Choose curiosity, over judgement


The circular economy and how it might serve a charity world

My first day. I walked into my Innovation Management MA excited at the prospect of a new lens to elegantly disrupt my world. For the next two years I am committed to explore, question and re-think all the things I know and don’t know in order to affect innovation. 

First unit: Circular Economy
I’d never heard of this phrase before and it’s profoundly shifted my perspective on what we mean by ‘economy’ and what we mean by ‘wealth’. 

Buzz words like ‘recycle’ or ‘sustainable’ don’t even scratch the surface of this concept. In a crude definition of how I’ve come to understand it in the last 36 hours is; we shouldn’t create something that will end up being waste e.g. landfill/pollutant/harmful in any way shape or form to any thing on this planet. We are prompted by Michael Braungart and William McDonough in the international best seller ‘Cradle to Cradle’ to look to Mother Earth, mimic her strategies and complex systems with a healthy dose of creativity in order to recreate a world that is safe for all AND creates a robust successful economy. 

Just to put things in perspective, those who know me, know I love ‘things’. As a designer I whole heartedly love stuff. Well-made things, things with stories, things that make my life better, things that are yellow, things that make me think or more importantly – make my life more fun.

A world of abundance
But sometimes I feel a guilty about this. We generally have a ‘take-make-dispose’ economy, we buy something, own it and then disregard it. This is a ‘cradle to grave’ economy. But in this new circular economy approach, that Braungart and McDonough are promoting, we talk about ‘cradle to cradle’. Taken from The Ellen MacArthur Foundation she imagines ‘an economy in which today’s goods are tomorrow’s resources, forming a virtuous cycle that fosters prosperity in a world of finite resources’.  Which sounds so obvious when you think about it, because we live in a world of abundance. 

An example of this would be we might decide to never ‘own’ a new Apple product. We just lease it. This ‘rental’ model was popular in the 90’s where one could loan a TV. The ownership would always belong to the brand and not the consumer. When the product was not needed or broken we would go back to the brand, the product would be dismantled and the parts reused for the next generation product or recycled into something else. The brand is accountable for their ‘stuff’. 

A charity perspective
With my curious mind firmly switched on and not judging the current practices and models, I asked myself about the charity sector of which I’ve worked in for 13 years. If we want to make a go of this circular economy concept, then how might the values of an organisation, for example a cancer charity, go about reflecting this? 

If the value proposition is ‘Supporting people with cancer’. Should one be thinking about the processes and structures within the organisation that potentially cause cancer? Altruistically, you’d say, ‘yeah, of course they should’. But, how easy is that on low budgets and the way the world currently operates? Off the top of my head I’m thinking about air pollution; transporting printed materials and products by air to ultimately save money. Big picture, this may add to the impact of pollution contributing to the rise in number of people affected by cancer. But, it's cheaper, it's a normal way of doing things and it saves the charity money of which a high percentage (if not all) is raised by enthusiastic volunteers’ blood, sweat and tears. 

Let’s think of opportunities in applying the circular economy on a simple level. Perhaps take the ‘rental’ concept into the current system of information booklets given out for free by charities. The charity would ‘own’ the product and lease it out like a library. When the user has finished with it – instead of discarding it or putting it straight in the bin or recycling – the charity could have a system where it's returned and the materials are either sent to a new user or the raw material is reused for something else. Saving the charity money and resources. 

Over the last few years the charity sector has been under the microscope and new regulations are in place for best practice and transparency on how charity money is being spent. And, rightly so.

With that in mind is it right for a charity to spend money, time and effort looking at this concept of circular economy and invest in changing their products and practices accordingly? Ethically and responsibly engaging in new ways of doing things that help support a planet of limited raw materials to come full-circle. 

Would society and the media call it ‘wasting time and money’? Even though, charities may be wasting precious materials, time and resources that could eventually go back into the organisations wealth and isn’t wasted at all? Ultimately it could be creating something far more sustainable for their future. 

Let's start a conversation
I’m not trying to be needlessly provocative. These questions seem more relevant than ever and I can't help but wonder if it’s ok for charities to be leaders of innovation or do they have to be on the sidelines – waiting for innovation to happen to them?