Nature and Biodiversity

Why the future of consumption is circular

A worker picks up bottles to throw in a plastic bottle chipper at a recycling workshop in Pakistan

A worker picks up bottles to throw in a plastic bottle chipper at a recycling workshop in Pakistan Image: REUTERS/Caren Firouz

Virginie Helias
Chief Sustainability Officer, Procter & Gamble International Operations SA
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Future of Consumption

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Our environment will soon be stressed beyond capacity. Almost 10 billion people will be living on Earth by 2050. Global GDP is set to quadruple. Earth Overshoot Day, typically in August, is a shocking reminder that we have taken more from the planet than it can renew.

Every resource we use following this day is borrowed from future generations. Based on current consumption patterns, we will soon need three times the amount of natural resources. That means three more planets.

We are already seeing the effects of excessive consumption. Economic losses related to extreme weather have increased by 86% to $129 billion over the last 10 years. Even basic resources like water are under threat. By 2030, the global population is projected to need 40% more water than the planet can sustainably supply.

We urgently need business models that support resource-efficient solutions. To make this happen, we need to partner across industries.

The role of business and brands

Business as usual is no longer enough. Being a force for change and part of the solution is imperative for business survival. Large consumer goods companies that touch the lives of billions of people have an opportunity and responsibility to promote conversations, influence attitudes, change behaviours and provide solutions.

Brands that people love and trust must innovate. But functionality alone will not suffice. Consumers increasingly want brands to take a stand, speak up and do more than just solve a problem. Those that do will be rewarded. Those that do not, risk irrelevance or extinction.

Have you read?

Many brands have already created groundbreaking “circular” solutions, in which resources are reused at the end of their life, rather than disposed of. Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced the first-ever fully recyclable shampoo bottle made from recycled beach plastic at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos. Produced in collaboration with recycling company TerraCycle and waste management firm Suez, the bottle brought an industry innovation to market. It is leading the way in the conversion of packaging to Post-Consumer Recyclate (PCR).

Collaboration by players across the value chain made the bottle possible. P&G's retailer partner Carrefour helped engage shoppers at the point of sale, raising awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean and the role that people can play by recycling. The initiative won a UN Momentum for Change Award.

The world’s first industrial-scale plant capable of recycling virtually 100% of used absorbent hygiene products, such as baby diapers and sanitary towels, was launched in Italy in October 2017. Its technology was developed and patented by Fater S.p.A, a joint venture set up by P&G.

The plant takes used diapers out of landfill and transforms them into secondary raw materials such as plastic, cellulose and absorbing material. These new secondary raw materials are high-quality and can be used in many applications. One tonne of AHP waste, after being separated from human waste, yields around 150kg of cellulose, 75kg of mixed plastic and 75kg of absorbing material. These can be used in new products and processes such as school desks, biofuels and gardening equipment.

This example of how industry can lead environmental sustainability won the European Commission “Circular Economy Champion” prize for Fater, as well as an EMBRACED grant. (The latter stands for Establishing a Multi-purpose Biorefinery for the Recycling of the organic content of AHP waste in Circular Economy Domain.)

We can eliminate absorbent hygiene products from landfills if we can scale this model in collaboration with local authorities and institutions. This would create a parallel growth cycle out of waste.

Partnership and innovation

Embracing the circular economy is the biggest opportunity of our lifetime. Our shared journey towards a more sustainable future requires new perspectives on consumption and responsibility. Achieving long-term balanced growth can only happen through partnership.

No single company can solve the entire problem. Collaboration with suppliers, retailers, start-ups, governments, cities and civil society will enable business to develop products, services and models that have a net positive contribution to our world.

Together, we can create innovative scalable solutions and shape consumer behaviour. Responsible consumption is the future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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