Christmas tree

This season’s must-have gifts are circular

  • Arnoud Walrecht, Director |

Gifts are a traditional part of many people’s winter holiday season. For children, especially, it’s a time of eager anticipation.

As a parent, I’ve scanned my kids’ wish lists, which, not surprisingly, are full of consumer electronics like games consoles, phones and tablets, as well as the latest fashionable clothes.

Although I get a kick out of seeing their excitement as they unwrap their presents, there’s also a part of me that feels we should be doing things differently.

Which is why my daughter’s new mobile phone isn’t actually new, but a refurbished model. Instead of only buying new clothes, we’re looking at used/vintage items from online trading apps here in the Netherlands. On top of this, our family Christmas tree will be replanted after the festivities for use next year.

I believe it’s time to break the cycle of take-make-waste in favor of a circular model that re-uses as many resources as possible. Just keeping a phone in use for an extra year can cut its lifetime CO2 impact by a third (PDF 1.58 MB), while also reducing demand for precious materials and avoiding the emissions associated with buying a new model.

But we’ve a long way to go. According to the latest Global Circularity Gap report the global economy is only 8.6 percent circular. If this continues, by 2030 the world will be 40 percent short of its required natural resources.

A circular economy isn’t just for Christmas

At its heart, a circular economy is about designing infrastructure, products and materials that can be re-used or refurbished perpetually, with longer lifecycles. It designs out waste through ‘closed-loop’ production, where outputs are either re-used or returned safely to nature, to feed the ecosystem rather than causing pollution. And it encourages an as-a-service model of consumption that favors using rather than owning with the idea that manufacturers design differently.

This is very much in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number 12, to ‘Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’.

It’s important to state that this isn’t just about recycling. It’s about embedding the concept of circularity into every phase of production, from design, procurement, supply and manufacturing through to usage. Above all, it’s about intelligent design that respects nature, reducing inputs of scarce resources, promotes biobased regenerative materials and cutting harmful waste.

We’re seeing examples at every level in society. Around the world, manufacturers are striving to become more sustainable, with bold targets for recycled materials, net-zero carbon operations, water usage and elimination of waste, whilst introducing nature friendly systems.

One major homeware retailer chose to not participate in Black Friday this year, instead announcing that customers could hand back their used furniture and receive half the price of the original. The returned items would then be either re-sold or recycled.

The pay-as-you-go, as-a-service business model is also growing in popularity, with both consumers and businesses rejecting ownership of assets like vehicles, printers and real estate. And because they own rather than sell assets, producers are incentivized to build in longevity, to maximize their returns.

This may reduce consumption, but only really works if the products themselves are circular and the loops are closed. Renting a smartphone that still ends up in an e-waste stream is not the solution.

There’s no other way

A circular economy is not just a ‘nice-to-have’. Given the scarcity of natural resources and the growing damage from pollution and climate change, circularity is actually the only way we can continue to live life as we know it, with all the comforts of an industrialized society.

In fact, it increases prosperity and reduces economic volatility, by making businesses less vulnerable to resource shortages, preserving supply chains by keeping essential materials in the loop.

2020 has made all of us re-think our priorities and consider what kind of world we want to live in. Seventy-nine percent of leaders responding to the KPMG 2020 CEO Outlook say they’re re-evaluating their organization’s purpose since COVID-19.

Creating a circular economy requires a huge shift in design thinking and economic models across every aspect of manufacturing, services and government.

There’s also plenty we can do as consumers, starting with a 2021 New Year resolution to ‘rent, re-use, renew and recycle’, transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle – which should also bring greater wellbeing. It will still allow us the excitement of receiving and the joy of giving, but in a responsible way that preserves our way of life, respects the planet, improves business resilience and enhances economic growth.