Chief executives from multinational corporations and civil society organisations will meet this week to debate and make choices about our joint future. It has been tasked with responding to the climate emergency, and there is a palpable feeling of urgency in the air at this time. When confronted with the reality of our current situation, it is easy to get bewildered. When the benefits of action outweigh the costs of inaction, there is unmistakable evidence that we have made progress — and, indeed, significant progress — in the fight against climate change, it is difficult not to notice a sad mismatch between the onerous, impressive routes that existing climate promises will still lead us down in the future. Consider the fact that we have failed to fully recognise or monitor hundreds of emission sources, including — most critically for this audience — considerable emissions, which will exceed coal-fired power plant emissions in the United States by 2030, if current trends continue.

The feelings of pessimism and despair are a natural reaction to this situation. Despite the fact that Sir David Attenborough’s soothing voice has served as a metaphorical life raft in the face of a sensation that has been devouring me recently, I’ll admit to you, dear reader, that it has done so recently. The late Sir David Attenborough described this as a “moment of change” from the stage of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), and it is this sentiment that I transmit today. Not one of unbridled optimism, nor one of unrealistic optimism, but rather one of desperate hope that we will rise to meet this moment with every tool at our disposal, including circularity, and that we will be victorious in our endeavours to do so. Climate change is threatened by a triple threat from the circular economy: it reduces emissions by extending the life of embedded carbon in products and materials; it reduces waste and pollution by designing it completely out of the system; and it increases ecological resilience by regenerating natural systems. It has been nicknamed “the war on carbon emissions” because of the efforts being made to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But after reading desperate quotes, I got a more realistic and generalized idea of how important it is.

This approach considers and tackles the topic of total global greenhouse gas emissions as a starting point for further discussion. There has already been a determination on a list of priorities. Despite this, the vast majority of governments and enterprises, with the exception of a few notable outliers, are failing to make the connection between circular economy principles and emission-reduction roadmaps. For obvious reasons, measuring a truly circular system is a difficult endeavour, and a completely circular system will demand system-wide, paradigm-shifting reforms in our organisations and economies in order to be fully realised and maintained. Or perhaps the possibility is too frightening to contemplate. Although the situation is urgent, we cannot afford to ignore the tremendous impact that a cyclical shift may have on the situation any longer. The moment has come for me to make some specific ideas now that I have exhausted my stock of clichés.

I spoke with three business leaders that are attempting to change the narrative by integrating circular and climate strategies into their search for success in order to achieve greater success. With experiences spanning from automotive to fashion to food, they were able to get significant insight into what it takes to embrace circularity and reach a net-zero energy future. — A representative of BMW is Adam Sykes, who serves as vice president of government affairs and corporate communications for the Americas and the Caribbean. The phrase “you genuinely need to acquire a different frame of mind” was used by Sykes. As a result, “Make everything circular” is BMW’s initial guiding philosophy in their circular economy strategy, and it is past time to take immediate action. It is past time to alter mindsets, build a diverse network of vital contacts, and make constant investments in one’s own personal and professional development.

To begin at the most fundamental level, this attitude shift begins with individual materials, which are envisaged and created for their next existence from the start, whereas their final incarnation is no longer seen as waste, but rather as an invaluable resource in its own right. As the idea of circularity evolves, it serves as a prism through which to view and evolve the whole value chain, as well as the process of value creation itself on a more global level. — Jeannie Renne-Malone, vice president of global sustainability at VF Corporation

For any organisation, there is no such thing as a “island.” For the systems transformation that both the circular economy and carbon pledges require, Renne-Malone noted that “you need to build up your network of partners… to assist you in reaching those goals.” “You need to expand your network of business associates…” The process involves all stakeholders, each of whom has a specific function to perform. The employment of regenerative agricultural techniques by producers, the provision of repairable or recyclable components by manufacturers, the exchange of industry-wide best practises, and even the promise by consumers that products would be returned after a long and useful life are all possibilities. Through the development of a meaningful partnership, you will have the opportunity to both harness external effect and influence the processes of your partners in order to secure a reduction in carbon emissions. In order to execute daring action, “courageous collaboration” is necessary from all parties. Emily Johannes, a director of sustainable sourcing at Nestlé, leads the company’s efforts.

While acknowledging that “we don’t have it all worked out,” Johannes feels it is important to remember that they don’t have everything figured out. CO2 reductions can be difficult to quantify, partnerships can be difficult to establish, and system improvements can take a long time to become effective. The reality is that testing, learning, and adapting “constantly” are required in order to create a future that we haven’t seen before. Demonstrating impact over time through prototypes and pilots provides a chance for experimentation and development, while measurements and monitoring, where available, assist in prioritising projects and demonstrating effect over time. “The key to attaining success under this paradigm is… finding out what is going to work and what isn’t,” Johannes explained while explaining a pilot programme as part of Nestle’s overarching strategy. For the purpose of truly pushing the frontiers of innovation… and then providing an economic advantage [so that environmental successes may be perpetuated eternally].” It is past time to take significant action in this situation. It is past time to alter mindsets, build a diverse network of vital contacts, and make constant investments in one’s own personal and professional development. If we are successful in our endeavour, we may be able to see a ray of hope.

A Desperate Hope to Meet at This Moment