Knowledge Institute Podcasts
Abbey Road Sessions: James George on Circular Economy
James George, Network Development Lead for Ellen MacArthur Foundation, discusses the profitability of circular economy, popular misconceptions about it and what can businesses do to get on the circular economy journey.
Hosted remotely from Abbey Road Studios by Jeff Kavanaugh, Head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute.
The podcast is a part of our special series on an important global topic, Achieving Resilience in the Stakeholder Capitalist Era.
“We live broadly in what we would describe as a linear economy, a take-make-waste economy. We take stuff out of the ground, we make stuff, and at the end of its useful life we throw it away. So we can get the latest version, or the latest generation, or the latest update of those particular models. The challenge with that is that it's built based on taking stuff out of the ground, which is finite. It's stuff that once we've used it up, we don't get it back.”
- James George
How is James rethinking the future of plastics?
James shares his background.
Did that time in the Royal Navy influence James joining the foundation and his interest in circular economy?
How did James first become interested in the circular economy?
Given that background in charitable work and in the ‘third sector’ as James calls it, how does he define circular economy? What does it really mean?
How is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation contributing to this narrative and helping businesses in these initiatives?
James gives some examples of how the circular economy is good for the so-called triple bottom line, people, planet, profits.
How does a circular economy concept relate to sustainable development goals and are there any conflicts or what's that about?
As these SDGs have developed, there are metrics associated with those. And as people look to adopt them, is James’ work being incorporated into those?
What's the most popular misconception that people have about circular economy?
What business recommendation does James feel strongly that most people in industry don't follow or maybe they don't believe? They might buy into the overall concept, but what recommendation he wishes people would follow more?
James leaves the listeners with one thing that they can do after they're thinking about the first engineering part; a good practice that people can also try.
Who has been a major influence in James’ life and how?
James recommends books that made an impact on him.
Jeff Kavanaugh: 2020 is the year of the ocean, and plastic waste often ends up in oceans and damages marine life. Fact is it's a global problem. James George is taking this head on, leading the plastics economy initiative for the Ellen MacArthur foundation. James George, how are you rethinking the future of plastics?
James George: That's a really great question. I think no one can really escape the sheer challenge that we faced around plastics in our essence, in our environments at the moment. The statistics deliver reports around more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050 is one that really resonated with people and was so tangible in terms of understanding the scale of this challenge. I think though, one of the focuses or one of the challenges is around where do you deal with the challenge? Is it when the material has entered the ocean itself, or would you come all the way back up stream and stop that happening in the first place? I think that is sometimes where the real challenge is at.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Got it. That circular economy concept is what we'll be exploring in today's conversation. Welcome to a special edition of the Knowledge Institute podcast where we talk with thought leaders about achieving resilience in the era of stakeholder capitalism. I'm Jeff Kavanaugh, head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute and today we're coming to you from London's iconic Abbey Road Studios.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Who is James George? James is part of the business team at the Ellen MacArthur foundation, charity leading the transition to the circular economy. He helps organizations find the right programs and right platforms to partner with the foundation. James recently relocated to the Isle of Wight after spending a dozen years as a mine clearance diving officer with the Royal Navy, traveling the world and enjoying the adventure. James, thank you so much for joining us.
James George: Jeff, it's a pleasure to be here with you.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, first of all, we have to explore a bit about your background because I don't know about you, but mine clearance diving officer just invites a question and what's your background?
James George: I guess my profile is slightly different to the conventional colleagues that I would find here at the foundation. I started my journey off the back of the university, entering the Royal Navy and as you quite eloquently introduced there, found myself then training to be a mine clearance diver, and finding myself in a number of weird and wonderful places across the globe, where it was hot and sandy, but you probably wouldn't want to be getting on holiday there. That was a fantastic chapter, a fantastic learning experience in the journey, which prepared me very much for I guess some of the challenges and some of the interactions and conversations I have today as part of the business scheme of the foundation.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Did that influence ... that time in the water literally, influence your joining the foundation and your interest in circular economy?
