The Circular Economy Lab asked students at Oxford University to imagine what the future might look like if we embraced a green, equitable recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s an insight into the world they envisioned.
It’s amazing to think how much has changed. When the pandemic arrived, inequality in its many forms was laid bare. When people’s wellbeing became the subject of global headlines for a whole year, we started to observe and reflect more widely on where beings were not well within our systems. When it became crystal clear we all breathe the same air, we looked at how we could make that air cleaner and safer for everyone.
In 2020, people rallied together to simultaneously address the crises of climate change, inequality and racial injustice. The wave began with the intersection of COVID-19 with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sparked a social and ecological transformation. So, what’s happened since then?
We examined how we related to one another, and a movement of solidarity and community was forged in the crucible of these crises. We are no longer socially distant from one another; in fact, we are closer than ever. We’ve slowed down; taking more time to value things we used to take for granted, like quality time with our friends and family. We became dependable and dependent, supporting our neighbours and community. But beyond that, shorter working hours have freed us up to volunteer in our community and with Mutual Aid groups, like my shifts at the community centre. We also have more time to capture our feelings and create art, and poetry and music.
This emphasis on ‘moving slower’ goes beyond how we interrelate, as people physically walk more, encouraged by our shift to centring pedestrians and cyclists in our cities. High-speed zero-carbon trains and hydrogen buses make our cities and rural spaces accessible to everyone, at prices we can all afford. Differently abled people move with greater ease, because systems are designed with everyone in mind.
Equity is a key feature not only of transport but of all public services, and of society in general. All people are paid a fair, living wage and the wealthy finally agreed to pay their fair share in taxes back to society. Inequality levels have fallen exponentially. This means people have more disposable income: however, with closer community bonds, there is less of a focus on consumption, and the sharing economy has grown in leaps and bounds. Which reminds me, I need to drop by my community tool-sharing co-op this afternoon: I need to borrow a hammer! It used to be the library but we’ve since expanded to hold all kinds of ways to learn, and the tools we need.
This spirit of sharing, support and equity has made their way into our schools and universities too. Education has changed the way we view the world. My class today started like it always does: with a group check-in, where we explain how we are feeling and hold space to be vulnerable with one another. This is especially important after recognizing that loneliness can affect people of all ages, and creating authentic community is important. In all classrooms, we take time to identify dominant knowledge systems and their implications, immerse ourselves in different worldviews and explore different ways of learning. Today, in my economics course teaching circularity, we looked back on the days of the take-make-dispose model, and discussed the importance of finding value in ‘waste’. I can’t believe the things people used to throw away!
This shift in how and what we learn encouraged a shift in the opportunities we seek out after education. My friends and I are looking for jobs that will sustain us financially but also provide fulfilment and joy. This trend has grown in strength, as has our respect and value for the jobs that kept our society up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic. These vital parts of the economy are no longer under-funded and under-staffed. The Green COVID Recovery created loads of new jobs and opportunities to re-train, like my brother – who has become a recycling officer, and my mum – who used to work for the oil and gas industry, and now works in green energy. Unions banded together and asked for training to support a just transition, and the government invested in our futures by making sure that a green transition did not leave anyone behind. These fit into a circular, sustainable economy, which means the jobs are sustainable too – a huge relief for my mum after the big move away from fossil fuels.
Among those professions that experienced immense difficulty and gained newfound appreciation during the pandemic, were farmers. This stimulated a change in how we relate to what we eat, as governments realised the precarity of our food systems. Inequality and environmental issues related to food became a key agenda item and we have made progress. These vegetables in my lunch were grown in my garden: I learned how to care for and create a system where something could thrive. Local food systems are embedded in a global network that is mutually beneficial and no longer exploitative: people, society, soils and biodiversity are all valued and sustained through a less wasteful, more regenerative food system.
It’s amazing to think how much has changed and is still changing. Not all changes have been positive: we continue to face the climate crisis, and new challenges have arisen. However, the world we live in now did not come to be by chance . We chose to be daring enough to imagine an alternative future and to grasp the opportunity when it presented itself, at a time when reverting back to ‘normality’ was an easy option, but an unacceptable one. We leaned into the discomfort and the beauty of change, standing in solidarity with one another as we forged a new world together.
