What if the circular economy is just too difficult? It’s an interesting question, and already some are starting to wonder.
Earlier this month, I returned to Birmingham for the second year running to facilitate a series of discussions for the Circular Economy Connect conference theatre, hosted by the organisers of RWM. It was a superb event, in all respects – the level of noise being generated around any circular debate right now is one of continued clatter and jangle.
People really want this to work. They get it, they believe it’s the right thing to do. But at the same time, there is a ‘sense of tense’ as I like to call it. The more we talk about it, the more tense we get. Because the more we talk about it, the more we realise how going circular will fundamentally disrupt every aspect of our lives.
It’s a disruption for the better, but it represents such an evolutionary shift that folks are starting to get nervous. Companies will need to reconfigure their supply chains. Supply chains will need to work out how to manage this reconfiguration across geographical borders. Governments will need to legislate to enable circular trading across border controls. Marketers will have to sell us different types of lifestyle aspirations. And that’s just the top level stuff.
Nervousness needs proof perhaps? A slew of authoritative voices have pushed forward various arguments as to why the circular economy needs to happen, both economically and socially. But it’s mostly on paper. So the trail starts to go cold for some. They lose patience. We also have to be cautious – mindful of world dynamics. It doesn’t take long for rising secondary commodity prices to fall, or for a forward-thinking government to be voted out, or for political unrest to derail any sustainability agenda and consign it to the backburner.
It appears that the circular economy is fast becoming an exercise about managing expectations. People keep asking me what’s new about it – they want more emerging models, more demonstrator pilots … why isn’t it on the High Street yet? It’s because it’s too difficult, right?
Well, yes … and no. Try to imagine system change. It is indeed evolution. And evolution takes a long time (even Darwin can tell you that). Inject some disruption into that. Not nice, it sounds risky … and we don’t like change. Some companies are innovating like crazy, but they’re not talking about it, because it’s so commercially sensitive. It might not work. But if it does – if it has the potential to fly – you’ll soon know about it.
Some of the circular pilots I’m hearing about will take at least five years to scale – even longer, given the typical turnaround times of introducing new designs into supply chains. The colours of this new currency are percolating. They are starting to blend. We might be able to one day bend the economy, but we can’t yet bend time. For those pushing for hard evidence, I'd advise: How about pushing the pause button instead?