Businessman hoping to support the circular economy holds up small green leaf
iStock | Tero Vesalainen

You already go without straws and bring your Tupperware to the office. Your company may even have flirted with sustainability metrics or ESG investors. But whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, the founder of a fast-growing startup, or a rank-and-file desk jockey, there’s probably more your organization could be doing to support the circular economy. How can you get the ball rolling?

Here are five circular approaches for sustainability-starved businesspeople!

1. Get buy-in from upper management.

Research shows that support from leadership and management is the most vital step for driving the transition to a circular business model. If you’re struggling, experts recommend pointing company leaders towards industry-level involvement opportunities, like summits and conferences. From there, they’ll have a front-row seat of their peers’ and competitors’ initiatives to support the circular economy.

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2. Divide and conquer.

It’s easier to make one part of your business model circular than to overhaul the whole thing from the get-go. Here are five ideas for making your business model more circular, one piece at a time.

Make it without making it.

What if you could satisfy your customers’ needs without making or even selling a physical product? Ask yourself if you could earn the same profit by offering a leased product or a service. By reducing the need to endlessly manufacture physical goods, you reduce consumption and the overall use of natural resources.

Rental businesses are especially hot in the startup space right now. From clothes to furniture, people will rent just about anything.

Extend product value.

Sometimes used products have life left in them. These products can be refurbished, remanufactured, recycled for parts, or even resold. These processes extend a product’s value, decrease the use of resources, and in many cases, create jobs.

For example, Dell reduced its carbon footprint by 11% through a closed-loop plastic recycling system. TruCost consultancy reports that the entire computer industry would save over 700 million USD per year if it adopted this circular closed-loop system.

Start at the drawing board.

Planned obsolescence is out. Sustainable design is in. When designing, consider not only the final product’s durability, but how you support its lifespan after you’ve sold it. In addition, consider increasing the upgradability and repairability of your products.

In addition to ensuring its product is durable, shoe company KEEN designed an industry-disrupting, environmentally friendly waterproofing system. All their products also come with a year-long warranty!

Extend resource value.

Just as you can extend a product’s lifespan, you can extend the value of the base resources used to make it. Is it possible to source your materials in a more replenishable way? Can you switch from one base material to a more sustainable alternative? Can you optimize your manufacturing process to reduce the amount of product you need? These are just some of the ways you can extend resource value.

My trash, your treasure.

Be careful! You might be wasting your “waste.” Have you considered how you can repurpose leftover material or byproducts from your manufacturing process? What about those of the company next door? Using waste output from one industrial process as the starter material for another industrial process is called industrial symbiosis. It works particularly well when multiple nearby businesses collaborate, so you might want to give your neighbors a call.

The switch to a more circular business model will be neither fast nor straightforward. But thankfully, many companies have already succeeded and are happy to pass on their wisdom

3. Make your operations sustainable.

Though switching to circular production methods can cost time and money up front, the benefits are worth it. In addition to increasing overall revenue, reusing operations materials reduces operations costs. If you’re still not convinced, start small: switch to LED lighting and solar thermostats, encourage employees to bring dishes from home, or look into sustainability tax credits. These all support the circular economy and can reduce costs.

4. Experiment with circular economy initiatives.

Because every business’s transition to sustainability will look a little different, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Successful circular businesses know experimentation is essential to finding what works for their model and goals. So if your business’s first sustainable approach sputters out instead of taking off, don’t give up. Failure is the perfect opportunity to assess, adjust, and keep experimenting! This process is what experts Trista Bridges and Donald Eubanks call the Act-Assess-Adjust framework.

5. Talk about the circular economy.

Recycling is old news, but the circular economy is remarkably new. In a 2020 analysis of 394 papers about the circular economy, more than three-quarters of those papers were published after 2018. Even industries central to the circular economy, like construction and infrastructure, face an intimidating knowledge gap. There’s still a lot to learn about supporting the circular economy, and the more people talk about it, the better.

Reaching for a Circular Economy

The earth doesn’t get to tap out of this sustainability fight, and neither do we. As the makers, doers, and changers of this world, businesspeople are the spearhead of impact. Keep searching for ways to grow yourself and your business.

And if you ever need inspiration for supporting the circular economy, check out our sustainability tag!

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