Salt columnist Stephanie Johnston continues her Talking in Circles series with a look at the Netherlands’ mission to become the world’s first circular economy hotspot.
The Dutch are often first. The Netherlands was the first to establish a stock exchange (Amsterdam), the first to set up a multinational corporation (The Dutch East India Company), the first to discover Australia, and the first to colonise New York (or New Amsterdam as it was then). But more recently, the Dutch have been achieving some impressive firsts in the ‘sustainability’ sphere. In June of this year the Hague District Court was the first ever court to order its own government to take action on global warming. And now, the Netherlands, a country with a population of just under 17 million (less than each of the largest ten cities in the world) is set to become the world’s first circular economy hotspot.
What on earth is that?
In practical terms this means that the Netherlands would become internationally recognised as a model regenerative economy, capable of decoupling its economic growth from the consumption of limited resources. As a country, it would house the most relevant knowledge and experience in the field of circular business, and would represent a blueprint for best practice, applied by multinationals, SMEs, and local and national government.
The architect of the circular economy hotspot project, Guido Braam, is a circular entrepreneur in his own right, and until recently was director of ‘Circle Economy’, the non-profit cooperative driving this effort. Braam insists that it’s about setting a global challenge rather than pursuing an act of national pride: “It’s not because I’m that patriotic”, he says, then going on to explain that although the circular economy demands cooperation in favour of competition, the concept can still benefit from our innate desire to be challenged and to compete. “If the prime minister of the Netherlands says we’ll be a hotspot then we’re obligated to make an effort,” he says. “At the same time it challenges other countries. Maybe it’s childish but it’s about making progress at the end of the day”.
As the globally renowned architect of ‘polders’ (low-lying land reclaimed from the sea) the Dutch are no strangers to a challenge, and in fact in some ways the land and resource limitations of this small country are all the more reason to pursue the idea of a circular economy. “We’re very vulnerable in terms of resources”, explains Braam. “In fact, we’re a bit like Singapore with a bit of extra land, and so we need to manage our resources in the most optimal way.” Its reclamation techniques have perhaps most famously been employed in creating ‘Palm Island’ in Dubai. The Netherlands now has the opportunity to turn its ‘circularity’ into a successful export, functioning as a living laboratory for the concept in practice.
Making it happen
Despite the fact that the Netherlands could almost be an overgrown city, making it easier to test things, it’s not always straightforward to turn theory into practice. With quite a claim on the table, the Dutch have a real challenge on their hands. But there’s a clear logic to Braam’s roadmap, which assures me that this might be more than just an elaborate PR exercise.
He describes the necessity to focus on the cities because of the nature of them as net ‘consumers’ (as opposed to the rural ‘producers’) and he talks about the need to ultimately drive cities towards a state of self-sustenance. It’s a model that’s actively being pursued in Amsterdam and Rotterdam alike.
Braam recognises that Circle Economy and indeed its partners could undertake hundreds of projects without actually having an impact. “We’ve developed a system scan methodology which seeks to identify the biggest issues and points of leverage in different areas and industries”, he explains. “Once we’ve pinpointed those, we find members who are well placed to undertake pilot projects to address them.”
However, despite being based on solid theory, and focused on practical action, when the underlying arguments remain technical, and detached from the everyday consumer, is this really enough?
Braam is quick to point out that the new man at the helm of Circle Economy, Andy Ridley, the founder of WWF’s global movement ‘Earth Hour’, has this firmly on his radar. “We know the circular economy can get quite technical,” he says, “and Andy recognises the value of making it much more accessible to people going about their everyday lives.”
An unachievable goal
Even with consumers on board, creating a new paradigm in industry and politics is not without its challenges. Although the team at Circle Economy is proving to be very useful to policymakers and politicians because of the sheer volume of projects it has undertaken and therefore obstacles it can explain concretely how to solve, it’s far from straightforward to instigate this level of change.
A detailed understanding of the issues at hand and the legal adjustments required is simply no substitute for money and power. For one, the economic value created by large Dutch multinationals like Shell, whose vested interest so often conflicts with an agenda like this, creates an inherent challenge. And yet the often unspoken political influence of corporates is perhaps equally matched by the cultural challenge that Braam is not ashamed to share. “The Dutch culture isn’t a culture where we’re comfortable making mistakes,” he laughs. “So here, in SMEs, you need people to be brave to pursue innovations, but in large, risk averse corporates you really need a person who is willing to sacrifice their own job the moment it goes wrong.”
Meanwhile, declaring success will not be simple either. “Our effort is really going into measuring the impact of a circular economy, rather than trying to measure the success of the Netherlands hotspot itself,” confesses Braam. “The difficulty is that any measurement needs to be both systemic and holistic”, he goes on to explain. “For example, if the Netherlands wants to achieve 75 per cent recyclability rate, you might call that a success for the circular economy but if you’re not taking into account a lot of fossil energy used to achieve that goal then you’re still not there. Plus, you can never have one target for the circular economy, so there needs to be a balance on that front.”
But for all of the challenges to overcome, there are also many success stories already emerging. As well as supporting the establishment of ‘The Valley’, a circular hub close to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, Circle Economy is successfully brokering pilots with the likes of multinational Philips around the way in which its components and materials are reused. Perhaps most promisingly Circle Economy is also midway through developing a Circular Investment Assessment with pension cooperative PGGM, which seeks to successfully identify investments supporting the circular agenda. Should this prove to be a profitable investment pool, this could soon transform the way in which billions of Euros of consumers’ own funds are invested.
If anyone can do it…
With its EU presidency on the horizon, the Netherlands is certainly setting the bar high on national innovation, and at the same time creating an association that may work in its favour long term. In Braam’s mind, that is key: “Just as people move to Silicon Valley to start technology ventures, I would say mission accomplished as soon as two out of ten people starting a business around the circular economy move to the Netherlands because that’s the place to be.”
Perhaps most importantly for an agenda that requires tireless collaboration, this pursuit is one that the man at the helm will willingly share. “I don’t care if the Netherlands doesn’t actually become the first circular hotspot,” Braam confesses, smiling. “If someone else thinks they’ve got there first that’s fine: I just don’t want the circular economy journey to stop here.”
So it seems if the Dutch have anything to do with it, this will be a ‘circle’ that, true to form, never ends.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with subject line: FAO Steph Johnston.
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Photo Credit: Daniel Wehner from flickr