The 10 ways sustainability professionals can scale up the circular economy

Numbers on a hopscotch grid

What are the steps that sustainability professionals can take to advance the circular economy? Photograph: Alamy

I've never met a

sustainability professional who doesn't agree that the circular economy is critical to our future in a resource constrained world. It's not a new concept, 10 bob for your old pop bottle was big when I was growing up in the 1970s, and there are countless examples that prove the business case.

So why is the circular economy not yet part of the fabric of British business? What came across loud and clear from a recent Guardian Sustainable Business roundtable was that more needs to be done, not just by business but by the public sector, NGOs and charities.

At M&S there are examples where circular models work and examples of where it's facing significant challenges.

Shwopping is one of those working well. Over six million items of used or unwanted clothing have been donated to M&S stores to be re-sold, re-used or recycled by Oxfam. M&S has bought back some of the clothes from Oxfam, turned them into new fabric and re-made them into new pieces of clothing. When popular, high quality product is cheaper to source this way than comparable alternatives, the buying team needs little persuasion. On the back of last year's success, Shwop Coats, made from wool recovered from shwopped items are back this season with a bigger buy and more choice.

The challenge is to get even more clothes back from consumers. At the moment M&S is talking about small product runs, one thousand or so lines but we need this to be in the tens of thousands.

While M&S is buying wool garments back from Oxfam, cotton is a different story. The fibre lengths of recycled cotton are not long enough and neither the technology nor the supply chain are sufficiently developed.

Recycled PET is a good news story. The supply chain is well developed and last year M&S sold over four million clothing and home products featuring recycled PET. If you include the recycled PET that goes into food packaging, the number jumps into the hundreds of millions – a significant slice of business.

M&S is trying to get as much recycled content into food packaging as possible but it's a postcode lottery when it comes to the recycling services offered to customers. As a result not enough of the right materials are coming into the supply chain and the standards and segregation vary enormously. M&S has taken action by providing funding and partnering with the Somerset Waste Partnership to deliver high quality recyclate to its suppliers.

Other companies have also joined with a local authority to implement a circular business model. The car sharing network, ZipCar for example, is running a programme with Croydon Council and has achieved significant reductions in its car usage, CO2 emissions, and overall travel costs with an annual saving of £500k.

Elsewhere, CISCO is redeploying the IT infrastructure from the London 2012 Olympics to recipients that include WWF, the National Grid is recycling aluminium conductors and carpet manufacturer Desso, is running a scheme where it takes back waste carpet to recycle into new products.

So it can be done, but the challenges remain significant. Where can sustainability professionals make a difference?

Think consumer: The circular economy needs to be presented to consumers as smarter, savvier, more aspirational, not wreathed in the language of sustainability. New businesses like AirBnB and ZipCar have great sustainability stories but they are winning because they are first and foremost creating direct benefits for their customers.

Base policy on big new goals: Set rules that encourage long-term thinking. What if the UK lead the world in calling for zero fibre to landfill by 2020? Or zero food waste?

Reform existing policy: Reassess policy that acts as a barrier to circular business eg reform of the packaging recovery note system that was conceived in a different time to address a waste issue not a resource issue.

Shift to service: Change your mindset from physical product to consumer service. Companies like The People Who Share are encouraging a new way of consuming that provide people with the service they need without having to physically own something.

Innovate with technology: Spot the technologies that will make circular scalable. The sensors embedded in every product that allow automated recycling, the mobile platforms that allow people to share time or products and services, 3D printing that allows much more precise manufacturing but not the profligate production of lots of cheap disposable items.

Invest in the right infrastructure: Invest in the infrastructure and logistics assets that will enable the circular economy. The consistent recycling facilities, the city scale anaerobic digestion plants that can take all food waste from a locality, the smart grid that enables de-centralised generation.

Be an ecosystem: Shift from being a linear chain to seeing yourself as an eco system, it is collaboration such as inter-factory agreements on recycling and resource use that will make a big difference. Freegle and Freecycle have created ecosystems of producers and users constantly exchanging – I've just sent our kids garden trampoline to a good (third) home this way.

Build partnerships: Create and encourage innovation partnerships. You cannot build a circular economy alone. What are the assets, know-how and customer insight you have and what do you lack that someone else can provide.

Use big data: To help us, we need to design sustainability information so that we can use big data to our advantage across billions of products and thousands of locations. The Internet of Everything is a tantalising glimpse of the power of data to give us granular, personal solutions for all the products we use.

Invest in circular thinking across the economy: Bradford University and The Ellen McArthur Foundation have created a Circular MBA and we need to broaden this to other parts of the education system.