02 Aug 2023

Circularity is key for creating a sustainable economy

Dr. Birgit Vallmüür will be participating on a panel  at the IFA Sustainability Village on September 1st.

Sustainability and the circular economy are major themes at IFA this year — but how does one fit into the other? In this piece, we explore how companies can make use of circularity to improve their sustainability performance.

Dr. Birgit Vallmüür, a keynote speaker at IFA this year, is the founder and managing director of London-based sustainability and ESG consulting firm TitanSwan, an organisation that helps corporations and governments with their sustainability strategies. On top of this, she’s also a recognised keynote speaker in sustainability.

Ahead of IFA 2023, we spoke with Dr. Birgit Vallmüür about some of the challenges around sustainability and circularity that companies face — and how they can be overcome with technology.

One of Dr. Vallmüür’s key points of interest is circularity. In simple terms, circularity refers to renewing or regenerating resources, products and services instead of wasting them. This means when a product is created, the materials and construction have been designed with its end-life and what happens after already in mind. The idea might seem simple, but when it comes to integrating circularity and sustainability into a company’s strategy and lifeblood, there are a number of challenges companies face.

Let’s dive in.

What comes first: innovation or regulation? 

According to Dr. Vallmüür, technology is a key driver of sustainability. The problem, though, comes with the fact that, often, executives and entrepreneurs believe that it comes from intervention and regulation.

In reality, innovation comes first.

“Innovation tends to precede regulation,” Dr. Vallmüür says, “governments do not regulate a particular technological solution to be mandatory before it exists”.

In other words, innovation in sustainability is driven by technology. If the business world is going to get greener, the focus should be on supporting invention.

But what is the innovation we should be looking towards to drive sustainability?

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Thinking circular: moving from competition to collaboration

Interestingly, Dr. Vallmüür doesn’t believe in focusing on a particular technology. Instead, she thinks that the most important thing to do is integrating circularity into the way we think about technology overall.

The goal, then, is creating business models around repairing, reconditioning, reusing and recycling. 

“Without circularity, we simply cannot sustain our lives and economy on this planet.”

Dr. Vallmüür stresses that we should be moving away from a traditional view of competitors and towards one of collaborators: “We need to understand that our current competitors are also potentially creating products today that we will be using materials from in the future.” 

From a circular and sustainable point of view, all innovations that benefit the preservation of resources benefit society as a whole.

Surplus heat usage is a fantastic way to highlight how our perspective needs to change. For example, things like data centres often produce huge amounts of heat energy that just disappears. If we can harness this, then we can make savings elsewhere.

And that’s not all. Wastewater can be used as a resource for energy and nutrients, and then eventually reusing the water. 

Another example is the metro in Paris which recently turned six turnstiles into mini-turbines, a solution that — according to an expert — could power an entire subway line if scaled up to the metro’s annual 1.5 billion passengers. 

With all this in mind, Dr. Vallmüür talks about the key driver of making circularity a reality being about not limiting your perspective: “The most promising advancement is that of ambition and imagination and the drive to scale it.” 

We have to be ready to think boldly and outside of the box to find truly innovative solutions.

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What’s the main challenge?

There are of course challenges to shifting a company’s approach when it comes to sustainability, and according to Dr. Vallmüür one of the main ones is leadership on all levels.

 “We need to put the leadership back into sustainability leadership,” she tells us. 

She suggests that the way to do this is through awareness and re-focusing on improving the leadership skills of sustainability executives and professionals. In order for companies to transition to a more sustainable and circular model, it has to come from the top. 

“To a large extent, it boils down to leading on sustainability – going beyond business as usual.”

Following this line of reasoning, sustainability shouldn’t just be something tacked on to a strategy, it has to be a priority on all levels and valued as the measure of an effective leader as well.

Data doesn’t lie

“Question your assumptions and really look into data,” Dr. Vallmüür says when talking about the importance of facts and figures when it comes to sustainability.

The key, though, is really interrogating our preconceptions.

Regarding this, Dr. Vallmüür tells us a story about a technology company that creates both software and hardware that discovered, after looking at its data in detail, that its biggest carbon emitters were not data centres or hardware — but rather business travel. 

She also warns against blindly trusting the data of external service providers and highlights the importance of each company contributing to available data. For example, by providing reliable emission data for their products and services.  

“We need to start to think beyond how we can create meaningful outcomes ourselves, and consider how we enable others to create meaningful outcomes also – both upstream and downstream.”

Every company is concerned by the future of the planet, and accurate data is a key component of any effective sustainability strategy.

But what else can be done?

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Strategies for sustainability

When it comes to what impactful strategies companies should aim to establish, Dr. Vallmüür emphasises the importance of determining a short-term strategy and taking action now: “A long-term strategy may never happen if we do not take meaningful steps in the present.” 

She also underlines the importance of not simply thinking about sustainability as an add-on, but rather concretely linking it to the company’s global strategy. 

“It is always more sustainable to build sustainability into a business model and link it with financial results,” she says.

At the end of the day, we are all impacted by sustainability and Dr. Vallmüür stresses that it is important to think beyond one company. Instead, we should focus on industry innovation as a whole.

For example, an inventive and fresh product can inspire copycats, which can push the entire sector in a more sustainable direction.

Dr. Vallmüür sums it up: “Thinking about your impactful sustainability strategy should involve thinking beyond your own sustainability strategy.”

Dr. Birgit Vallmüür will be participating on the panel for the Top of the sustainability class at IFA 2023 held on Friday 1 September from 3:35 p.m. to 4:05 p.m. This will be a masterclass in creating a big thinking sustainability strategy and achieving a good sustainability rating.