her thoughts on the latest meeting, which had the topic of a circular economy.

Experts have urged businesses to grasp new opportunities that can help to combat the twin challenges of rising resource prices and waste costs.

The call came at the latest BLF, hosted by the University of Exeter, where it was highlighted that companies which fail to come to terms with these challenges are in danger of becoming less competitive. To take advantage of the new prospects, businesses need to position themselves as part of a circular economy, within which, in principle, all materials are cycled infinitely.

A diagram illustrating the circular economy. Courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

James Walker, Head of Innovation for Net Positive at Kingfisher plc spoke about the steps his company, a large multinational retailer (which includes B&Q and Screw Fix) have started to take in moving the economy away from the take-make-waste linear pattern towards a more circular process in which goods are designed with either recycling, or even better, reuse in mind.

James told attendees that electric drills are used on average for only 20 minutes in their whole life. He suggested that a better deal, both for the customer and the retailer would be to offer a box of tools for specific DIY tasks for hire rather than for sale. This would mean fewer tools manufactured and at the end of life the materials in the tools could be more readily recovered.

We might question what this could mean for current tool manufacturers? As with most structural economic change, there are likely to be both gainers and losers.

A circular economy is beneficial to the natural environmental, but James was keen to emphasise that while previously businesses have been motivated to reduce their environmental impact on ethical grounds, today it was a business necessity to adjust to the new market conditions.

The second speaker, Devon based Mark Hodgson, a sustainability consultant with QSA Partners outlined the different types of circular economy business models, explaining how they can be adopted, giving South West examples.

These models not only place a greater emphasis on providing services rather than products (eg providing access to tools rather than tool sales) but also give attention to design for reuse and recycling. Drawing on the example of Co-Cars (the Exeter car club he helped to establish) he illustrated how digital technology which provided easy access and monitoring of car use, enabled the circular economy business models to be commercialised.

The University of Exeter Business School will be running workshops on the new circular economy business models, in the autumn. Anyone interested in learning more should contact Julie Whittaker by email on .

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