These reflections are adapted from Alice Henry’s closing remarks at WCEF 2021. You can view those remarks here, as well as the full recordings from Day 1 and Day 2.
We heard time and again over the two days at WCEF 2021 that circularity is not a new concept, but still a vital one to the wellbeing of our communities, both human and non-human. The world we find ourselves in touts layers of complexity, and yet people across the world are also connected by more than ever before, be it through virtual connections, vast supply chains, or values that transcend cultures, geography, and language. That is our first step in this journey after all: understanding that which binds us and the systemic hurdles that can be more easily overcome through collaboration. Game changers cannot thrive in isolation.
As Carol Anne Hilton said in her address, a return to circularity can be looked at “as a chance to return to humanity itself.” Many of you are familiar with Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, but what I often find myself referencing even more is her model of The Embedded Economy (pictured below), “which nests the economy within society and within the living world while recognising the diverse ways in which it can meet people's needs and wants.”
Over the past decades, many lifestyles and the systems that support them evolved to prioritize speed, convenience, and more more more. Those of us who have been working in this field for years have surely questioned when the breakneck pace of development might slow or when public opinion would begin to pump the brakes long enough for other visions of a better life, a better future, and better systems to uphold them might take root. We’re now seeing that happen, and we’re seeing young leaders at the helm pushing these conversations forward in their homes, their schools, their communities, and on the world stage.
We heard from speakers that the costs of a linear economy have disproportionately burdened communities of color across the world, and it’s time that those communities are not only invited to the table, but that their needs are centred in the conversation and they are given the lead to change the course. Let’s be humble in our approach to collaboration. After all, we do not know what we do not know. We do not all need to be experts on every single aspect; let people share their lived experience and lead action in their communities. The circular economy cannot only empower people to take action for a better society and to mitigate climate change, but the circular economy can also create inclusive jobs and make goods and services more affordable and accessible. These qualities can make a transition to the next economy more just and prosperous, though we need to keep in mind that a circular economy does not inherently guarantee justice and inclusivity, so we need to keep those goals at the forefront of our minds.
We also heard that a circular economy is a return to nature, that beyond preserving the value of resources, we have the opportunity to regenerate and replenish our natural systems. These systems are not only critical to our own wellbeing, but to the many species we share this planet with. We need to think beyond our current borders and boundaries to realize fully circular systems rather than standalone circular solutions.
We will need to make changes both incremental and systemic, as individuals and as a collective. Everyone is engaged in the circular economy, it just might look different for different people. The reasons, the motivations behind their actions might not be linked to circularity, or even to sustainability, but everyone still engages in the circular economy. What we need to ask is how the circular economy eases the challenges people in our communities are facing. What are the other ways we might frame the circular economy outside of sustainability? Living in harmony with nature and in an economy that prioritizes human wellbeing should be anything but dull; adopting circularity can fill our lives with joy, experiences, and connection.
As we move on from these two days at WCEF 2021, I want to echo the remarks made by Professor Ishii on Day 1: It’s time to raise ambitions. We have a pretty good idea of the road that lies ahead of us, and it’s not easy. Most of the changes we need to see have to be made in the next 5 years. However, today we have more avenues by which to get there. Agile SMEs and cross-sectoral collaborations are demonstrating what our future can look like, and we’re starting to see the finance sector shift towards supporting their efforts. We can mimic natural systems in our innovations, and we can honor and uplift Indigenous peoples and the traditional, land-based knowledge they have learned over time immemorial within our pursuits. We can pivot from an economy focused on growth to an economy focused on rich ecosystems and vibrant, full lives.
I come to events like WCEF for the fire I feel in my stomach afterwards. I get reinvigorated to not just do the work I show up for everyday, but to do the work not being done, to fill the gaps I see in my community. As you all discuss outcomes and how to get there in the weeks and months ahead, consider what actually needs to happen to change the game and who needs to be alongside us to make it happen.