University of Bristol

Interview with Professor Palie Smart, PhD, Head of School, School of Management on the key role higher education plays in the transition to a circular economy.

1. When did you first come in contact with the circular economy? What was your lightbulb moment and what was it about the circular economy that inspired you?

As a sociologist with an engineering and management background, I have always been interested in how people organise for economic, environmental, and societal benefit. During my PhD at Cranfield and my work within the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Cranfield-Cambridge-Imperial-Loughborough Industrial Sustainability Centre of Excellence, I began to work on the concept of the circular economy. Cranfield became one of the pioneer partners with the Foundation around that time, and I took greater interest in new ideas concerning the circular economy and circularity in the global enterprising organisations. The circular economy is an opportunity for all, but also a driving force for a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

2. Higher education plays a key role in the transition to a circular economy. How do you see higher education as a way forward for the circular economy?

As someone who leads a School of Management, we can influence the way young people view their role in the world beyond academia. We have a motto to “develop the next generation of leaders and global citizens“. We can do more of this through our teaching, research, and engagement activities. We are the first UK Business and Management school to declare a Climate Emergency.

3. Having recently joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Profiled Universities - and as a Member of the Network, could you elaborate on how the University of Bristol is including circular economy teaching in it’s curriculum?

Major initiatives include the CABOT Institute for Environmental Sustainability and our commitment to sustainability as part of sustainable future on-line programmes that are open to everyone. We are ranked No.1 on the People and Planet in the Russell Group Universities League Table.

4. The university published its circular economy strategy three years ago focusing on managing its resources through a circular economy approach. How much progress has been made against the targets? How has awareness of the circular economy increased amongst staff and students increased in that time? And, what have been the main challenges so far?

The aims of the University’s Circular Economy strategy are focused on resource efficiency, minimising our environmental impacts via procurement and supply chain activity; use and lifecycle; end of life management, with a strong focus on the waste hierarchy, ultimately delivering improved cost management. More recently, we have set up a University Sustainability Council led by our PVC of Global Engagement to help deliver this strategy and address emerging challenges; with the context of Bristol’s One City Climate Strategy 2030.

5. Students moving through higher education systems are a key group of catalysts who can be mobilised to learn, think, and act differently to impact the linear system and act as agents of change. What do your students think about the circular economy? How do you envisage they will take that knowledge forward in their careers?

Having an awareness of the global economic system with a circular economy lens helps younger generations think about the economic, social, and environmental impacts of organisations in a way that hasn’t been done before. There is no better time to be alive and deliver on UN 2050 ambitions. We have little choice, but to act. Assuming the precautionary principle in the face of a resource contained planet is the humane position to take.

My concerns lie with those that are happy to ‘sound-off’ but never commit to action. However, some do have galvanising powers to mobilise a social movement that has potential for positive impact. The role of technology needs to be harnessed but not seen as a panacea for a sustainable future. Fundamentally, we need to change how people think about their relationship with the natural environment and their fellow persons.

6. Your research and teaching interests are in the fields of operations and innovation management. How important is the role of academic research in terms of policy and decision-makers, to drive the transition to a circular economy? Can you give an example from your own experience?

My own work in leading journals such as Research Policy, Journal of Operations and Product Management and Journal of Product Innovation Management on Industrial sustainability espouses the grand vision of a generative, restorative, and net positive economy, and calls for a future research trajectory to address institutional and systemic issues regarding scaling-up and transition, through transformative strategies. Some of this work is supporting the Government UK Made Smarter Digitalisation ambitions towards a Cleaner and Net Zero economy.

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DS Smith

Interview with Miles Roberts, Group Chief Executive at DS Smith, on why the circular economy is the way forward and how the packaging industry is adapting to the circular economy.

1. DS Smith is committed to accelerating the transition to a circular economy as part of its sustainability strategy and targets, including manufacturing 100% reusable or recyclable packaging. What made you realise the circular economy was the way forward?

Sustainability and circularity is at the heart of everything we do. When I first joined DS Smith, we could see the importance and growing awareness of sustainability, alongside the potential benefit it could bring to the business. This is why we made it a central pillar of our strategy and we’ve significantly evolved the structure of our business to allow us to focus on this – from expanding our recycling operations to completing the sale of our Plastics Division earlier this year. We are now focused on sustainable, fibre-based packaging solutions.

Fibre is the original renewable resource for packaging, and it’s more relevant than ever. Today, we’re Europe’s largest recycler of paper and cardboard, managing more materials than we put back on the market. We take a significant amount of the paper for recycling and use it within our leading ‘box-to-box’ in 14 day process, which can see fibre reused up to 25 times. With the help of legislators and industry, the reuse of fibre has grown with recycling rates now standing at 85.8% across Europe.

2. DS Smith developed, in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular Design Principles to help support companies design reuse and recyclability into their packaging. How does DS Smith intend to apply these principles with their customers?

