What happened at the first ever Circular Economy Summit Aotearoa?

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Last Wednesday’s event in Auckland brought together world leading thinkers with Kiwi pioneers in the circular economy. The challenge now is to ensure this idea meets its potential for creating radical change.

There were times during the Circular Economy Summit when most of us felt like students presenting our homework to the professor. In this case this was Professor Doctor Michael Braungart. He is renowned as one of the leading lights in the Cradle-to-Cradle movement of the 1990s. 

The global development of the circular economy owes a great deal to Cradle-to-Cradle design thinking. In a circular economy the lifecycles of materials are maximised. Their use is optimised. At the end of life all materials are reutilised. The event saw many of New Zealand’s top business people exploring this approach. They joined with researchers, consultants, government and local authority representatives.

Having one of the key people in the early development of these ideas in the room was a privilege. It also turned out to be something of a challenge.

“It’s not about sustainability,” Michael began, at an event co-organised by the Circular Economy Accelerator of the Sustainable Business Network. “Sustainability is bloody boring! Do you want your relationship with your wife to just be ‘sustainable?’”

The unmistakable sound of a gauntlet being thrown by an experienced warrior. The challenge?

“To do the right thing," he went on. "Not, how can we make the current thing better? Often what we think is a solution just keeps us busy. Minimising and reducing is optimising the current system. Don’t make the wrong things perfect, as they will only be perfectly wrong! There’s no point in driving more slowly if you are still driving in the wrong direction!”

Those attempting to take up this challenge included the Honourable Eugenie Sage, Conservation Minister and Associate Minister for the Environment. Her video contribution to the summit outlined the governments’ ambitious plans on the circular economy and related issues. These include the phase out of single use plastic bags. The government is also investigating increases in the Waste Levy. The declared aim is to minimise waste to landfill across the country.

In a panel discussion later in the event, James Walker, deputy secretary at the ministry, gave a behind the scenes glimpse of this shift in thinking. In particular, he described how the government was serious about approaching the economy as a “wholly owned subsidiary of the environment”.

His comments recalled the powerful opening speech offered by Te Aroha Morehu, innovation office of Ngati Whatua, Orakei. He spoke of a ‘mana economy’ based on a genuine relationship with landscape, seascape and spirit.

“Personification of nature is the most sustainable framework of all time,” he argued. “If you revere something like a human you care about, you will treat it like one.”

This was a call for ‘revitalism’ and ‘thrivalism’. It also means going beyond sustaining the status quo.

Throughout the day we heard from businesses pioneering new ways of doing things. These included SBN member Wishbone Design Studios. Wishbone is innovating around the idea of modular, repairable, recyclable children’s bikes that grow as they do. Sustainable Salons has been getting to grips with recycling and repurposing waste from the hairdressing industry in Australia and now here. Block Texx applies blockchain technology to textile recycling. Countdown’s Keri Hannifin described the challenges  of shifting supermarkets away from single use plastic bags.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub also themed his talk around changing the narrative to something sustainable and lasting.

“Every generation up to the 1980s expected to earn more than their parents,” he said. “After that they are likely to earn less over their lifetimes. We accept it, it’s a conscious decision. As a collective that is what we have voted for. If you want to make change you have to shift what we want.”

So the day became equal parts inspiration and aspiration. And at the end Michael restated his challenge, with a closing address every bit as trenchant as his opening one.

“New Zealand shouldn’t try to copy other countries," he stressed. "The country should be working on five to seven things in the beginning. Take a paper napkin and make it from clean materials. Perfect that. Then work on something else. Don’t try to solve all the world’s problems and end up just keeping yourself busy. There are not too many people in the world, it is just that we are too stupid.”

James Griffin leads the CEA.

“Michael Braungart’s uncompromising approach to cradle-to-cradle design certainly got people thinking. Our challenge is to apply this thinking in the real world and get it to scale at a pace matching the urgency of the issues. We are seeing the first moves on this among businesses here in New Zealand, and they are very exciting.

“As well as the opportunities for cutting edge innovation that Michael describes, we have a lot of materials circulating in New Zealand that are never going to meet the stringent demands of something like Cradle-to-Cradle. But we still need to build systems that utilise them much, much more efficiently and effectively than we do today.

“It’s great to see how so many Kiwi businesses and our government and local authorities are taking this on.”

Go to circulareconomy.org.nz to find out more about what you and your business can do to accelerate New Zealand’s shift to a circular economy.

Video of the day will be available soon. We will promote this through our Facebook and Twitter feeds as soon as it is ready.