‘Yes, we agree on the need for circularity in the economy. But, give me an example’. Daniel Franklin, Executive Editor of The Economist did not say these words throughout the day, but sort of. During an event lined with excellent speakers from across sectors, he kept questioning them incisively. Among the many highlights of a genuinely interesting gathering, let me focus on two: concreteness and hope.
Questions from both the event maestros and the audience reminded us the importance of being concrete, specific about how good intentions look like on the ground. But explaining how generic principles apply in reality is hard. In fact, research on human perspectives and conflicts tells us that we tend to agree on generic principles (e.g. being sustainable), and that most disagreement emerges as we discuss how to make these happen (e.g. focus on consumers, or on producers? Sustainable palm oil? Or other oils?).
The lack of concreteness can weaken a message and make it feel like ‘one more of what we all know’. In turn, specific messages invite much more engagement. Journal editors see this also behind the scenes: many manuscripts have excellent policy implications, so excellent that one can hardly disagree. But also so generic that one can hardly visualize them in reality. Either there are few real examples, or we have not thought through this enough.
Take the example of the clothing industry. In this event, we heard some of its players aiming to implement circularity in their products and be driving leaders. It sounds great, but, show me the facts: tell me what you’ve done, or what you plan to do. And here they go: the speaker explains research to extract the material from used garments (predominantly cotton and polyester) and recycle it into new fashion, with no visible effect for consumers but a great one for the environment; schemes where users can bring their clothes to be repaired at the shop; used-clothing return schemes; sharing, repurposing, rethinking... Good. What’s next? How can an industry which benefits from fast fashion, act upon the imperative to reduce its expansion and speed?
Interestingly, references to the family were a common denominator among speakers. One’s motto in making decisions was (approx.) WMKA — Would My Kids Approve? Another one summarized cooperation for the common good in their grandma’s words (approx.): ‘I can clean my front door but am not able to clean the whole street. If everyone cleaned their front door, our street would be clean’. Another one thus framed astounding generational changes: their mum had died at 65 and —they reflected— children born then might witness the collapse of the food system when they turn 65.
From visions of collapse to hope. Many speakers and those in the audience spoke about implementing the circular economy, and that gave me hope. A few decades ago, ‘circular economy’ was a transgressive, quasi-revolutionary concept mainly discussed within few academic circles. At the time, some of its advocates felt frustration because such a good idea was so very far from being widely embraced, even just known. This seems to happen with many good sustainability ideas, and minority academics (like my younger self) feel defeated; no matter how great these ideas, they wouldn’t spread to major economic actors.
Fast forward 2019 and these ideas actually transpired. The circular economy discourse is mainstreaming, as it was clear from conversations at this event. We (science professionals) just needed patience. Okay, you might argue urgent problems can't wait, and that better ideas have superseded these older ones in some academic circles. But, hey, they finally spread and so there is hope for current niche academic ideas to become mainstream too. In fact, much research on diffusion (of innovations) duly shows that such innovations (ideas, in this case) take some time while pioneers embrace them (academics?). Once the mass of adopters becomes critical, they shoot up —or vanish, if criticality isn’t reached. So, to my younger self I'd say: don’t despair, good ideas for sustainability find their way —we just need to persist in persuasion.
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