Hand holding a lens ball, upside down, symbolizing economic change towards sustainability and a circular economy
Mac Mullins/Pexels.com

Circularity: “The Biggest Obstacle Is Managing Radical Change”

Joe Iles, Programme Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explains how the circular economy can gain traction – in business and our personal lives.

For many decades, economic growth has relied on a linear model, often described as “take-make-waste” because few resources are recycled or reused.

This system accounts for over 90 percent of biodiversity loss and water stress, as the charitable Ellen MacArthur Foundation – which aims to accelerate the transition to a circular economy – points out in its report Adaptive Strategy for Circular Design.

Joe Iles (Ellen MacArthur Foundation) speaks at DLD Circular 2023 in Munich

In a circular economy, producers and consumers focus on eliminating waste, repurposing materials and regenerating nature with the idea that ultimately, this new framework benefits business, people, and the environment.

While momentum around the circular economy is growing, there is an urgent need to move from ambition to action, as Joe Iles, the foundation’s Circular Design Programme Lead, explains in our interview. To dive deeper, please visit our DLD Circular 2023 video collection where you’ll find Joe Iles’ session on Designing Circularity along with many more inspiring and insightful DLD talks.

Where do you see the circular economy gain traction?

The principles of a circular economy have long been found in some areas in which assets are often more expensive, less numerous, and less subject to new fashions – like heavy machinery, office equipment and construction. This has enabled practices like rental, maintenance, repair and remanufacturing to thrive.

More recently, the linear and problematic industries like plastic packaging and fashion have been racing to adopt and scale circular economy principles, but it’s hugely challenging as there’s a degree of lock-in, in which many stakeholders have built their livelihoods using the take-make-waste model.

Still, new products and business models that prioritise re-use and durability are becoming more accessible. A huge opportunity for further traction is in the food sector, which is currently linear and extractive, but practitioners are demonstrating that regenerative food production is possible in reasonable timescales.

What are the biggest obstacles that prevent faster progress?

I think the biggest obstacle at this stage is managing radical and disruptive change. You might hear a business state how it is becoming “more circular” by increasing the recycled content in its products, for example. But when it comes to taking genuine leaps – from sales to rental, from disposal to repair, from obsolescence to durability – it’s really hard to align, coordinate, and execute, when you’re in a business of thousands of employees and millions of customers.

This requires going beyond the initial inspiration and passion for the circular economy vision, and working together in new ways. That’s why we released From ambition to action: an adaptive strategy for circular design. Drawing on the experience of design leaders within the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Network and the Foundation’s expertise in the field, we have identified six focus areas, referred to as design leverage points that, taken together, create an organisational environment for circular transformation.

Profile image of Joe Iles, Circular Design Programme Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Joe Iles

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

“The circular economy concept is not about being dogmatic, having a checklist or one-size-fits-all strategy.”

What’s the most important thing each of us can do to make a positive impact?

The most important thing we can all do, in our organisations or as citizens, is be informed. Thankfully, it seems more people than ever understand the scale of the problems we face globally. We need to be even more well-informed about the range of solutions available and on the horizon, and ultimately we need to become more conscious of the systems in which we operate. Without this awareness, we won’t really know whether all our hard work truly accelerates the shift to a circular economy that is regenerative, or simply perpetuates a waste linear economy.

Why is being informed crucial?

The circular economy concept is not about being dogmatic, having a checklist or one-size-fits-all strategy. It reflects and embraces the complexity of real world systems around us – weather systems, the forest, the ocean. This can be inconvenient when everyone is looking for clear and immediate solutions. Instead, we need to develop responses that are fit for context; fit for the system we’re designing for.

DLD Circular 2023

This event was a transformative journey for all attendees on September 6, 2023, in Munich. Revisit DLD Circular 2023 to explore how the vision of circularity, combined with latest technological advances, can drive positive change in shaping a sustainable world.

Which ideas from startup founders excite you the most?

The ideas that excite me the most are those that go beyond simply doing less bad, and show radical new possibilities for regeneration. These sometimes subvert the resource efficiency wisdom of past decades, for example using a bit more energy and material to manufacture a product, because it’s intended for more intensive use, re-use, and repeated remanufacturing. Or packaging made from seaweed or mushrooms that can never become waste, because it’s designed to return to a natural system. Rather than trying to make do with the frustrations and failings of the linear economy, startups innovating in this way can demonstrate a powerful, circular vision.

What do you tell people who feel that ultimately it doesn’t matter what they personally do?

I’d encourage people to not beat themselves up too much. We relied on the linear economy for decades, and when we didn’t consider the extent of the environmental and social impacts, that model felt like it worked pretty well. The old way of doing things raised living standards for billions of people throughout history, and enabled many to have things like healthier food, warm clothes, safe houses, communication technology and accessible medicine, often at short timescales and astounding prices. Now we understand that we can’t operate our economy on the model of “take-make-waste”, but we should think of individual behavior in the context of systems change – an economy-wide transformation that makes it easy to “do the right thing”.

Designing Circularity panel discussion at DLD Circular 2023 in Munich: left to right, moderator Amit Katwala (WIRED UK) in conversation with Joe Iles (Ellen MacArthur Foundation) Jessie Storey (Steelcase), Daniela Bohlinger (BMW Group)

Designing Circularity

Watch Joe Iles discuss circular design principles with Jessie Storey (Steelcase), Daniela Bohlinger (BMW Group) and moderator Amit Katwala.

By loading the video you agree to the Privacy Policy of YouTube and accept that your data will be processed by Google.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram