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What Was Abuzz at Circularity ’19

Lauren Phipps, Circularity '19 conference organizer set the stage

The concept of a Circular Economy has been bubbling up for decades now. Inklings of the model began appearing in the 1960s, took form with Walter Stahel’s conceptualization of “Cradle to Cradle” in the 1970s, and resurfaced with William McDonough & Michael Braungart’s aptly titled 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle. 

The model is simple, and focuses on three core principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

This summer, GreenBiz put on its first-ever Circularity Conference, and I had the pleasure of attending; here are a few conference takeaways:

Lauren Phipps, conference organizer, set the stage by telling the crowd, “it’s all about creating the conditions for the outcomes we want to design.”  

Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, noted that the Foundation does not mention  “sustainability” in its reports, as they feel it poses a risk of polarization. They focus instead on the economy, as having a thriving economy is something everyone can agree on. Further, Andrew noted that we have 160 million designers on the planet, but most are designing for a linear economy. 
Vector Image of Linear vs Circular Economy
William McDonough challenged conference goers to reconsider the term “end of life” for products. Instead, he put forth the term “end of use” to describe the point at which a product is done serving its purpose.  

Lexmark’s Chris Saunders  discussed the challenges of Right To Repair  –  that is, the right for consumers to be able to understand and repair products they own. He noted that despite the company’s commitment to producing products with an extended life (in some cases they’ve had printers in operation for 20+ years) a common sentiment among their customers is, “This printer is 5 years old. I need to replace it.” There is a fundamental consumer shift that needs to occur, and tech manufacturers like Lexmark and HP are offering new “Device as a Service”  business models to encourage product longevity.

Google’s Kate Brandt  shared her work on A Circular Google, how Google is embodying the Circular Economy. Zeroing in on circularity’s second core principle (keeping products and materials in use), she noted that the tech giant has been taking components from old servers and installing them in new machines, and remanufacturing new servers our of old components. This shift in thinking not only saves material resources, it has saved the company hundreds of millions of dollars. (You can read more in the A Circular Google white paper 

As a side note, Google implements the three principles by applying three broad guidelines to the wide range of systems the company employs:  

  1. Define scope and boundaries 
  2. Understand flows 
  3. Set sub-goals

Sound familiar, LCA practitioners? 

The conference atmosphere was energetic and enthusiastic, with many more tales of successes and struggles than I’ve captured here. I’m still riding the buzz from Circularity ’19, and look forward to my next GreenBiz event.


About the Author

Samuel Boduch, EarthShift Global’s Account Manager and Operations Coordinator,Sam Boduch is EarthShift Global's Account Manager and Operations Coordinator uses his strong business acumen to facilitate business-to-business relationships with our clients and partners, as well as coordinate operational efforts within EarthShift Global. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Management and Finance from Plymouth State University and a Master’s in Business Administration in Sustainability from Antioch University New England. He has worked as a systems administrator for a medium size manufacturer, a retirement specialist for a global investment firm, an education coordinator for a seacoast non-profit, and was recognized as a 2013 finalist for UNH’s Social Venture Innovation Challenge for his work on ReRootEd, a local food aggregation company.