Jeremy Sigmon is currently pursuing his MSc in water science, policy, and management with the School of Geography and the Environment. He joined Oxford with 15 years of experience in the U.S. green building industry, before which he was a student at Washington University in St. Louis with Lauren Sparandara who was pursuing her own career path in sustainability and architecture that would lead her to Google. Since 2014, Lauren has been a sustainability manager for its Real Estate and Workplace Services (REWS) team.
Efficiency is a natural outcome of good business practice when data reveal waste that can be eliminated with cost-saving alternatives. The circular economy challenges us to employ a “Waste = Food” framing that may require data that is not currently captured. How does a big, global company like Google employ this kind of thinking? The company’s sustainability web page provides many answers to this question. Google is making big investments in renewable energy, slashing the footprint of its data centers, leveraging buying power to yield a more responsible supply chain, and even using web-based data to combat over-fishing. I sat down to talk to Lauren Sparandara about one aspect of the company’s increasingly circular sustainability work, the greening of Google’s buildings.
Jeremy Sigmon (JS): Google is a big company, presumably with a big footprint. How do Google facilities factor in?
Lauren Sparandara (LS): We are indeed a large company with a large footprint. Since the company’s founding we have realized we have the power and responsibility to work towards making the world a more sustainable place. In June of this year, Google furthered its commitment to circularity by releasing a whitepaper entitled “A Circular Google,” in which we laid out our vision for a circular economy: “We want a circular Google within a sustainable world.” We believe we have a truly unique role to play in accelerating the transition to a circular economy. By leveraging our technological assets and know-how, our cultural influence, and our purchasing power, we can be a powerful engine for change.
On the real estate team, our company-wide sustainability goals are implemented by integrating circularity into our buildings. In this way, we deliver sustainability and health outcomes for our offices in more than 160 cities around the world.
JS: How do you prioritize the facilities that need the most investment?
LS: It is important to address sustainability in both new and existing buildings and we have REWS Sustainability team members focused on both. To keep on track with our sustainability objectives we often employ green building certifications such as LEED. Google has 11+ million square feet of LEED-certified offices. For many of our offices—existing and new—we are minimizing water, waste, and energy while maximizing good air quality, daylight, and biophilic elements.
Certain projects showcase the sustainability work we’ve been doing for over a decade and allow us to test our assumptions around what is possible. For the last three years, we have been working towards the Living Building ChallengeMaterials Petal Certification and LEED Platinum certification for Google’s Charleston East project, a ground-up office development in Mountain View, California. It’s one of Google’s most ambitious construction projects to date from both a sustainability and workplace design perspective, applying innovations in renewable energy and healthy materials. We are also aiming for a zero-waste construction site.
JS: Zero waste is a big goal for one project, let alone for all of Google’s footprint. How does your team plan to achieve this?
LS: At Charleston East, zero construction waste to landfill will be achieved initially by design. During construction, we maintain meticulous on-site sorting (with many bins!) for each waste stream to optimize recycling. We are working with local recyclers whenever possible and like to work with RCI-certified construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facilities to ensure greater reliability and transparency for our diversion rates.
We are implementing closed-loop wallboard recycling by sending scrap back to the manufacturer to make more wallboard. Another zero-waste strategy is to pilot emerging technologies for waste reduction such as chemical recycling. A local start-up called Biocellection is helping us recycle thin film plastic—such as tarps and plastic bags—from our construction waste. We know it’s important to find ways to recycle film plastic as these plastics can be blown from construction sites into our drains and waterways and, ultimately, in our oceans.
Across our portfolio, Google is evaluating the value of different zero-waste-to-landfill certifications and determining what role they play in our path to a circular economy. We are finding that third-party certifications can be a great tool for assessing and auditing where we stand with regard to our goals and then using them to track our improvements.
