Sustainability, Circular Economy and the Danger of Greenwashing

The global mean temperature is increasing, sea levels are rising and biodiversity is declining at an alarmingly rapid rate throughout the world. Our world continues to grow, and our environmental footprint with it. Planet earth is facing great challenges. You might even say we are experiencing an actual environmental crisis.

How do we address climate change, air pollution, species extinction and the numerous environmental problems?

For a lot of people, the answer seems to be sustainability and circular economy.

What are Sustainability and Circular Economy?

The terms “sustainability” and the “circular economy” have gained momentum from policy makers, businesses and NGOs all around the world. 

A definition of sustainable development was published by the United Nations in 1987 with the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainability is the balance of the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015 by the United Nations “as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.” 

The concept of circular economies (or “circularity”) has been advocated by  the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since its founding in 2010 and is “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”.

Joséphine von Mitschke-Collande and Micha Narberhaus describe it as a model 

…to optimise resource-use yields in the economy and, as a consequence, minimise the creation of waste. The core idea is to ‘close the entire loop’ of the production cycle (cradle-to-cradle) and maximise the recycling and re-use of material. The concept promotes new product design to facilitate such re-use and recycling, as well as new product-service models that transform the way we consume and who owns the product.

Nowadays, many countries are producing their own ambitious SDGs and circular economy agendas. Many of them perceive the model as an almost magical solution to tackle the global environmental crisis and a promise of new “green growth”.
The European Commission is fostering the implementation of a Circular Economy Action Plan across Europe, and has declared that a “greener economy means new growth and job opportunities“.

The recent upsurge of political and business interest in the idea of the circular economy raises a crucial question: Is this a holistic transformation and a great change, or only a greener version of business as usual?

As awareness of environmental crises and climate change has grown in recent years, many corporations and retailers have responded by making grandiose promises of improved sustainability. 

Riding on the back of the current circular economy hype, many companies say they are committed to tackle the environmental crisis they helped create, but they keep investing in the wrong “solutions”, hoping only that big business can continue to flourish, fueled by new opportunities and expanding markets. 

What we need is a fundamental change in the way our society and economy work, towards a truly circular and sustainable economy model! There’s no time to waste offering false hope by “greenwashing”. 

In a 2015 op-ed, Sevan Holemans, a social innovation and sustainability entrepreneur who launched an urban agriculture business in Brussels, raises the question: 

How can companies such as Apple, H&M or Nestlé claim to “accelerate the transition towards circular economy” and receive prizes for their “considerable achievements” in the field, and yet simultaneously continue polluting? All the while, their business models encourage and rely upon a system of endless consumption and economic growth.

A good example of this is last month’s launch of Coca-Cola’s new bottles made from Ocean Plastic: “Introducing a World-First: A Coke Bottle Made with Plastic from the Sea”

Coca-Cola has presented a disposable bottle of marine plastic and tries to portray it as environmentally friendly. However, in the same month, the movement Break Free From Plastic conducted a global brand audit report, and found the beverage giant to be the most polluting global brand, and was responsible for more plastic litter than Nestle, Pepsico and Unilever, combined.

In an October 2019 press release, Coca-Cola claimed it had produced around 300 sample bottles made partly with recycled marine plastic from beaches and the sea: “A small step for now, but the technology behind it has big potential”. 

Instead of doing something good for the environment, the allegedly innovative recycling approach is more likely to legitimize the littering of the oceans with plastic waste and even portray it as something positive. Coca-Cola may have produced a few hundred bottles with 25% recycled marine plastic, but that pales in comparison to the more than three million tonnes of plastic the company produces every year. 

The focus is not on “real” solutions and true changes of mindset, such as waste prevention, but instead on recycling. When Coca Cola chooses not to advocate truly impactful approaches and ways of thinking—like ignoring waste prevention and focusing instead on recycling—it actually legitimizes the increase of marine plastic pollution and distracts from real solutions. This is greenwashing at its finest!

For example, most of plastic in the oceans is of poor quality because of degradation and not suitable for recycling. Furthermore, it decomposes into microplastic, which can’t be removed from the water and is absorbed by marine life. Clearly, the plastic problem has to be addressed at the beginning and not at the end. One solution could be for companies like Coca-Cola to advocate reusable, returnable bottles as well as deposit systems so that their packaging is returned to stores and not disposed of. 

Do companies and policy makers—intentionally or unintentionally—abuse and misuse the principles of sustainability, zero waste and circular economy for greenwashing? Why do companies say they are committed to tackle the environmental crisis they helped create, but keep investing in misguided “solutions” while on the sustainability bandwagon? Why do they use the circular economy to promote “green growth” instead of a real change?

In that same op-ed, Holemans wonders: 

Should I still be proud to present my urban farm as a model of the circular economy then? Or is my definition of circularity as faulty one as the one put forward by these brand-name companies? Are we really looking in the same direction and pushing for the same economic transition?

In a series of articles, COLLECTIVE GREEN further explores sustainability and the circular economy, the differences between the concepts and what might be the “right” direction to create a sustainable and truly circular economy.

By Stefan Simon for COLLECTIVE GREEN