What is circular economy and how can small businesses get started?

Waste is the unnecessary enemy of small business.

Whether it’s time or money, business owners take an almost microscopic view of their books and their productivity, ensuring their business is working for them in all the right ways.

But increasingly in the past decade, businesses have dipped their toes into what being sustainable actually means – in every sense of the word.

If you’ve heard the term circular economy and brushed it off as a buzzword, you should consider this: University of Melbourne researchers say industries perceived as unsustainable are finding it harder to attract finance; have more trouble hiring the best talent; and are experiencing backlash from customers who want to feel good about the sustainable purchases they make.

It’s these realities – and the fact businesses are just better corporate citizens when they are sustainable – that Ashleigh Morris, the CEO of award-winning circular economy consultancy Coreo, says are vital for small businesses to recognise and act upon.

Ashleigh Morris

“If you come back to circular economy’s three core principles, that is the easiest way to understand what it’s all about,” she says. 

“And if you follow those, you’re going to end up in a better place than you are today, and that’s irrespective of the size of business or type of business you have.”

The three core principles of circular economy

To get the simplest view of what it takes to enact circular economy in your business, Morris says it comes back to looking at three core areas: 

  • Designing out waste and pollution
  • Keeping products and materials at their highest value for as long as possible
  • Regenerating our natural systems

She says businesses can start by asking the right questions and realising the potential outcomes. Also it’s important to note that the outcomes aren’t just that your business becomes more environmentally friendly – there are cash savings and profits to be made for businesses that can see the opportunity.

Also it’s important to note that the outcomes aren’t just that your business becomes more environmentally friendly – there are cash savings and profits to be made for businesses that can see the opportunity.

“If you’re a business owner you could say to yourself, ‘Well, how can we design out waste and pollution? How can we keep products and materials at the highest value for as long as possible? And how can we regenerate those natural systems?’ ” Morris says.

“And when you start to then try to find answers to those questions, you might end up doing a waste audit and saying, ‘What types of waste do we even have here? And how much is our waste contract or collections service costing us? And how can then, if I’m looking at designing it out, start to save myself money? Can I maybe form some partnerships with other businesses to divert some of my materials and get the value back out of those, contribute to the community, or to another social enterprise?’ ”

Morris says if you’re feeling daunted about the prospect of where to start, it’s safest to begin using an extremely well-worn idiom in business – what is the low-hanging fruit from which you can benefit straight away?

“Depending on what type of business they are, they’ll be able to identify opportunities under any one of those three questions,” she says. 

“And so I encourage you – where you see the easiest, quick win opportunity – to go after it. You don’t need to make it hard for yourself. Just start getting some quick wins, and building your confidence.

“I think because those principles speak to a diverse range of businesses, they’ll find an opportunity within one of those when they start looking.”

Which businesses have done it, and what did they achieve?

The key word in this is ‘businesses’. Morris says seeing the opportunities to drive partnerships with other companies scales the many benefits of circular economy in a much stronger and effective way.

In fact, the outputs and benefits can be transformative.

“When we started the Circular Experiment in 2017, which was on one city street, we had hairdressers, we had cafes, we had bars, and we had a supermarket there,” she says.

“One of the great projects we saw out of that experiment was the cafes. There were nine of them on the street that sold coffee grounds. They worked together to partner with a local farmer who gave them second-hand plasterers buckets to put their coffee grounds into. She collected that every week, twice a week, and used it on her farm.

“Now keeping coffee grounds out of your bin, it’s a heavy weight of material, it saves you money on your waste contract. You can reduce the volume of your bin, especially if you’re selling quite a lot of coffee. It also facilitates a bit of rapport between the businesses on the street, in terms of anyone that had coffee was participating. So there was a collegiality, you could say, to the value that the businesses held.”

Circular economy practices offer marketing and trust opportunities that businesses can leverage to increase their customers, yes, but also and potentially more importantly increase their market share long-term.

Morris says cost savings are just the tip of the iceberg. Circular economy practices offer marketing and trust opportunities that businesses can leverage to increase their customers, yes, but also and potentially more importantly increase their market share long-term.

“It grabs the attention of your customers, of your community, and also the media,” she says.

“With that initiative these businesses were featured on two separate news channels, they were in print media, they started to get a lot of exposure, and the identity of this street and these businesses started to shift as businesses that suited a purpose, not just selling coffee.

“In practice, we’re still seeing the outcomes unfold, but they are very positive. And what they look like is increased market share. People want to spend money with your business because they have an alignment on values. That’s a big one. And then if they’re spending more money with you and not others, then your bottom line is increasing substantially.”

There are plenty of case studies to support these benefits.

And there is plenty of support available to help businesses take the first step – Morris says it’s as simple as looking at what the different levels of government have to offer.

“At a local government and state government, and now even federal in Australia, we’re seeing grants pop up at all scales for small business, medium-sized and large businesses to participate in the circular economy,” she says. 

“Whether that’s investment in a new solution that a business wants to bring into market, say a startup or an idea, or whether that’s a collaboration of businesses that want to see investment in a shared piece of infrastructure. Maybe it’s an industrial composting unit for one city street to manage food waste. We’re seeing governments provide grants for that.”

And with businesses, governments and individuals now recognising the benefits, it seems sustainability has truly come full circle.

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Brisbane Business Hub

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