Towards a Circular Economy in Business Practice and Education ABIS Knowledge Into Action Forum, 13 May 2020

On May 13, 2020 ABIS hosted the first virtual Knowledge Into Action Forum: "Towards a Circular Economy in Business Practice and Education". Instead of cancelling the event due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we decided to still offer a platform for our members to come together and to share knowledge and learn from each other. We took the optimistic approach that a crisis brings also innovation and for this to happen we need discussions and exchange of ideas.

The main theme of Circular Economy is gaining a lot of attention and prominence, but as we explored during the event, we are still only at the beginning and we need all stakeholders to work together on a local and global level. This event´s goal was to gain access and insights on existing knowledge and resources to develop new initiatives and projects to spur Circular Economy uptake, learning capacity and teaching .

We brought together an audience of around 80 experts from academia and business interested in Circular Economy and best practices in business and education. We were able to ensure high level of quality discussions and interactions through Whova app and ZOOM features such as: cameras of the participants on, use of chat function and non-verbal reactions and participants´ interactions through small breakout groups.

We are thrilled that the participants enjoyed our topical theme, we were joined by many high-level speakers and the audience appreciated the virtual platform as a way of connection and learning.

You can now find the summaries of the sessions with the recordings and resources for further learning in the following pages.

Panel Discussion: Making Circular Economy Work

The panel discussion focused on the current support mechanisms to the transition to Circular Economy, including an overview of the EU policy framework and Circular Economy Strategy, as well as insights and perspectives from the academic and business community. We were pleased to welcome speakers:

  • Emmanuelle Maire – Head of Unit “Sustainable Consumption, Products & Production, DG Environment, EU Commission
  • Fenna Blomsma – Junior Professor of Circular Economy and Systems Innovation, University of Hamburg
  • Brendan Edgerton – Director Circular Economy, WBCSD
  • Baback Yazdani – Chair of the Board of Directors, ABIS and Dean, Nottingham Trent Business School (moderator)

In order to be able to move from Linear Economy to a Circular Economy we need to be bolder on a series of actions that support systemic change. Against this backdrop, the European Green Deal presented 35 actions along the entire life cycle of products that will be key in this transition. All panellists pointed how their organisations contribute to this transition and how do businesses choose a relevant approach and operate within a circular economy.

The main take from the discussion was that companies need to understand what is their business case and to move away from the status-quo, not settling for less bad but completely re-evaluating what they are doing. Within the WBCSD Factor 10 project, they are working with 35 different companies from 15 industries to work on 6 specific challenges that they are facing, such as common methodology for circular metrics, circular policies, bio-economy, buildings, plastics and packaging and electronics.

The playing field is biased toward linear thinking and until it is adjusted to encourage more circular solutions, companies will run into the barrier of a lack of business case. With this need of urgency, there are many opportunities arising for up-stream and down-stream collaborations across sectors and value chains.

The policies and regulations will play a strong role in this transition by firstly making sure we understand the definition and concept of waste and what needs to be achieved to ultimately understand Circular Economy, not to fall into Circular washing. Only with effective policy we can achieve our shared goals such as achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

On the education side, Circular Economy will have to be integrated into all programs and curricula in schools by adding elements of circularity to all courses and subjects. The modules have to bring practical examples of companies already applying creative, circular solutions, so that concepts and complex theories become more tangible. The messages shall be tailored to each course to prepare future business leaders for new ways of thinking and doing.

Patagonia´s approach to Circular Economy

Don’t buy what you don’t need, keep your product in use as long as possible, let us help you do the same and finally, at the end of life, let’s make sure we are recycling it.

In one of the first breakout sessions, Ryan Gellert, General Manager EMEA at Patagonia presented the company’s view on circular economy.

Patagonia, founded by Yvon Chouinard, is a family-owned business, with global presence and over $1billion and became a BCorp in 2011. In almost 50 decades of activity, Patagonia has tackled some of the most complex problems in their supply chain, scale the learnings to others in similar industries and donated over $100 millions to grassroot organizations working to protect clean air, water, soil and protection of wildlife and places. In 2018 the company replaced its mission statement with: We’re in business to save our home planet.

Within this context, Patagonia’s approach to circularity includes a host of initiatives under the umbrella term “Worn Wear”. The approach is characterized by 4Rs

  1. Reduce: with the famous “Don’t buy this jacket ad”, the company aimed to raise customer’s awareness about the impact of buying unneeded clothing in terms of water use, greenhouse emission and amount of waste produced
  2. Repair: Product repair is intentionally focused in helping customers keep products in use as long as possible. It benefits customers and helps Patagonia to revise design decisions through intel on product performance. Patagonia runs one of the largest apparel repair facilities in North America with around 60000 repairs a year and they partner with facilities in Europe. They also run on the road repair services and educational activities.
  3. Reuse: if repair is not possible, or customers are no longer using a product, Patagonia buys back those items, launders and repairs them, and resells them, while the original customers receive credit to buy more needed products
  4. Recycle: Finally, Patagonia takes full responsibility for their products by end-of-life recycling using the best existing technology. The company also aims to develop recycling technological innovations through its venture capital fund Tin Shed Ventures.

