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The Next Economy
How WRAP Continues to Help Make the #BusinessCase for a Circular Economy

‘If you can’t measure, you can’t manage’ - the first and golden rule of corporate improvement, and key to constructing a case for change. For the emerging practice of ‘circular economy,’ which represents a sea-change in the way we manage our physical resources, the quest for sound metrics is crucial – how do we know what good looks like? I therefore very much welcomed the chance to explore these themes at Sustainable Brands ’15 London, alongside the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and leading companies.

Measurement has been at the heart of WRAP’s mission since its inception in 2000. Set up by the UK government to champion waste prevention and find new markets for recycled materials, WRAP has evolved into a body with a huge knowledge base and expertise in all dimensions of the delivery of the circular economy. These dimensions include innovative design, better recycling techniques, greater reuse of products, and new business models such as leasing, which are based on getting repeated value from a smaller amount of resource. WRAP has provided the evidence for action by countries, companies and individual consumers, and has been the delivery body for projects designed to change behaviour, reduce environmental impact, cut costs, reduce risk, and capture more value from potentially scarce resources.

WRAP was responsible for probably the first visualization of the circular economy that was based on data – our ‘Sankey’ diagrams of flows of materials in the UK economy. A team of economists at WRAP using official statistics undertook this groundbreaking work, and the picture it paints is salutary. In 2000, less than one fifth of all the resources coming into the UK economy was recovered. By 2010 this had improved a little, but WRAP analysis shows that with the right initiatives we could improve it significantly by 2020.

WRAP has also collected data on the products with the highest environmental impact. Putting life cycle data together with sales volumes, we have a map of product ‘hotspots,’ those responsible for the greatest proportion of carbon, water and material impacts. This has helped the companies we work with to target their interventions to the most important products and get biggest ‘bang for the buck.’ In a similar vein, the Courtauld Commitment, the voluntary agreement with companies that has been led by WRAP for the last 10 years, has been underpinned by two key reports on food and drink waste, the most thorough studies of their kind. They show that although food manufacturing and retail operations do waste food, the biggest proportion comes from us as householders, contrary to many people’s expectations. This data has allowed hard targets to be set for individual companies to improve performance on food waste, and on packaging, across the supply chain, including examining the ways in which they communicate with consumers.

This year, Sustainable Brands showcased some of the most exciting developments in Circular Economy thinking internationally, confirming WRAP’s experience that uptake is growing. They included Mud Jeans’ leasing model for jeans (‘borrowing’ your jeans has one-tenth of the impact of buying new); Philips’ decision to sell light rather than light bulbs; and children’s product company Dorel’s adoption of circular thinking as a central part of its sustainability strategy. For WRAP, one of this year’s standout moments has been working with UK retailer Argos, to take back used phones and tablets in exchange for vouchers, and then ensure that they are re-used or recycled. This is a first for a major retailer and wouldn’t have been possible without sound data on the ‘size of the prize’ – the value to be recouped from electrical goods for both the company and the consumer.

As experience grows and data is shared, companies such as these will lead the shift in thinking and practice that we need to protect our resource base for the. Part of a growing international network of expert bodies dedicated to this theme, organisations such as WRAP will be there to help to measure, manage, and spread the word.

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