JS: The Circular Google white paper talks about using design to eliminate both waste and pollution and to maximize the use life of products and materials. How will Google use its influence to realize these objectives?
LS: In REWS, we are always seeking opportunities to design out waste from our built environment by designing buildings to minimize material waste, establishing zero-waste construction practices, and implementing waste reduction strategies in operations. One example of this is building deconstruction. As Google builds more new buildings, we want to be thoughtful about what we do with the buildings that exist on the sites we are developing. When possible, we want to prioritize deconstructing existing buildings and assets so that those materials can be salvaged for reuse. We are currently exploring deconstruction strategies, and ultimately hope to scale a deconstruction approach across our portfolio.
JS: This sounds like fun and important work, Lauren! How can students of the circular economy and social enterprise learn from your work and experience to make an impact? LS: One tool that might be fun for everyone to check out is “Your Plan, Your Planet”. This site offers simple tips from Google, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for moving towards a circular economy in your daily life.
Greta Thompson is a third-year undergraduate in Materials science studying at the Queen’s college, who has worked within the Oxford Climate society, Oxford Energy society and is a member of the Oxford Foundry’s student advisory board. Interning at Solarcentury and involving herself in events run around Oxford has allowed her to explore her passion for the sustainable energy and power sector and its role in mitigating anthropogenic climate change. Events at the Saïd Business School and Skoll Centre got her hooked on the exploration of ethical business and the concept of the circular economy, leading her to secure funding to run her own event series on green entrepreneurship this year, in order to combine these newer interests with those relating to clean energy.
Alex and Andy Dewis are the founders of Pineapple Partnerships, a certified B corporation that maps the profiles of social impact based businesses in order to connect them with relevant partners to accelerate their success. They came to the Circular Economy Lab group to run a workshop on their plan for a business that would complement Pineapple’s inventory of projects. The Poly dress would change the way the fashion industry operates, through reusing resources and doing more with less, essentially embodying the long-term aim of Pineapple – to propel society to its meeting of the SDGs. It provided a lively discussion around the theme of sustainable fashion and design. Here is Greta’s take on the workshop and its important underlying mission.
If you’ve ever attended a marathon, you may remember the rivers of mushed up plastic water bottles lining the gutters of the street. You may have even sent out a quick prayer to the goddess of the green wheelie bin, requesting their safe arrival at recycling heaven rather than the wasteful perils of landfill. (See example)
But the environmental impact of this single-use plastic fuelled marathon is reduced to a mere sprint when compared to the never-ending course of fast fashions own race: to produce the most stuff. It is a race run by industry giants kitted out in chemicals, cotton and mass-produced sequins rather than lycra, who have substituted jelly babies for a new kind of fuel: our demand for variety and volume, which they work to constantly grow.
But this crowded competition is all about quantity, consumption, and low cost – and it has no finish line. According to Elizabeth Cline (author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion) Topshop introduces 400 styles a week on its website, so it’s no wonder that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates $500 billion of value lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling of clothes .
The core strategy of fast fashion is to get you to buy more by keeping things cheap. Keeping them cheap means low-quality goods, low environmental standards and low wages for workers. There’s nothing vaguely circular or sustainable about this model. But what if a fashion company shifted its business proposition from maximising orders to maximising trust? What if they could foster a healthy relationship with the customer that outstripped the perks of next day delivery and unlimited returns? What if they could slow down fast fashion?
Alex and Andy Dewis may have a plan to
achieve just that. Their Poly dress, modelled on a range of timeless vintage
designs, aims to transform their customers relationship with fashion by ‘doing
more with less – helping everyone and harming no-one’. The Poly dress would be for
life – not just for Christmas (or that birthday party you have ‘nothing’ to
wear to) and of course be created by a company of the highest moral fibre.
Their key belief is that making fast
fashion sustainably sourced does not necessarily slow it down. Just changing
where we get the materials from to make our clothes is not enough to curb the
harm to our planet and people. No, no, rather than change the fabric or the
production standards used, Alex and Andy know that in order to create true
impact they need to change our minds.