In sum, Patagonia’s Worn Wear approach to circularity: don’t buy what you don’t need, keep your product in use as long as possible, let us help you do the same and finally, at the end of life, let’s make sure we are recycling it.

In addition to this, while the company has already been using recycled materials, they are now in the process of letting go of virgin materials at an unprecedented scale. Their ambition is ultimately to go beyond organic cotton, which is a regenerative, organic standard.

Beyond circularity, Patagonia is focused on four major areas going forward: (1) decarbonizing business by 2025 – including their own facilities and supply chain, (2) transition to an organic, regenerative agriculture, both within their value chain and by participating in global conversations, (3) scaling the use of renewable, decentralized energy community cohorts and (4) the ongoing protection of wild places, which has been central to Patagonia raison d’etre.

Patagonia’s ambition is to continue challenge themselves and improve the impact of their business as well as scaling open-source solutions to change to fundamental systems that underlie society to lighten the impact on the planet as much as possible.

Interface´s approach to Circular Economy

How would mother nature design a floor?

In the other breakout session, Interface approach to circularity was presented by Jon Khoo, Regional Sustainability Manager (UKIME, Nordics).

The main focus of Interface is to rethink product design to make a new generation of products that fit within the principles of a circular economy. The circular economy is not only a concept limited to the industry, but it should be a set of principles that we preach and practice across different economic sectors and across different companies, with a final goal to make the whole value chain sustainable.

Within this context, companies need to rethink what do they do for the environment. There is a need that companies reflect on their impact to the planet and their sustainability performance. In this sense, Interface has had a strong commitment to improve its sustainability performance, in terms of renewable energy, product design, and being careful on its inputs. Following this vision, Interface was able to allocate resources to recycle the materials that they were using, to reduce their impact and to give a good example to other companies on how to adopt circular practices.

Interface learned many lessons by obtaining inspiration from nature. Nature does not generate waste, and it can be a very valuable source of inspiration to redesign products and practices, and to use outputs in a circular way. We should ask ourselves questions as, how would mother nature design a floor? thinking products should be easy to install, we should avoid unnecessary chemicals, minimize waste, and reduce stock as well.

To also contribute to mitigate climate change, Interface started focusing in the use of bio-based materials. Also, to add more layers and become more sustainable, Interface focused on the social benefits of circularity. More specifically, there is a partnership with ZSL, Aquafil and Interface to employ people to produce nets of recycled plastic.

In the case of floor production, the priority is to firstly reuse them, secondly, re-purpose them, third, recycle them, and the fourth strategy is to recover its materials. By following this list of priorities, it is expected to reduce the footprint of the company as much as possible.

As the last reflections, we need as a society to rethink our perceptions on waste. We have to review the lure of the cheap and new, to reinforce a take-back hierarchy, to ensure scale and replication of the take back system to upscale recycling, and we should reflect on the role of the EU and local legislation to promote circular practices and mainstream them.

Sulapac´s approach to Circular Economy

This crisis is also an opportunity to make a systemic change, and to build both an economy and a society that are more resilient. In this sense, Sulapac is committed as company to contribute towards a systemic change, bringing a more resilience model, and offering more sustainable practices.

Sulapac´s case was presented by Maija Pohjakallio, Sustainability Director at Sulapac, who already attended the ABIS Colloquium 2019 in Berlin where she pitched the startup´s case. Sulapac won the ABIS Best Impact Start-up award and a yearly membership at ABIS.

Sulapac combines wood chips and biodegradable binders to make a biodegradable substitute to replace plastic. Their mission is to save the world from plastic waste, and they want to achieve this goal by promoting recycling and reducing the use, but also developing new materials.

The world has a big problem with micro-plastics - we consume plastics at a high rate and as a consequence, micro-plastics end everywhere. We do not only produce micro-plastics when we fail at recycling them, but even when we pack our food and drinks. It is calculated that an average person ends up ingesting 250g worth of micro-plastics every year. These micro-plastics accumulate in our bodies and also in the environment, where when they reach a certain threshold, they damage the environment and cannot be easily eliminated. We need to urgently find an alternative to replace plastics for an alternative material, and this is the motivation of Sulapac, to create sustainable and safe alternatives to plastic.

The beginning of the company was difficult, with plenty of trials and errors. Now, they are able to produce much better packaging with improved materials and recipes, that are used for cosmetics, jewelry, and even food companies. The advantages of Sulapac products are that product manufacturers can use the same machines to process Sulapac material, so they only need to change materials. Also, they do not leave any micro-plastics behind. Their products are safe and circular by design, and they have the potential for simple and mass manufacturing. They are able to easily custom design the packages for each of their costumers, and additionally, they have the ability to produce this material near to the place where this is used, thanks to their network of partners to upscale their production.

