Going round in circles

Is the circular economy just another fancy concept, so beloved of sustainability professionals, or a practical way forward for politicians and business people alike?

Writing here last month I previewed the book I’ve been working on recently. Published on March 15 by Biteback, The Green Book addresses a narrow audience – public policy makers with a liberal ideological outlook, whether in or outside the Liberal Democrats – but it asks a big question, one that affects us all: what does the economy and society look like if we are to move successfully to a low carbon world?

A lot of the answers come back to issues addressed in the ‘circular economy’ concept: simply put, doing more with less, whether resources, energy, waste or overall usage. Arguably there’s nothing new in this. Walter Stahel is credited with coining the phrase ‘cradle to cradle’ back in the 1970s. More recently the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been promoting the concept – supported by companies such Kingfisher, especially its subsidiary, the retailer B&Q, which is adopting a Net Positive strategy.

Politicians too have been picking up on it, and not just in the LibDems. In March Labour front bench spokesman Gavin Shuker called for government action to boost investor confidence in the transition to a circular economy. In the coalition government, Defra and BIS are supporting a Green Alliance circular economy taskforce involving companies like BASF, Boots, Interface, Unilever and Veolia.

The challenge facing everyone – companies with goods to sell as much as political parties with votes to win – is how to make such a big transition through a series of gradual steps. Moving to a circular economy, based on low carbon energy and zero waste production and consumption cycles, is certainly not easy.

As I said last month, our book advocates an expanded role for the Green Investment Bank, to lead a programme of public infrastructure investment. It says citizens need to live more sustainable lifestyles, helped to make the right choices by much tougher energy efficiency standards. Governments have a key role by regulating in ways that help business to make the investments needed for their long term prosperity.

Overwhelmingly clear from our research is that business needs government to act. Going round in circles, passing the buck back and forth, is simply no longer an option.

For more on The Green Book project, see here http://www.green-book.org.uk/

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