Consequently, they have big plans for
implementing a culture of re-use, upcycling and other eco-friendly practises,
so that their dresses can become a loved wardrobe staple, continuously under modification
for the desired occasion or mood of the wearer. More a companion than a piece
of cloth, the Poly dress can accompany you through the development of your
style and the inevitable faux pas along the way. The hope is that buyers will
be able to respect the journey the dress has taken, the hands it has passed
through to reach them, and its own character that shifts in tandem with the owner
throughout the years.
During the workshop, we had the opportunity to discuss the various hurdles that Poly faces in coming to fruition, where microfibres, an Oxford-based pilot and inspiration from Elvis & Kresse (who make luxury lifestyle accessories from old firehose) were all discussed. I was particularly struck by what we regularly returned to as the main issue – the inability to pick one out of the numerous ways that Poly could be achieved! It was very encouraging to be able to discuss such a wide range of possibilities for the business model, and although perhaps it won’t be simple to refine all the ideas Andy and Alex have, synthesising them into a single model sounds like a lot of fun, and suitably similar to stitching a quilt. It was a wonderful glimpse into a futuristic business that had completely rethought the focus of the industry they would occupy, working right at the root of a sustainability issue that is currently getting out of hand.
It is exciting to think that the Poly
dress could be the break-away runner in an entirely new race. This race would
be much slower and made up of less participants: rather than a 100m sprint to
the bin, items of clothing are instead given the support and love to keep
traveling round and round the track, again and again. It would close the loop on
clothes production and slow down fast fashion (maybe even disqualify it?) putting
us one step closer to achieving a circular economy.
Eileen Chen is a 2018-19 MBA student at Oxford’s Saïd Business School and a Canadian marketer with four years of experience in the consumer packaged goods industry. Her marketing experience included managing an e-commerce website and developing data-driven recommendations through consumer insights for Keurig Canada. Her current career aspirations are to use marketing’s power to inspire behaviour change in sustainable consumption. Eileen recently attended a talk led by Dr Jake Backus, here she explains her thoughts on the timely but trending topic of plastic.
Did you know that “single-use” was 2018’s word of the year? (Source)
Dr Jake Backus, founder of Empathy Sustainability, Common Ground (sustainable co-working space in Oxford), and previous Sustainability Director at Coca-Cola Europe, delivered a speech to Oxford students on “Plastics & Ocean Plastics – what’s the problem and what’s the solution? Emotion has galvanised action, but is it the right action?”.
Only 14% of materials are collected for
recycling, which means we are losing $80-$120 billion in value – recycling is
not only a sustainable solution, but one which can financially make sense. We
learned about the nuances of material recovery, and how counterintuitively, plastic
is not entirely bad. For instance, 60% of the energy used to create plastic can
be recovered in recycling it.
Another myth Dr Backus debunked was that,
although bioplastic and compostable solutions sound better, most can only
biodegrade in industrial composting facilities which are few and far between.
The main solutions offered were to encourage reuse and recycling, as much of the energy used to manufacture virgin plastic can be recovered in the recycling process and because they utilize existing waste management systems. There is much opportunity for nudging behaviour change in compelling ways, in order to incentivize consumers and businesses to act. For example, one of the issues is that recovering plastic has low value – what if we governments assigned artificial values to plastic? Beijing, and a few other cities, started accepting plastic bottles as train fare; can this model be scaled further?
To summarize, his top 5 priorities (in order) are:
Avoid – if you don’t need it,
Reuse and refill
Create energy from waste
Avoid landfills and oceans
Thank you Dr Jake Backus for the educational and engaging talk!
In celebration of the start of the Saïd Business School’s Circular Economy module this Trinity semester, students involved in the programme have interviewed key practitioners in the rapidly emerging field. This blog series aims to document key practitioner’s stories; perspectives on what skills are relevant to a successful career and what they see the future holds for the circular economy and its many players.
On a recent trip to Brussels, Frances Christodoulou (MSc Environmental Change & Management, School of Geography & the Environment) caught up with Karolina Kalinowska, a policy officer with the European Commission who has spent a year working on the European Union’s Circular Economy Strategy.
