Can the circular economy stop capitalism trashing the planet?

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SIMON LAMBERT: Can adopting a circular economy stop capitalism trashing the planet – and get your toaster fixed?

Some of the Extinction Rebellion campers believe an end to capitalism is the answer to the planet's problems, but the circular economy encourages businesses to do better

Some of the Extinction Rebellion campers believe an end to capitalism is the answer to the planet’s problems, but the circular economy encourages businesses to do better

In the mid-1920s, the world’s light bulb makers got together to form the Phoebus cartel and came up with a cunning plan.

As well as dishing out territories and stamping down on competition, they decided to drag down the life expectancy of light bulbs to 1,000 hours.

Bulbs would be tested and any member making them last longer would be fined.

I picture the cartel’s secret plan to build in obsolescence and boost profits being hatched in a shadowy room, but considering its members’ business they were probably more likely to have insisted on somewhere brightly lit.

The Phoebus cartel lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War, but the consequences of baking this into the industry stretched much further – both in terms of the world’s post-war lightbulb consumption and other industries where similar tactics were adopted.

We’ve come a long way on lightbulbs – and now pay considerably more attention to making them last as long as possible – but we still suffer from the effects of what is characterised as take-make-waste.

This business philosophy sees companies take resources, make something to sell, and then the product is wasted at the end of its life – at which point there is an opportunity to flog a fresh one.

It’s what’s known as the linear economy and can be seen throughout our modern day world: from household appliances and electronics that can’t be fixed, to industrial farming that strips land of nutrients, and plastic packaging that can’t be recycled.

That latter element is one of the great scandals of our time. Companies have sold us an increasing amount of stuff, in an increasing amount of plastic packaging, much of which cannot be easily recycled.

This seems to have been done out of a combination of laziness (they couldn’t be bothered), and profiteering (they would have made a little less money).

It also involved taking us for a ride, as most of us stupidly thought a lot of the offending plastic was being recycled, but no, from crisp packets to supermarket meat trays, it couldn’t be.

This disposable ideology was dominant as capitalism and the consumer economy rampaged through the world, raising living standards but unfortunately trashing the planet in the process.

We’ve belatedly wised up to that not being such a great idea, but what can we do about this linear economy problem?

The answer, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, founded by the famous British yachtswoman, is to adopt the philosophy of the circular economy instead.

‘A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems’, it says.

Let's go round again: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, founded by the famous British sailor, pictured, promotes the circular economy, which is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Let’s go round again: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, founded by the famous British sailor, pictured, promotes the circular economy, which is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

This week a Circular Economy fund was launched by Blackrock, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest partner, to offer ordinary investors the chance to support – and hopefully profit from – firms adopting the approach.

Blackrock says it wants to drive investment in firms contributing to and benefiting from the transition to a circular economy.

Presumably, it has also spotted an opportunity to leap aboard a bandwagon gathering momentum, something neatly illustrated by a walk to the tube after the launch event that took me through the burgeoning Extinction Rebellion camp at Trafalgar Square.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s expertise lies in how it helps firms big and small embrace the concept of the circular economy, rather than keep ploughing ahead with take-make-break business as usual.

It also gives a leg-up to those companies doing the innovative things that can make a difference in creating a better way of doing stuff.

It’s easy and tempting to dismiss this type of stuff as green washing, yet if you think about it properly it is hugely important.

A sudden global shift to socialism isn’t going to happen, so we need to get capitalism on side 

Getting money to the innovators and encouraging existing businesses to change their ways is essential to stemming the pollution and waste the modern world churns out and to meeting climate targets, such as the 1.5 degree global warming cap.

Despite what some of the more deluded Extinction Rebellion campers may believe, a sudden global shift to socialism isn’t going to happen, so we need to get capitalism on side.

Speaking at the fund launch this week, Ellen MacArthur Foundation CEO Andrew Morlet spoke of three key areas for it, plastics, food and fashion and said that 45% of the world’s carbon emissions come from how we make and use products and produce what we eat.

All the things we are exhorted to do personally can collectively make a difference, but to really improve the situation wide-scale change at government and big company level is needed.

Maybe it doesn’t go far enough, but Unilever’s decision to halve its use of new plastics by 2025 is worth far more than any of us could ever put in our recycling bins.

The circular economy idea also tackles something that really bugs me – and I suspect many of our readers too: the infuriating wastefulness of our disposal society, where it is cheaper to throw something away than get it fixed.

I for one will back any philosophy that espouses getting a toaster mended rather than lobbing it into landfill.

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