January 14, 2022

'If we're in the business of saving the planet, we must get serious about working together', says Circle Economy Founder

An interview with Robert-Jan van Ogtrop, Founder of Circle Economy, written by Laxmi Haigh, Lead of Editorial at Circle Economy
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Lead of Editorial
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Robert-Jan van Ogtrop
Founder, Circle Economy

Sustainable and circular businesses must decouple their business goals from that of the linear economy to fulfil their ultimate goal: saving the planet.

The linear economy not only perpetrates a system where raw materials are exploited—extracted, used and rapidly disposed of—but it is the backdrop to a competitive and self-interested business world driven by disparate purposes. Far too often, goals centred on profit also trash the planet. And this is cruelly ironic, as in the long-term a global circular economy that bypasses risks inherent in the linear economy—such as supply chain collapse and a failure to innovate in the face of new laws or regulations—will amass more profits.

Take the revelation that due to embedded financial models, it was more cost-effective for Amazon to destroy tonnes of unsold stock, rather than to resell it. When success hinges on economic indicators, the planet suffers: if the will was there, Amazon—which has proven to have the wit to sell more or less anything—would likely have a thriving resale platform. So what about businesses that are committed to transforming the linear activities that overshoot our planet’s natural boundaries? It's not easy going against the grain: being circular in a linear world means challenging norms of competition long embedded in the corporate mindset. 

One person suited to answer this question is Dutch businessman Robert-Jan van Ogtrop, who himself pivoted from the ‘power-fuelled’ business world towards not-for-profit space. In 2011, Robert-Jan founded Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based impact organisation that works with businesses, cities and nations to accelerate the adoption of the circular economy. 

I sat down with Robert-Jan on the modest precipice of Amsterdam’s iconic canals to discuss why businesses need to swap out competition for radical collaboration to encourage a global circular economy. Without this step, we may fail to scale the circular economy to the heights needed to save the planet—enacted globally, a circular economy can get us on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. And that's all of our business.

Photo from the Circle Economy website.

‘The whole story of the circular economy is nothing more than finding an economic and social system that fits the way the planet works’

After a successful career in the business world of the linear economy—‘ego-fuelled, macho rat race’ quips Robert-Jan—he experienced what many would call a spiritual revelation. During an immersive experience in the African foothills of Botswana, one thing became clear: there is more to life than doing business and making money. So, what is at the heart of life’s purpose? Safeguarding nature and our planet.

‘Whether we like it or not, we happen to live on a planet that has a fully circular system: the shape, the day and night, the four seasons. In nature, everything is so brilliantly designed that in every cycle, if something dies off—it's food for the next cycle. That is the way that planet Earth works.’

‘It was a crazy idea to put a linear economy on a circular planet. Initially, we may not have had many problems when it was small-scale. But now that we are overshooting all planetary boundaries, there is no space for a linear economy.’

​​Making his dream a reality, Robert-Jan began serving as Chairman of African Parks, an organisation that drives the restoration of national parks across Africa in collaboration with local communities, boosting biodiversity, water catchment areas and more. He also founded Circle Economy—which he notes has been successful in bringing the circular economy to a range of businesses, cities and nations. 'But the actions of one organisation is not enough to scale the circular transition globally. With that very insight, we must team up and start thinking about scaling,' he adds.

During an immersive experience in Botswana, one thing became clear: safeguarding nature and our planet is at the heart of life's purpose. Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

The circular economy can transform entire value chains from design to end-of-life

The circular economy as an alternative economic model to the dominant linear one is far closer to the natural functioning of the Earth. It follows three core tenets: designing out waste and pollution, regenerating natural systems and reusing products and materials. And although somewhat simple on paper, applying it to a global economy is complex: there is no simple straight-line solution and feedback loops run in all directions

Linear conduct is embedded across value chains, and therefore circular strategies must span industries and multiple stages of a product’s value chain, from extraction to end-of- life. And of course, a product’s lifespan may well span geographies and sectors. From imports and primary production, processing and manufacturing, wholesale and retail, household consumption, redistribution, exports, and finally waste collection and management, the life cycle of various products is not simple.

This makes the circular economy an intrinsically multi-stakeholder model that necessitates cross-sector and boundary-blurring engagement. Ultimately: collaboration. 

Take the circular strategy of Industrial Symbiosis (IS) that takes its inspiration from nature: all waste feeds new life. In IS, one company's waste product becomes a valuable resource for another. This entails collaboration between companies from different sectors and promoting cross-sector and cross-cycle collaborations by creating a market for secondary materials within regions or industry clusters. A grand example of this in action is in the British city of Birmingham, where the city council has spearheaded city-wide IS initiatives. So far, it already touts a reduction of 1.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, a cutback in the amount of industrial waste going to landfills and the impressive creation of over three thousand new jobs.

Meanwhile the Capital Equipment Coalition, hosted by Circle Economy, is a coalition of businesses spanning Europe and North America that share knowledge to contribute to the global circular economy transition. Global use of capital equipment—ranging from MRI scanners to agricultural equipment—represents a significant proportion of all material use (7 billion tonnes annually) and current waste generation. They accelerate the implementation of circular practices internally (through organisational change) and across the value chain (through external engagement of suppliers and customers) by sharing knowledge, best practices and working together in their respective fields to drive circular innovation.

Clearly, to enact circular change, and bring about positive environmental and social impact, circular businesses must pivot away from the linear tendencies of competition and self-interest.

Radical collaboration over competition: a must for a global circular economy

Harnessing a global circular economy also demands scaling enabling activities such as introducing coherent metrics and measurements, consolidating the language and definitions of the circular economy and driving research into the blindspots of its implementation, amongst others. Active organisations in the field tout a rich range of skill sets in this respect, but each is limited in what it can achieve alone. ‘Let's work together, harness these skill sets and amplify our voices.’ 

This is why Robert-Jan recently became a board member of PACE (the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy), a global community of leaders working together to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Current members include Circle Economy, the World Resources Institute and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

‘PACE is the first initiative to bring these organisations together. In working together and utilising the complementary skill sets of organisations, we can be far more powerful. It has allowed us to approach the big players who could really scale the circular economy, such as the European Union or the US administration under Biden. Together, we can supply the materials and know-how to guide businesses, cities and governments.’

It's taken a long time to get to the point that businesses are willing to collaborate, notes Robert-Jan. ‘But if you want to make a difference on these huge-scale topics that ultimately hold the future of the planet at their core, you need to collaborate. And the need is there: the Circularity Gap Report 2020 found the world to only be 8.6% circular.’

Daring to go circular in a linear world isn’t easy—but working together will lighten the load. And radical collaboration in the spirit of circularity will see us leaving linear behind—which is in the best interests of us all; even the business executive.

About PACE

The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) is a global community of leaders, across business, government and civil society, working together to develop a collective agenda and drive ambitious action to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. It was initiated at the World Economic Forum and is currently hosted by the World Resources Institute.

About Circle Economy

We are a global impact organisation with an international team of passionate experts based in Amsterdam. We empower businesses, cities and nations with practical and scalable solutions to put the circular economy into action. Our vision is an economic system that ensures the planet and all people can thrive. To avoid climate breakdown, our goal is to double global circularity by 2032.

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