Our Circular Design Principles are the culmination of work across our business to develop and institute a series of fundamental guidelines when it comes to designing sustainable packaging solutions. Our 700-strong design team is therefore able to provide the best consultancy to our customers, working with them at our Impact and PackRight Centres to develop personalised solutions which respond to their needs in the most efficient and sustainable way possible.

By sharing our Circular Design Principles with our customers and key stakeholders – who are already well-versed in the sustainable products that we provide – they’ll also be better educated on how they too can implement them within their own processes.

3. The packaging system is going through a fundamental rethink. Adopting a circular business model allows for the reuse and reprocessing of materials at a pace that keeps up with their production. Can you elaborate on how the packaging industry is adapting to the circular economy? And what role does DS Smith play in this transition?

We believe that most consumers appreciate the role that packaging plays in society – it protects products and keeps food fresher for longer. And most brand owners and retailers appreciate the value that packaging brings in terms of building brands and communicating to consumers, especially given the decline in the efficacy of advertising and the growth of e-commerce. What we must do is ensure our packaging is designed for the circular economy; sustainably sourced, using no more material than necessary, recyclable and recycled in practice.

Fibre-based packaging is the most recycled material in Europe, with a recycling rate of 85.8%. There is an established infrastructure, a mature market for recycled content and very high consumer awareness that fibre-based packaging can be recycled. To that end, we’re in a great, circular position. Meanwhile, we are working closely with customers across e-commerce, apparel and the industrial sector to respond to trend towards reusable packaging particularly in relation to materials with lower recycling rates.

At DS Smith, we’ve also been actively working to reduce plastic packaging by innovating in sectors where sustainable fibre-based packaging can make a big difference for retailers, thereby reducing plastic use. Our designers across Europe have already developed over 650 designs focused specifically on plastic replacement and available to our customers.

We believe the industry is well placed to lead the way in the transition to a circular economy and having already embedded this model into our business, we will continue to focus our efforts on this critical area.

4. DS Smith has completed a Circulytics assessment to measure the circularity of the business. How useful was this process and what have you learnt from the results? How has it helped you identify opportunities to move more quickly from a linear to a circular model?

As one of the pilot partners, we found Circulytics encouraged us to take a considered look at the whole business and how we are enabling and driving circularity across different functions, which in turn provided the business with the right intelligence to inform our strategy.

Measuring a company’s preparedness and successes in transitioning to a more circular economy is key to moving the wider economy forward. As our assessment noted, we have made significant investments into systems, processes and infrastructure which are suited to a circular way of doing business.

We know there is still more to do and one of our biggest challenges is putting in place tracking to increase transparency of where products end up at the end of use, as well as being able to engage the right organisations to ensure cycling of DS Smith's products is increased. However, we are also excited to embed training and development, such as EMF Masterclasses, across the business to engage everyone at DS Smith in the circular economy.

5. What are the challenges you faced adopting a circular economy business model and how did you overcome these?

As a business, we’ve grown significantly over the past decade through both acquisition and organic growth and one of our key challenges was ensuring that each new acquisition was aligned and engaged in delivering not only our sustainability strategy, but also our circular economy commitments. We believe that engaging our workforce and the wider communities in which we operate presents a big opportunity to continue to embed a transition to the circular economy.

We’ve also faced broader sustainability challenges similar to other industrial companies, specifically around potential changes in water availability and of course continuing to reduce carbon emissions. We have various projects underway to mitigate our exposure to carbon emissions risk and we’ve reduced emissions relative to production by more than 30% since 2011.

We are ambitious in terms of our Sustainability Strategy goals and continue to review our approach on a regular basis to ensure we are pushing our business to achieve more. That’s why we will be launching a new strategy in the coming months – one which not only prepares us for short-term challenges, but allows us to lead for the next generation.

6. As the chief executive of a company committed to accelerating the transition to a circular economy, what inspires you? What are your ambitions to do things differently?

I am inspired by our people, customers and the communities within which we operate all of whom are proactively seeking to address the challenges we face every day, whether it’s recycling in their homes or working with us to develop innovative new packaging for their products.

As a society, we have a big challenge in transitioning towards the circular economy, but it doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. In fact, even as we’ve transformed as a business, we’ve been able to continue growing and supporting our employees and communities across the world. We will continue to embed our purpose of ‘Redefining Packaging for a Changing World’ into everything we do.

Fibre is the original renewable resource for packaging, and it’s more relevant than ever. Today, we’re Europe’s largest recycler of paper and cardboard, managing more materials than we put back on the market. We take a significant amount of the paper for recycling and use it within our leading ‘box-to-box’ in 14 day process, which can see fibre reused up to 25 times. With the help of legislators and industry, the reuse of fibre has grown with recycling rates now standing at 85.8% across Europe.

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Inter IKEA Group

Lena Pripp-Kovak, Inter IKEA Group’s Chief Sustainability Officer, talks about how IKEA plans to become a fully circular business by 2030, and how the circular economy can help with recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

1. IKEA is committed to becoming a circular business by 2030. What made you realise the circular economy was the way forward — did you have a lightbulb moment?

