The Dutch are well known for producing master painters. Now two brothers from the Netherlands are extending this reputation for quality to the production of sustainable paints, which promote the local circular economy.

Toon and Michiel van Westerhoven run a family firm called Rigo, which has made paint, oil and varnish since 1938. But the products they currently produce are far from traditional - and are used for covering walls instead of canvases.

Aware that 'plastic paint' and petroleum were slowly starting to deplete the earth, since the 1970s the business has focused on translating sustainability into products such as Aquamarine line oil paint and RigoStep water-based paints.

Their oil paints depend on locally grown flax, which is heated and pressed by traditional windmills to extract the oil. Once mixed with other solvents, this forms the liquid base for the paint.

Dutch flax is more expensive than imported varieties, but the business is not wholly concerned with maximizing profits.

The winds of change

Rigo is run with input from employees, who take pride in producing a high-quality, sustainable and locally-sourced product that supports Dutch farmers and millers.

Using local flax reduces the company’s environmental footprint, as it cuts out transport emissions associated with importing raw materials long distances.

A lone jogger passes a windmill during an early morning jog through the Dutch town of Kinderdijk December 20. The unique Dutch windmills, which recently have been put on the United Nations list of world heritage sites, were used in the past to prevent the low-lands from flooding and have now become a popular tourist attraction. - PBEAHUMRVCI
Traditional windmills are carbon neutral
Image: Reuters/Jasper Juinen

It’s a win-win situation for farmers, too, as growing flax helps revitalise agricultural land through crop rotation. While crops like potatoes earn higher incomes, they can’t be grown year-round, so flax offers an ideal solution.

Gaining ground

The concept of recycling, reusing or extending the life of household and commercial waste is gaining ground in the Netherlands.

An ABM Amro survey of 1,400 Dutch adults found more than half of respondents would consume sustainable products. Two-thirds said they were open to buying used items.

But not all respondents were convinced of the benefits of the circular economy. The survey exposed some reluctance to pay extra for sustainable products, while for others there was a trust issue.

More than half of survey respondents would consume sustainable products
Image: Statista

Almost half of people who do not buy sustainable goods said the main reason was the additional financial cost involved.

A slightly lower percentage said they didn’t trust products labelled as sustainable, to be truly sustainable - and 25% were not prepared to invest time in checking the provenance of the products they purchased.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

But change is needed, both in terms of attitudes to sustainability and how the things we eat and use are produced, as current production methods are unsustainable in the long-term.

The global population is set to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, according to figures from the United Nations, putting unprecedented demands on the planet’s scarce resources. At the same time, climate change adds an element of uncertainty to food security and resource allocation.

Initiatives that promote the circular economy help the environment and raise awareness of the dangers of adopting a business-as-usual approach.

But for the circular economy to operate at scale, policymakers must create a framework for innovation, technology and leadership to come together and release its true potential.