Needed: Common Language and Metrics for a Circular Economy

Different Languages
May 19, 2020

There is a story from the Book of Genesis that speaks about a time when all the people spoke the same language. Together, they devised a plan to build a tower to reach God. As they built, however, God did not approve. He caused everyone to speak a different language so that the work could not continue.

In this story, a universal language wasn’t appreciated.

This is not the case in the construction of a circular economy.

If a push towards such an economy is to continue, there is a need for commonality in language, definitions, and metrics.

This became clear at Harvard’s Circular Economy Symposium 2020 held in March as the message was repeated among several of the key speakers.

For example, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute Senior Technical Manager Dr. Justin Bours, said in his talk, Three Keys for a Successful Transition to the Circular Economy, “…how we define a circular product, aligning definitions and language of circularity across industries, sectors, and geographies will help us unlock even greater collaboration, connection, and innovation…”

And there is a need for greater cross-sector collaboration between policy makers, financial institutions, and researchers.

As well as innovation. Dr. Bours said, “… business models and systems for materials cycling look different in sparsely populated, low-infrastructure regions versus highly populated, high-infrastructure regions. To be successful, we need to solve for circularity locally and globally.”

But in order to achieve this type of innovation and collaboration, one needs to have a common baseline from which to work.

In the 2020 State of Green Business Report from GreenBiz, Lauren Phipps writes: “As more companies set audacious circularity goals, such as IKEA’s aim to be a fully circular business by 2030, success can be as achievable or elusive as it sees fit, given that each organization currently defines progress on circularity in its own way. Although the conceptualizing of circularity varies widely from a chemical manufacturer to a furniture business to a software company, cross-sector metrics will enable companies to at least speak the same language.”

Several circular economy metric companies are making it their business to make this happen by measuring more than just material flow. Here are a few:

Non-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, for example, offers a set of metrics that include considerations of sourcing (e.g. recycled or renewable content), design (intentional end-of-life strategy such as disassembly), recoverable content (recyclability or bio-degradability), as well as investment in infrastructure to enable end-of-life strategies.

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) developed a global Waste Standard, which translates principles of circularity into waste disclosures. This shifts the framing from an unwanted burden to a holistically managed material. By measuring and analyzing their performance on waste, companies will be able to track their progress against targets and move towards a more sustainable future, the GRI says.

Circulytics, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, supports a company’s transition towards the circular economy by offering a measuring tool that uses enablers and outcomes to analyze how much a company has achieved circularity across the entire operation.

These are just a few in a burgeoning field of organizations that aim to help bridge the communications gap.

Whatever circular economy means to you, it certainly will be a lot easier if everyone speaks the same language from cradle to grave and everywhere in between.


Laurie Toupin