Over the past few weeks I have been researching what the circular economy means for young people (those primarily aged between 13 to 26). I was curious to ascertain whether the ideology appealed to them, and to assess what their role might be in encouraging such a systemic shift.
The findings, which informed a recent article I wrote for The Guardian, were quite compelling. The vast majority of those I spoke to saw the circular economy foremost as a springboard for inspiring social good. To Millennial minds, delivering a less wasteful society is not so much about unlocking business innovation, it’s about building stronger communities. These young people are looking for a platform that can empower them; that can give them a voice.
I felt their version of the circular economy at times to be in direct opposition to that of the larger corporations that are trying to spearhead change. The constant consumerist push of brand values has left many young people feeling disillusioned: do they really need, or want, that big puff message that goes something like: We Can Save The World (*T&Cs apply: As long as you keep buying our stuff).
According to one of the students I interviewed for my research, the circular economy is something young people can start to build on their own. This is about grassroots action – which, interestingly, is where the really disruptive stuff is happening right now around this agenda. If you throw circular’s cousin, the bullish sharing economy, into the mix you can sense a perfect storm brewing.
Another student told me that for him and his peers, the circular economy could act as a tool for active citizenship; to get involved in community work and help challenge neighbourhood perceptions around so-called idle youth culture. The reliance of circularity on the interdependence of systems, flows and participation levels fosters genuine inclusiveness in this respect.
The overriding feeling I got from my conversations with these young people was that here was a new global vision that could match their idealism and fire for a better world. It’s cool, it’s disruptive – it offers those who are spirited to take flight with new enterprise, and those who are disillusioned a chance to re-engage with their future.
What Millennials see is the inspiring, social side of the circular economy; the side that revolves around DIY culture and community empowerment. The other, more familiar side is far more corporate – and it comes weighted down by the vested interests of politicians, business groups and NGOs. Not the greatest of bedfellows.
I’m sure businesses are already trying to figure out ways they can tap into the creativity of young people to help fuel this seismic shift – B&Q’s youth board is one such venture. But I’m also wary of the corporate tendency for desiring ownership of ideas and outputs that might lead to genuine breakthroughs. Never mind ‘Hug a Hoodie’, corporations need to start embracing open source.
As circularity starts to mainstream, I wager we will see more focus on its potential to deliver social value. And maybe at that point, businesses need to stop brainstorming. Because the kids are already there.