Karolina is keen to tackle society’s big challenges through international policy. With an academic background in human and environmental sciences, Karolina applied to the EU Commission’s blue book traineeship. Accepted into the Directorate-General for the Environment, she was assigned to the Circular Economy unit. This unit was tasked to implement the EU’s flagship Circular Economy Package, a scheme adopted in 2015 to enable Europe’s transition to a more circular, sustainable economy.
In collaboration with colleagues from the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry, Karolina was involved in high-level stakeholder meetings and workshops. Meeting with industry to discuss their needs and how the EU viewed the circular economy transition was central to her role.
“When you deal with any sort of transition it’s not easy, although it was surprising how much the industry was actually wanting to have this transition enabled,” Karolina explains. “Environmental protection is more and more on people’s minds. People recognise that business is a big part of environmental degradation, but also a means for safeguarding the environment. And industry themselves realise that resources are finite.”
By harnessing these ideas, the EU Commission aims to facilitate the transition to a circular economy. Building on concepts of eco-design and efficiency, the idea is to create an environment in which businesses and entrepreneurs are empowered to develop circular business models. “Closing the loop” helps businesses maximise the value of resources and wastes, while creating benefits for both the environment and economy as a whole.
As a policy officer with DG Environment, Karolina found her analytical and technical background very useful. However, her abilities to negotiate and apply “holistic thinking” were vital when it came to interacting with stakeholders and developing policies.
“For example the development of the Plastic Strategy involved months and months and months of public consultation, stakeholder meetings and really working with the sectors that would be affected,” says Karolina. “You need a balance of interests to push something through”. Having the skills to negotiate with different actors, while thinking holistically about the issues, are central to successful policy implementation.
On the job, Karolina developed the communication skills needed to deal with stakeholders pursuing different roles, purposes and ambitions. She learnt how to write “very concise briefings” to convey EU policy and key arguments, quickly and succinctly to varied audiences. She also developed stakeholder awareness, always “thinking from what angle should we approach these people; what are their interests?” Dealing with both NGOs and for-profit industry the “need to meet conflicting interests” was at the forefront of her work, making communication key.
There are still many barriers to realising the transition to a thriving, circular economy. For businesses, Karolina identifies the challenges as “largely technical”. Many companies have limited technical expertise to implement sustainable practices, and often “circular” solutions are not yet fully developed. Capital costs can also be a barrier, since often new technologies are “more expensive at the beginning, as…with technological transitions in general”. This is where the EU plans to act as facilitator and enabler by providing funds and financial support for research and innovation.
What are the challenges Karolina sees for policy makers pushing a circular economy agenda? At the fore is the need to manage conflicting interests and negotiate trade-offs in a political environment. In the EU, the need for 28 member states to cooperate and agree for policy to be implemented is a major challenge. The Council (comprised of the heads of member states) “aren’t willing and can be even less ambitious than…the private sector” when it comes to environmental policies, posing a massive challenge to progressing the circular economy agenda.
With enthusiasm for the circular economy growing and more business eager to get involved, Karolina worries about the possibility of “greenwashing”. Circular economy is a powerful concept with the ability to drive much needed change. However, “it can often be misunderstood; [used as] a catch-all phrase”, says Karolina, and as a concept has the potential to be hijacked by companies who wish to project a “green” image, while doing very little for the environment. But this doesn’t mean we should shy away from encouraging businesses to adopt “circular” practices.
And with all this talk of international policy and the European economy, has Karolina’s relationship with waste at a personal level been affected at all?
“Hugely,…inevitably you learn so much”, says Karolina. “And also when you realise that in Brussels the waste management is absolutely rubbish [*Ahem*], you start thinking about your own personal choices”. Not being able to recycle most plastics, Karolina now tries to avoid single-use plastic, shops at the local, package free market and seeks out Eco-label products.