Sulapac’s strategy is based on working with partners to make sure that all their material is always used. Then, as new partners appear, new opportunities appear as well to diversify production and innovate creating new recipes for new purposes of packaging.

Finally, Sulapac is a member of the Ellen MacArthur CE100 network. Belonging to this network helps Sulapac to promote circularity thanks to their practice. Sulapac works hard to integrate in their business model all the actions and principles that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation promotes to become more and more circular over time. This helps Sulapac to be more aware of their performance, and to identify new points of improvement, as changing their energy sources to more sustainable providers that are based in renewable sources.

The value chain of Sulapac is based in six principles: (1) Sustainable sourcing of materials. (2) A safe and circular design for products. (3) A flexible manufacturing based on establishing strategic partnerships with clients and offering them the service of producing the alternative material instead of selling an already fabricated packaging. (4) An optimized usability of the material, where any micro-plastic comes out of it, and any possible material that comes out of the substitute to plastic can be digested by microbes. (5) Recyclability of the material. Mostly, all of the material should be industrially composted. In this sense, Sulapac is constantly trying to find new recyclable materials to ensure that the costumers have as many options as possible. (6) Collaboration with partners. Sulapac cooperates with partner brands, and together they can develop tailored-made options for their packaging needs.

The aim of Sulapac is to constantly improve its circularity performance. As a member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the company is part of its circularity assessment through the Circulytics tool. In this way, the business model and networking is considered to calculate the level of circularity of Sulapac. This tool helps to identify potential remaining challenges they can address them. Also, the tool helps Sulapac to focus in the whole picture and not solely recycling.

The priorities of Sulapac after the COVID19 pandemic are to help the economic system and the society to rethink itself and the current mainstream lifestyle based in a linear economy. In this sense, Sulapac is committed as company to contribute towards systemic change, bringing a more resilience model, and offering more sustainable practices.

Danone´s approach to Circular Economy

Change is driven by individual passion. Innovation is a serendipitous collision of seemingly unrelated ideas that need to flow organically.

Danone´s approach to Circular Economy was presented and discussed by Merijn Dols, Global Director of Open Innovation and Circular Economy for Food.

Merijn started off with a system level view and why a paradigm shift is required. The current pandemic revealed many drawbacks of the current linear food system. For every 2 dollars in revenue generated in food system, we as as a society incurred 2 dollars in costs in externalities. These costs are societal costs and ecosystem related costs. This food system is facing a disruption and revolution that can be obtained through a paradigm shift. We can achieve complex adaptive systems aiming for equilibrium, stability, effectiveness and resilience by transforming to a Circular Economy. Danone´s mission is to transform the food system to be positive, social and ecological by design by ensuring 4 building blocks:

  • Common language is essential to leverage on innovation power of everyone and at the same time trying to avoid the word to lose it´s initial meaning. essence and impact of the word by using it incorrectly or becoming a buzzword.
  • Comprehensive real-time easily accessible set of metrics that measure both social and ecological impact. Only by metrics we will be able to track progress, compare option and choose the best one.
  • Designing principles that everybody will understand, experimenting with Circular Economy.
  • Iconic examples that become tangible and easier to grasp complex issues.

Danone is focusing more on food and its biological elements because they found out that the initiatives on waste and packaging is developing faster that the work on circular food. Danone does not want to optimize the linear system by focusing on reducing waste only, they want to take a nutrient approach as nature takes a nutrient approach. To catalyze a circular economy of food, we need to change to way how we develop the food. Danone is looking at how to design and develop things by enabling to dissolve the problem rather than just treating the symptoms by seeing the nature as a source of solution rather than just a source of resources.

Danone´s goal is to create an industry initiative. A One Planet Businesses for Biodiversity Coalition was launched at the UN Climate Week 2019. Danone is also working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the design principles and definitions. They co-created with a startup over 300 social and ecological indicators to measure impact of a product at an ingredient level. On top they created a challenge with Google on a Swiss platform Thought for Food reaching gen Z entrepreneurs.

Resources for further use

In order to keep up with the objectives of the event, on top of the sessions summaries and videos, in this section we are sharing some useful resources and materials that our participants, members and any interested stakeholders are encouraged to access and use in their business, research and teaching practices:


Building on the event, we are pleased to announce that ABIS will be gathering and publishing Best Sustainability Practices in Academia and Business in the form of case studies with teaching notes. The goal is to provide access and knowledge sharing about business initiatives and a useful tool for our academic members to support them in their teaching methods.

We truly believe that all courses and classes should have elements of sustainability and circularity integrated in their curricula. By providing with the Best Sustainability Practices in Academia and Business from our network, the professors and teachers will be able to grasp a very complex topic into tangible outputs.

We will be disseminating shortly a Call for Practices and sharing more information about this initiative.

Special thank you to our speakers, participants and our business-academic network!

See you soon!