Stephanie Johnston: The Talking in Circles series


New columnist Stephanie Johnston introduces an exciting new series of articles on the circular economy for Salt online: Talking in Circles.

Steph Nov14[1]Once upon a time…. the earth was flat. We used to ask: how far do we need to travel to reach the place where the sun sets? And then there was the worry about what would happen when you reached the ‘end’ of the earth.

It took some brave and persistent souls to challenge the prevailing wisdom, but perhaps not surprisingly given the human condition and its desire for answers, we eventually shed our fears of falling off the edge.

Nowadays we’re busy worrying about falling off a different kind of edge, with the earth nearing its capacity to support our expanding population, perhaps most compellingly articulated in the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ model by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. And if we’re not busy fearing the earth’s resource limits we’re panicking about the social and economic tensions we’ve created and fuelled with our ever-divergent views on history and politics.

So, as humans do, we look for answers. Individuals and organisations alike frantically wrangle with how the concept of sustainability can fit within their lifestyle or organisation. In other words they work within their existing systems and frames of reference, moulding the concept of sustainability so that it fits them.

And they’re not alone. Many initiatives seek to resolve our apparent socio-environmental crises from within existing and understood systems and processes. Take the Natural Capital Project, the TEEB Coalition and the IIRC for example: organisations set up with the goal of finding ways to take the foundations of traditional quant-based accounting and apply and standardise it in the non-financial realm. But to want to adapt their existing approach, people and businesses require incentives, and often the simplicity of the status quo stands in the way of change.

Towards the end of 2013, the UN Global Compact and Accenture CEO Study on sustainability bemoaned businesses’ tendency towards incrementalism reflecting that progress in sustainability had plateaued. It called for business to pursue nothing short of ‘transformative’ action and nearly two years on that need exists more than ever.

So perhaps we should learn something from our ancestors who didn’t settle for working out how far it was to the end of the earth, but instead began an altogether more disruptive and eventually more fruitful line of enquiry. Perhaps we should reflect more often on whether we’re asking the right question rather than whether we’ve found the right answer.

While some may continue to chip away at how sustainability can fit the existing mould, others are busy asking a completely different set of questions, intent on creating a whole new system modelled on the assumption that it’s the way we live our lives, not just the earth itself that is more fundamentally ‘circular’ than we believed.

The idea of a circular economy cannot be traced back to a single author or date but one of its most prominent supporters, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, last week released a groundbreaking piece of analysis quantifying the potential benefits of a circular economy for the European market. To mark what represents a turning point in not just asking, but actually answering a whole new set of questions, I’ll be tracing the stories of a number of people and organisations who are playing a part in a more circular approach. In the coming weeks, the ‘Talking in Circles’ Series will be seeking out those challenging the norm in unique and innovative ways.

Some are asking questions focused on playing a part in this ‘circular economy’ in a unique and innovative way:

  • How can we start a journey using more sustainable approaches from the outset?
  • How can we open up access to this system to more people in more places?
  • How can we extend the useful duration or the efficiency of the things we need and use?
  • How can we create an appetite for re-using, or ‘taking back’ rather than starting all over?


Others are working on ways to enable or facilitate it further:

  • How can we communicate effectively to increase awareness and understanding of circularity?
  • How can we increase participation in the circular economy through the community?
  • How can we monitor and analyse effectiveness to continuously improve?
  • How can we develop skillsets to increase its accessibility?

So let’s talk in circles and you never know, we might just live…. happily ever after.

Do you know someone who’s working towards or delivering ideas or innovations taking a more circular approach? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me on Twitter @stephiejohnno or by email at with subject line: FAO Steph Johnston.

An enthusiastic communications professional, Stephanie has worked on sustainability programs with a number of large corporations in London and across Europe. Formerly a London resident she’s now putting the ‘new’ in New York and is busy discovering the US take on sustainable business. Stephanie is passionate about the role business can play in a more just and sustainable society, and believes more people will want to achieve that the more they know how.


Photo credit: Parolan Harahap from flickr