Small steps, to be sure. But even these small lifestyle choices show the potential and desire to implement a more circular economy. There is massive scope for creativity and innovation within this space and policy-makers and business alike are at the forefront of driving this change.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and interlocutor and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the European Commission.
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Gladys Ngetich, Rhodes Scholar and DPhil in Engineering Science at the Department of Engineering Science, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Women and Girls: Catalysing Change in the Climate Crisis’.
The panel – Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis
Climate change is without a doubt one of this 21st century’s leading global challenges. Climate change-related disasters like serious floods, mudslides, droughts and severe heat waves continue to ripple across the world causing a staggering number of deaths and losses due to infrastructure damages. Organisations, governments and individuals have realised that there is an inevitable need to address climate change. Thus, they are working around the clock to mitigate climate change-related disasters.
Even as world leaders deliberate on how to counter climate change, it is essential for such discussions to recognise the strong link between gender equality and climate change. In fact, the recent UN Paris Agreement (1/CP.21) acknowledges the necessity for equal representation of both men and women in order to make further progress in the ongoing fight against the negative effects of climate change. Despite the clear link between gender equality and climate change, women in most parts of the world have been barely involved in addressing this grave issue.
The panel – Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis
Why is women’s involvement essential in climate change deliberations?
There are obvious gendered impacts of climate change-related disasters, particularly where women, owing to their role as primary carers, are in charge of food, water and cooking fuel. This role and the disproportionately low socioeconomic power of women as compared to men globally, make women more vulnerable when disasters like floods, hurricanes and droughts strike. Indeed, it has been reported that women are more vulnerable than men in cases of climate change-related catastrophes.
Effects of disasters like droughts on women
Droughts affect women in many ways. Water scarcity forces women, especially those in rural areas, to walk long distances in search of water. The scarcity of vegetation and trees as a result of a drought causes women, most especially in developing countries, to spend a lot of time searching for firewood which is the primary source of cooking fuel. This particularly applies to rural women in most low-income countries. All these eat into the time women could be spending for education or starting and running a business. In addition, decreased crop production adversely affects women in rural areas who are largely depended upon for food production. According to recent statistics, women produce 60-80% of the food in most developing countries. Also, in pastoralist communities in Kenya, droughts have been reported as causing an increase in cases of early child marriages.
Women make up approximately half of the world’s population
According to research done by the Brookings Institution, women’s representation in climate change only amounts to ‘24 percent of the 173 focal points to the U.N. Forum on Forests; 12 percent of the heads of 881 national environmental sector ministries; and 4 percent of 92 national member committee chairs to the World Energy Council’. Yet, as highlighted above, women are disproportionately affected by climate change-disasters. Moreover, women constitute over 50% of the world’s population. So far, there has been good progress in terms of efforts to tackle climate change. However, this progress cannot be truly effective and cover all blind spots in addressing climate change, if women are only minimally involved in such deliberations. Efforts to address climate change will only double if women from different backgrounds are brought on board. This will largely be as a result of the value of including their lived experience and the diversity of thought they bring to the table.
Women can take control of family planning—a population-based climate change mitigation strategy
The world’s population continues to soar. The United Nation predicts that the current world’s population of 7.6 billion will shoot to 9.8 by the year 2050 with the largest growth coming from developing countries. Investing in women and girls’ empowerment and quality education will enable them to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health. Consequently, this will reduce the unsustainable population growth which accelerates climate change and its effects.
Importance of women’s participation in climate change deliberations
Owing to women’s unique lived experiences and the fact that they are disproportionately affected by climate change-related disasters, they have rich and diverse ground-based experiences, perspectives and knowledge that are essential for identifying and implementing potential sustainable solutions to address climate change. In addition, studies have shown that women play a crucial role in environmental conservation efforts.
In conclusion, climate change is no doubt the world’s greatest challenge which calls for an urgent and sustainable solution. There is a clear gender imbalance where women and girls are barely involved in efforts to address climate change. Going forward there is a dire need to bring them on board as they can be the much-needed agents who can contribute to sustainable climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem.
Prof. Wangari Maathai – 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Founder of the Green Belt Movement that has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya.