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The Power of the Collective

It’s almost ten years since Zero Waste Scotland was established. 

Iain Gulland | 3 Apr 19

Much of our work at the outset simply involved getting waste issues on the business agenda. Things gathered pace and five years ago with the help of the Waste (Scotland) Regulations we saw companies the length and breadth of the country suddenly looking at what was happening at their back door in terms of recycling.

But more importantly, the regulations encouraged astute businesses to re-assess their whole use of resources as the conversation around the benefits of being more resource efficienct and the then emerging idea of the circular economy began to root.

Whilst momentum has never slowed, the past 18 months or so have seen a significant growth in interest from businesses looking to reduce their environmental footprint, act more responsibly and address both consumer and supply chain concerns around issues such as single use plastics and food waste. Indeed, more and more companies are keen to go further than simple regulatory compliance and are looking for support to achieve more fundamental cost savings as well as explore opportunities for new business.

A few weeks ago I spoke at the Business in the Community’s Waste to Wealth Summit in Glasgow and it was great to meet with so many Scottish business leaders and learn about their commitment to not just tackle issues of waste but realise actual commercial opportunity through circular thinking. The amount of case studies on display and appetite for action from such a wide spectrum of businesses was significant. The circular economy is quite clearly moving mainstream.

It is estimated that a circular economy approach could be worth up to £3billion for the Scottish economy. Business leaders are increasingly realising there is a lot to be gained by not just getting their own house in order, but also being open to work up and down their supply chain for longer-term economic and environmental benefit.

Just as new markets present previously untapped potential for growing businesses, changing attitudes and technologies also provide opportunities for us to work more effectively and efficiently than before.

The Internet of Things and other new approaches are combining with an innovative and entrepreneurial culture to enable business leaders to explore new business models and pioneer new approaches to commerce and customer engagement.

But the real power businesses have is in their collective action to usher in a completely new way of doing business. Working together with others will transform our economy for the better not just in Scotland but around the globe. The accepted lexicon of circular strategies the world over is collaboration and it is clear that there is a growing role for organisations such as Business in the Community to shape their networking to support collaborative working in all its guises.

For me there are four ways that businesses can increase their collaborative working.

Staff engagement - Collaborating with a business’s own workforce is the first place to start. I am often amazed when I visit companies we have supported through our Resource Efficiency Service to hear the adoption of resource efficient actions is often down to staff suggestions. From increased recycling, to switching to LED lights – staff are encouraging their bosses to become more environmentally friendly and go further to deliver credible social responsibility programmes that have serious local impacts.  Even charging for single use coffee cups in workplace canteens (or an outright ban as in the case of Scottish Government buildings) has not caused employee unrest – rather, it has been embraced by staff with an almost “about time” response.

‘Open-minded’ procurement – Collaborating with suppliers and putting ‘procurement where one’s mouth is’ and trialling opportunities for new business models with both existing and new suppliers will accelerate the development of a wider market pull for new innovative practices.  We work with more than 100 companies on circular economy business models but many lack the opportunity to really test their model at the coal face with partner companies willing to try a new approach out.

Companies could therefore use their procurement to shape the future by piloting ideas by many of these entrepreneurs. Whether it is leasing office furniture, staff uniforms or IT equipment, there is a need to test at scale to showcase the benefits as well as send a signal to investors that the market is willing and able to adopt the new approach.

New networks – As well as collaboration up and down the supply chain there are also significant opportunities within new networks across sectors. Our work with city and region partners, such as the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, has shown that progress can happen faster by bringing business leaders together from diverse industries and sectors. In illustration, the Jaw Brew brewery in Glasgow using unsold rolls from Auld’s Bakers to make its Hardtack beer is an effective example of the circular economy in action.

Forward planning – Looking further ahead I believe that business should be engaging more formally with schools, colleges and universities to ensure the future workforce is equipped for employment in the circular economy. Regardless of discipline, an understanding is required of the opportunities available whether it is design, engineering, financial services, business management, IT or manufacturing. Collaboration between key trade bodies and industry leaders with schools and academia will be key to building the foundations for future advances in circular thinking.

There is a new enlightenment alive in Scotland. We are recognised as a global leader in developing the circular economy and all eyes are on us as we pioneer the path ahead for others to follow. Collaboration will be fundamental in achieving the potential of the circular economy. Working together and sharing our stories with each other and with the rest of the world will also be important and will help build momentum and fast track progress at an ever increasing rate. The circular economy isn’t a race to see who wins but a journey we all need to make together and so the  power of the collective is the key.

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