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Looking Back on the Green COVID Recovery: The Just Transition to a Regenerative Circular Economy

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.

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Sustainability in The Construction Sector

Fostering circularity for building materials: Insights from the front lines with USGBC’s Wes Sullens. 

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 which is where he met green materials guru Wes Sullens, director at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for codes technical development and all things related to greener building materials.

There are cranes in the sky, heavy equipment moving earth, and people in hard hats in every direction. These tend to be universal indicators of development and progress. Far too often, however, these images of buildings and construction also signal a whole lot of waste.

Globally, the building construction industry is one of the most consumptive, expected to nearly double its waste between 2012 and 2025 to 2.2 billion tons annually. The many billions of tons of materials that aren’t wasted are put into the buildings where we spend – think about it – far more than three quarters of our time. Where we spend our time is also where we consume (and waste) energy, water, food, and more. Consequently, buildings are where 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions are generated, and are increasingly the focus for many professionals who find hope in the soaring global green building marketplace that is working hard to slash these and many other impacts while enhancing the Triple-Bottom Line: economy, equity, and environment.

Wes Sullens

Wes Sullens is one of the United States’ leading experts in the circular economy as it connects with the wasteful, yet fast-changing buildings industry. Before his current post at USGBC, he led sustainable buildings and materials efforts for the aptly-named authority for East San Francisco Bay Area governments called StopWaste. I sat down with him to talk about building materials and what circular economy enthusiasts can learn from current events in the global green building market.

Jeremy Sigmon (JS): How is circular economy thinking finding its way into the building design and construction sector?

Wes Sullens (WS): In some ways, the circular economy has always been here, though not by the same name. Recycling, efficiency through waste reduction, and reduced consumption have always been at the top of the sustainability list. The power of the circular economy, however, is harnessing business forces to implement these environmental objectives. When the economics are done right, it can quickly attract the attention of upper level management at any business. This win-win for business and environment has been the engine behind the fast-growing green building industry, led by USGBC and its LEED certification program. I see real potential for the circular economy to unlock solutions to some of our biggest waste-related problems. 

Importantly, there are key factors that need to be considered in building materials selection, such as climate and health impacts, that look beyond traditional circular economy thinking. Leadership in materials procurement today carefully considers all of these factors: carbon intensity, impacts on human and environmental health, and the ability for materials to be cycled indefinitely.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation and C2C Outline of a Circular Economy
Ellen MacArthur Foundation and C2C Outline of a Circular Economy

JS: Those are important things to consider, but it’s quite a lot! What’s being done to assist professionals with the evaluation process?

WS: Product labeling schemes are a big help, facilitating a far better understanding of what products are made of and the weight of their impacts. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are a way to report lifecycle impacts from a product’s manufacture, use, and end of life stages. Health Product Declarations (HPDs) are reports that disclose the ingredients that make up a product.

It’s remarkable how little we know about even the most common building products and materials. Of course, we know if something is made from wood, plastic, or metal… but do we know where it came from or if the raw materials were procured sustainably? Were there harmful chemicals used during manufacturing that could be a problem in the supply chain, during installation, or in use? From a circular economy perspective, EPDs and HPDs help designers select for products and materials that can be cycled or cascaded into other uses once their current useful life is complete.

JS: Disclosing information doesn’t cut environmental and health impacts, does it? What’s the benefit?

WS: The promise of transparency is enabling better-informed decision making. Building designers have always been in the business of choosing between different designs and materials based on price, fitness, and quality. They want the most affordable material of the highest possible quality for the job at hand. Information on health and environment impacts offer another important dimension in this equation that has, until recently, been very opaque. Transparency on its own has led to improvements in building products. Manufacturers of products are now feeling pressure to use these labels, exposing potential inefficiencies and driving improvements.

The circular economy also benefits from transparency. With transparency, we can: select products based on lifecycle impacts; avoid additives that make materials less recyclable; and choose products made from reclaimed, rather than virgin sources. Without this kind of transparency, we’re in the dark!

JS: So, who’s doing this? Are there signs that it’s working?

WS: For a few years now, LEED has rewarded green building project teams that source building products and materials that carry one of these transparency labels. Uptake started slowly, but it’s been growing worldwide. The materials content in our newest version of LEED (LEED v4.1), which launched in March of 2019, has already attracted tremendous interest. LEED v4.1 rewards project teams that select products optimized for circularity, low-carbon, and less toxic ingredients. Manufacturers are redesigning products to excel in these three areas – one example is a new carpet product made from reclaimed fishing nets that were formerly polluting the oceans. Building owners are demanding these products, too. On their new flagship project in Silicon Valley, Google has undergone possibly the greatest scrutiny of material ingredient data of any project on the planet. These are tremendous market signals that are transforming the world of materials.

JS: What parting words of wisdom do you have for students of the circular economy and social enterprise?

