For as long as I can remember we have lived in a boom-bust economy. Our GDP linked to global markets – at the mercy of the next world economy to come on stream wanting to develop infrastructure and create commercial growth as far as the money lasts. We gear up to meet demand, and then fall into recession when the bubble bursts, creating hardship and casualties for those caught up in fallout. These boom bust cycles create a linear sine wave and we have continued along this road since the industrial revolution. With increasing consumerism, the product life of fashions and trends plus the built in obsolescence of electrical and other goods provides a short term GDP focus on end markets. All too soon products become discarded creating an increasing waste stream paid for by the householder through taxation. As consumers we are trapped onto the treadmill of buying the latest trend, only to pay for its disposal sooner rather than later. “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always got” or words to that effect.
Arguably the environmental impact of the boom to bust scenario means that the environment fares better when we are in recession mode. Having to be increasingly creative with less means we become more imaginative and inventive. We also use less resources and utilities, and therefore create less waste for disposal.
So how do we break away from the feast or famine circus? What if there was an alternative to being duped into buying a product, only to find that we don’t need it anymore, and have to pay again to dispose of it?
There is a revolution on the horizon, that of a ‘circular economy’ which concentrates effort on maintaining the resources and energy within the lifecycle of the products created. Instead of developing products for sale, that have a shelf life of “x” years that are not designed for repair, manufacturers start to build in product longevity whilst considering life cycle, which in turn challenges the boom / bust scenario. By designing products that are of a robust quality, able to be repaired, adjusted, modified and made fit for our purposes during use where the components become re-manufactured back into the process, the shelf life becomes infinity. Great we all hail, but the really neat thing is that some of these pioneer companies are considering hiring their products as a service. The manufacturer no longer designs products for sale to the consumer, but instead they sell the use of that product, taking responsibility for its lifetime. What if we no longer purchased, used, outgrew and disposed of goods, but instead bought into the use of a home laundry service, or a supply of bikes for our children that grew with them? This may sound far fetched but companies like Isla bikes have started to introduce such schemes. A British Standard has just been launched providing guidance to organisations around how to apply holistic thinking to product design.
With the economic benefit of the circular economy being estimated at 18 trillion Euros in Europe, and the creation of 200,000 new jobs in the UK by 2030*, the opportunity for decoupling our ties with linear resource use and the associated environmental impact are immense.
Breaking out of the boom bust will not be an easy option, but what an opportunity to challenge the current paradigm and introduce a new circular era.
*World Economic Forum 2017 Register of Global Risks of Highest Concern for Doing Business.
This article was written by: John Cockburn-Evans