We know the traditional models of linear economic growth based on a ‘make, take and dispose’ model do not work. Not even in the short term. A circular economy promotes the continual use of resources so there is much less waste in what we consume and produce. If we are to reach greater circularity we need to get deeper into local development contexts, look for different measures to tell the story and to demonstrate how to generate and regenerate growth without so much waste.
In Viet Nam and Kenya they are investigating how people are already re-using materials along the supply chain. Future design interventions will start with what people know and do already, rather than assuming a recycling practice or imposing one from outside.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo a UNDP Accelerator Lab is supporting an Atlas of Local (design) Solutions including green charcoal made from compressed, re-used cardboard, and making furniture and solar cookstoves from used tyres. It’s idle capacity and resources put to good use. Maybe big tyre companies can source from them!
Looking beyond financial returns
In Mongolia the focus has been on identifying opportunities with government, herders and businesses to sustainably source wool, cashmere, and leather. There are investors who wish to explore a social and environment return, over and above a financial one. And when these jackets and scarves hit global markets, they can be lightly worn, traded-in and re-worn, and hence contribute to circularity.
In China UNDP partners with the tech company Baidu on a smartphone app called ‘Baidu Recycle’. It helps users price and recycle their electronic products by introducing nearby legitimate e-waste pick-up points. Why are these companies, and others like them, seen as disrupters? It’s because they think and act differently, by keeping resources in use for longer, by using the by-products or waste of one enterprise as the resources of another. They repair, re-use and recycle. What can others learn, and what more can be done?
We are learning some hard lessons. First, it is tough to align the goals of public and private sector. We try and use data and evidence to show it makes good economic sense, but nothing gets going until the first policy maker, producer and investor sees the whole value chain can work this way.
A comprehensive approach
Second, it has been impossible to scale without changes in the policy and fiscal space. And this must be powered by governments, both nationally and locally. In Laos, we took this more comprehensive approach. UNDP identified the most promising circular economy growth strategies with the country’s planners and policy makers in low carbon agriculture, construction, energy and transport. This was as close as we’ve come to a whole-of-economy approach. The good news is that these are gradually captured in nationally determined contributions, and UNDP, through our Climate Promise is supporting more than 100 countries in this way. These contributions are supposed to look at that larger enabling space of agreeable policies and standards, that help countries and industries leapfrog past old technology, and are also harder to reverse with a change of mayor or CEO.
Third, one must fund and drive innovation hard, and not limit it to tech. We are also looking at innovative institutional and disruptive behavioural models. UNDP’s 60 Accelerator Labs, serving close to 80 countries, are investigating radically new approaches which and can be shared locally and globally.
Fourth, it still must be profitable, but this can be relayed over the life cycle of the product, instead of getting stuck on annual costing data. Short term budgeting has excused bad behaviour for a long time. Introducing new tools, including foresight and collective intelligence into forecasting, planning and delivery, has helped break this cycle.
A social and political imperative
Fifth, it’s about taking the case directly to people and creating a social and political imperative. Transparency puts governments and companies on notice. And the best public advocates are often the influencers who can show the change in their organizations, companies and in their lives.
And sixth, we must ‘walk the walk’. UNDP is committed to reducing our own carbon footprint 50 percent by 2030; and we promote circularity not only for the countries we serve, but in our own house. The Greening Moonshot refers to what we need to do as UNDP to improve how we contribute to less waste and more regeneration and re-use of resources. This is not easy. And we need our partners to come along with us!
This vision and agenda cannot be sold on data and evidence alone, not even with numbers showing a triple bottom line gain in financial, environmental and social returns. There is a larger moral imperative that must be stated, felt and heard; we are destroying our planet, and doing so faster than any generation before us. We must stand and be counted and be called out. And those who are front runners and setting new industry standards must be recognized and rewarded.