WS: The ecological challenges facing our planet can seem daunting, but movements like green building and the circular economy have sparked imagination and innovation in the big, old, and often lagging construction industry. This is an exciting time and there are great, inspiring and really fun people working hard to find creative solutions. It’s time to look beyond the recycling bin… Join us!


What’s new in the war on food waste?

An interview with Winnow’s Marc Zornes. 

Image source: World Economic Forum/REUTERS/Ben Nelms

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 which is when he had his first of many inspiring sustainability conversations with global food waste expert and entrepreneur Marc Zornes, co-founder of Winnow, one of the top 100 fastest growing companies in Europe.

Whether in our homes, at the market, in transport from farms, or at the restaurant, food is so often wasted.  In developed countries, most of the waste occurs in kitchens or is left on the plate, since the food supply chain has been generally optimized so that minimal food is wasted from farm to market.  In less developed countries, the inverse is true: food may spoil at ports, in transport, or at the market due to inefficient supply systems, but the food that is purchased by consumers is usually consumed.

With a fast-growing global population and increasing pressures on global resources exacerbated by climate change, some have begun looking at increasing the end-to-end efficiency of our food system, from farm to fork, as an essential way to ensure we can feed the world today and tomorrow (see also McKinsey’s Resource Revolution, which Zornes coauthored).  What’s more, Marc Zornes has also discovered that fixing the problem is good for the environment and profitable, too.  I sat down with him to learn more about it.

Jeremy Sigmon (JS): Food waste appears to be a much bigger issue than I had previously imagined, and you think a lot about it.  What keeps you up at night?

American-born, London-based, international food waste warrior, Marc Zornes, founder of Winnow.

Marc Zornes (MZ): Food waste is one of the biggest environmental issues we have today.  We now know this because our data on the scale of the problem are getting clearer.  30% of all food that is grown is never eaten.  This is a $1 trillion problem that will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2030.  What keeps me up is how we scale solutions to address this issue.  This is one of the clearest win-win opportunities in environment and business.  We save money by throwing away less food, it is better for the environment, and it’s morally the right thing to do.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of solutions out there that can be scaled to address this issue.

JS: How is circular economy thinking finding its way into the food industry?

MZ: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation just released a major report that explores this topic: ‘Cities and Circular Economy for Food’.  For starters, nature’s food system is circular.  The question is how to reorient the industrial food system we’ve built.  Fundamentally, this begins with redesigning systems that radically minimize waste.  We then need robust systems for nutrient recovery rather than disposal.  Landfills release lots of methane gas and – for safety reasons – are actually not designed for decomposition.  We’ve found nutrient-rich cabbage in a landfill still trying to decompose decades later.  We need a coherent, systems approach to ensure we neither waste food nor lose its nutrients.

JS: I understand you’re focused on commercial kitchens.  What’s your approach?

MZ: We focus in on commercial kitchens because they have a big economic opportunity in food waste prevention.  Kitchens throw away about 15% of the food they buy, and the majority of the waste happens before it even gets to a plate.  By providing analytics on the waste generated and supporting the production planning process of the kitchen, we ultimately help cut the value of food waste in half or more.  This leads to big cost savings for the kitchen – from 3% to 8% of what they spend on food.  Of course, this is also a very attractive investment.  We deliver a 200% to 1,000% ROI to our clients in the first year.

Winnow Vision, released in March, is the newest weapon in the war on food waste, and powered by artificial intelligence.

JS: I just read about a new Winnow technology that could be a game-changer.  Tell us more!

MZ: The original ambition of Winnow was to use artificial intelligence (AI) to measure and analyse food waste in kitchens.  In order for food waste monitoring and measurement to be seamlessly integrated into a very busy commercial kitchen, you really need a fully automated system. When I founded Winnow in 2013, this automation wasn’t possible, so we built a system that asked staff to identify the food wasted on a touchscreen tablet.  Winnow Vision, our latest product, is the realisation of that original ambition.  Winnow Vision is a camera-based system that looks into the bin and uses computer vision to identify all food being wasted.  It really is a game-changer for our business and a great, practical example of AI for good.

JS: What parting words of wisdom do you have for students of the circular economy and social enterprise?

MZ: There’s a massive opportunity in helping the world transition to a low-carbon, more circular economy.  My biggest advice: if you have something you believe in that needs building, build it.  We don’t have a lot of time and we need more solutions to scale.  It’s hard work for sure.  That said, it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

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Slowing down fast fashion: a dress to save the planet

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.


Plastics, are they really that bad?

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:

  1. Avoid – if you don’t need it, stop it
  2. Reduce
  3. Reuse and refill
  4. Recycle
  5. Create energy from waste
  6. Avoid landfills and oceans

Thank you Dr Jake Backus for the educational and engaging talk!

Image source