How can we make the post-COVID economy more sustainable and circular?

With UK business leaders writing to the Prime Minister calling upon the government to "deliver a clean, just recovery" from the COVID-19 crisis and with supply chains globally under greater scrutiny, we should consider what practical steps can be taken to encourage and compel designers and engineers to develop products which will reduce waste and deliver a more circular and sustainable economy.

It's been nearly two decades since governments, academia and industry started taking sustainability seriously. Organising conferences, teaching courses, setting targets and writing standards. Around this time, at IDC we launched a range of tools and services to assist companies to develop more sustainable products. These included guides, workshops, processes and software tools, such as the LCA Calculator - an easy to use lifecycle analysis software which has been picked up by companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and a number of universities as a tool to assess their products and identify areas for improvement. Despite growing awareness and with some notable exceptions, it is clear that a general acceptance of the importance of sustainability has not translated into a flood of sustainable products and it seems sensible to ask ourselves why this is.

The reality for most companies, it seems, is that their good intentions and enthusiasm all too often evaporate as they realise the cost issues and business difficulties involved in creating truly sustainable products. So, if we are to create a truly sustainable recovery from the COVID crisis we need to understand why, so far, companies haven't been putting sustainable design at the top of the agenda and create incentives to overcome these problems.

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Supply chain obstacles to the circular economy

Aside from cost and a lack of legislation compelling companies to act, one of the biggest obstacles to circularity is long global supply chains that only work one way. From factory, to warehouse, to retailer, to consumer and then ultimately, to landfill. Having worked with businesses and carried out sustainability evaluations, companies have a good understanding of their supply chain, the materials and manufacturing processes. They generally understand how customers use their products, the energy of use and product life. However, with only a few notable exceptions, they have very little idea and even less influence about what happens to the product at the end of its life. The complexity of recovering products from customers and the inefficiency in returning them to third-party factories in Asia has meant little progress has been made. As the pandemic has disrupted global trade, companies are looking to localise and shorten their supply chains to add resilience. With the right support and incentive from government there is also an opportunity to build in circularity.

The first steps

The circular economy will not start to become a reality until there is a suitable infrastructure to facilitate proper take back, reuse and high value recycling - together with suitable incentives/penalties to encourage this transition. Currently there is little coordinated government action to either support or compel companies to make this transition. Until there is a proper legal requirement for products to be designed for a circular economy, this issue will remain a low priority or too big a hurdle for individual companies to manage alone. In the UK, the carrier bag charge has shown the way in which government action can quickly have a big impact leading to a reduction of 85% in the number of single use carrier bags given out. Similar charges can be levied on drinks bottles and other areas of packaging.

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Incentivise take back

It's the end of life processes that present most challenges to organisations. Many companies see this as an impossible hurdle requiring great investment but it need not be the case. Product returns, service or maintenance could be made into a profitable venture, with customers offered service packages for repairs and upgrades, driving loyalty with customers and creating new jobs at the same time. This process offers an exciting opportunity for novel thinking turning goods into services, with different approaches to ownership like leasing and maintenance contracts. Here again government might help set up some of this infrastructure and consider how it can incentivise companies to extend the product life, for example by reducing VAT rates for products which offer longer guarantees or refurbishments. Incentives such as these also encourage more localised manufacturing, as returning products to factories on the other side of the world adds unnecessary delay and cost.

Bring forward legislation

The principles and actions required for a circular economy are well understood. The European Union's (EU) Circular Economy Package, outlines a product development cycle from production and consumption. The ISO14000 range of standards for Environmental Management Systems and particularly BS EN ISO14006 - 'Guidelines for incorporating ecodesign' and the forthcoming BS ISO 19991 'Environmental conscious design (ECD) -- Principles, requirements and guidance' provide a practical framework for developing more sustainable products.A timetable should be set to make compliance with the key parts of these standards mandatory and, if necessary, financial support provided to help industry make the transition.

The current crisis has shown how business can rapidly adapt to a 'new normal' and aspects of life which seemed fixed can be changed with a collective will. With industry and business pushing government to create a green recovery, we should all encourage the adoption of higher standards of design and sustainability.

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Need help?

At IDC, we have developed a range of tools and resources to assist companies to understand and implement sustainable design. As well as carrying out sustainable design projects and delivering sustainability training to different leadership teams within businesses, we developed a sustainable design tool to help brands carry out life cycle assessments on their own products. Our LCA Calculator is a cloud-based software used by Jaguar Land Rover and The University of Warwick among others to quickly understand the impact of their developments and compare different solutions throughout the design process.

If you’d like to discuss how your company could be using it too, please visit lcacalculator.com to learn more – or contact stephen.knowles@idc.uk.com

About the author

Stephen Knowles is the Managing Director of IDC. A chartered engineer with 20+ years experience leading technical and non-technical product developments across multiple industries. With a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a thorough understanding of design and manufacture, Stephen is often invited to speak on the subject of product development.

stephen knowles

8 June 2020

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