Transforming to a circular business is a very logical next step for us. The IKEA business is guided by our vision to create a better everyday life for many people, and our roots in the stony landscape of Småland, in Southern Sweden, has always driven us to make the best possible use of the limited resources available.

Being circular is both a responsibility and a good business opportunity. We know that customer behaviour is changing and that there is a growing awareness of the impact of wasteful consumption.

As a global home furnishing and food brand we want to inspire and enable healthier and more sustainably living within the boundaries of the planet. This includes addressing people’s needs in relation to how they acquire things, how they care for and restore value in the things they love, and how they pass on the things they no longer want, by offering circular products, and services.

We also know that resources are limited and that we must find smarter ways to use them.

Transforming into a circular business is the way forward.

2. In transitioning to a circular business model, what specific actions are you taking regarding the three principles of the circular economy? Designing out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use at their highest possible value, and regenerate natural systems.

IKEA will design all products from the very beginning to be repurposed, repaired, reused, resold, or, as the last step in material recovery, recycled, generating as little waste as possible. It’s about seeing IKEA products as material banks for the future. We have developed circular product design principles to guide us through this process.

The circular approach is also crucial to finding new and innovative ways to work with renewable and recycled materials, and reducing our climate footprint. We aim to only use renewable or recycled materials by 2030. Today, more than 60% of the IKEA product range is based on renewable materials, like wood and cotton, and more than 10% contains recycled materials.

We are committed to regenerating resources, protecting ecosystems, and improving biodiversity. Forestry will always be a key focus area and we strive to become forest positive. We will also continue to source from more sustainable sources as well as broadening our focus.

3. What are the challenges you anticipate, or have already faced, in transitioning to a circular business model? How do you plan to overcome these challenges?

The challenge is that it impacts our business in all aspects: how and where we meet our customers, how and what products and services we develop, how we source materials, and how we develop the IKEA supply chain.

One current challenge is that there is a shortage of clean, recycled materials, such as plastics and textiles, and we are working to increase global availability. This is an important element of minimising environmental impact and moving towards a circular economy.

4. How will the circular economy help in the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, in terms of decoupling growth from finite resources and building resilience?

Even if the outbreak calls for urgent action here and now, it is important to not lose sight of our long-term commitments. A more modern, inclusive, and circular economy built on renewable energy will increase our resilience and be the way forward. Now is the time to also look ahead and lay the groundwork for a positive recovery for people, society and the planet. We will engage and collaborate with other industries, policy makers, businesses, experts, and NGO’s in communities and across borders to turn the challenges into opportunities and strive to achieve the positive changes we want to make happen.

5. You say you will promote circular offers to your customers and inspire new behaviour — could you tell us a bit more about that?

We see our relationship with our customers as a vital part of our transformation into a circular business. Developing opportunities for all customers to acquire, care for, and pass on products in circular ways is how we will continue to reach towards our vision to create a better everyday life for many people.

This is our chance to promote and enable a more affordable, healthier, and sustainable life at home. Through the development of circular products suited for care and repair, services supporting reuse and refurbishment, and the exploration of new platforms for sharing and leasing, we aim to make a big impact.

6. IKEA has been exploring the idea of ‘product as a service’ business models — can you tell us what you have learnt? We know this works well with digital offerings, such as Netflix and Spotify, for example, but what has been your experience of this business model with regards to physical products?

As the first step in verifying our approach to refurbishment and resale, we are testing our refurbishment capabilities. The first test took place in late FY19, where sofas were collected

from customers, refurbished, and resold. The focus of the test is to understand the potential flows of products (repackaging, loading/unloading options, storage), the capabilities needed for refurbishment (what condition is the sofa in what is the defect, what repair is needed and how much time and cost will it take to fix?) within our existing supplier base and with external partners, and the customer perception of refurbished products when they are resold.

Creating a better understanding of these areas and gaining practical knowledge will enable us to conduct further tests in scalability, and price fluidity as we aim to offer an even more affordable option through the sales of refurbished products.

7. Can you tell us about your background and career path? What inspires you?

I have worked for almost 25 years in sustainable development. What inspires me the most is to see how more and more young people are bringing energy, awareness and open minds, and are ready to make a change. They are looking for possibilities to create a positive impact and build the future they want.

8. IKEA has been working with the Foundation for a number of years, why is now the time to elevate the partnership?

Transforming into a circular economy requires more than ever that we work together – many changes are needed in society. We are very happy to take the next step in our collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to both advance our own transition and to make the circular economy a central part of the home furnishing industry. One of our first projects together will be to develop a global common dictionary on the circular economy that can support an industry-wide transition.

9. What excites you about the Strategic Partnership with the Foundation?

Our common ambition excited me - to make a real lasting impact on a large scale and drive the transformation to a circular society for many people. by putting the home furnishing business on the global circular map. I’m happy to work together with a fact based approach to find new innovative solutions.

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