James George: I'd have to be honest and say no. I think the dynamics there and the requirements in what you're focusing on in that kind of environment, albeit relative at the time, is quite a world away from where I find myself now. Certainly, my journey to the foundation was unusual. It was very organic around a social scenario within my kind of network of friends and colleagues, but found me moving back to the Isle of Wight, which is where I'm actually from originally, but left from it 18 years ago and said I'd never come back. Then finding myself to the Ellen MacArthur foundation almost two years ago now, which is actually just disappeared in an absolute flash.
Jeff Kavanaugh: How did you first become interested in the circular economy then?
James George: After the military and working in London for a startup, which was not connected to this sort of sector at all. Almost having a kind of realization after 18 months, that the role I was doing had certain [inaudible] criteria to it but wasn't really doing any good in the world. Then happened to have a number of conversations with some mentors around the third sector, the charity sector, and about reconnecting about what I found to be really important in firstly, my professional wellbeing, but also my psychological wellbeing.
James George: Through a course of a number of conversations, happened at one stage to be talking to some friends who worked for this organization called the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They started talking to me about this concept of circular economy and through the course of me telling them my story and them telling me theirs, one of them said, "Actually, there might be an opportunity here for you to get involved in the work with us."
Jeff Kavanaugh: That's good, especially aligning the psychological as well as the intellectual interest. Given that background in charitable work and in the third sector as you call it, how do you define the circular economy? What's it really mean?
James George: Well, we have a very clear narrative and definition of what a circular economy is. I guess the easiest way to explain it is to talk about where we are now. We live forwardly in what we would describe as a linear economy, a take-make-waste economy. We take stuff out of the ground, we make stuff, and at the end of its useful life we throw it away. We can get the latest version or the latest generation or the latest update of those particular models. The challenge with that is that it's built based on taking stuff out of the ground, which is finite. It's stuff that once we've used it up, we don't get it back.
James George: What I'll say to the last 200 to 300 years and a couple of industrial revolutions, we've done very well at that. We've generated billions, if not trillions of dollars. We've lifted billions of people out of poverty. The challenge is that it's fundamentally it is built on a forced material that is finite, but that can't work in the long term and that even before you get into the environmental impacts that come along with that.
James George: A circular economy is an economy that looks still at growth, though it still speaks to our argument, the growth in a restorative and regenerative way. It's based on three principles. We design out waste and pollution, keep product and material in circulation at their highest possible value, almost indefinitely. And to regenerate natural systems, regenerate natural capital so that we can continue to grow and let's say grows in our global economies, but do so in a way that's most restorative and regenerative to the systems and the globe that we live in.
Jeff Kavanaugh: How is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation contributing to this narrative and helping businesses in these initiatives?
James George: For the last 10 years now, since Ellen MacArthur established the foundation back in 2010 we've been focusing on our mission, which has been to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, to shift that dial from linear to circular. We do that by working with [inaudible 00:07:12]. We work with the business and corporate communities. We work with governments and cities and institutions. We work with universities, say higher academic practitioners, with emerging innovators, the smallest of small to medium enterprises. Then a series of other knowledge and strategic partners. The reason being is because this is about system level change, system level engagement.
James George: While the business and corporate community are really important in that discussion, because they're the engine in our economy. Actually, they only form part of that solution, you need the right conditions, the right policy, the right framework, which is where your government and cities both come in. You also need to take people on this learning journey as well to something new. You need the academics, whether that be degree, Master, PhD level learning all the way back to grassroots and exec level learning in between. Then you need the emerging innovators, the source of great disruptive technology, be that Blockchain or the internet of things or the Uberization of the world around us. Just the new developments in materials and processes, and how to approach these challenges in a different way.
James George: Then finding that group of knowledge and strategic partners. The likes of cradle-to-cradle institute, bio-mimicry, the blue economy, the Rocky Mountain Institute, which just helps to keep that ecosystem as rich and vibrant as possible.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Got it. That's pretty comprehensive. Broadening that perspective, can you give some examples of how the circular economy is good for the so called triple bottom line, people, planet, profits?
James George: I think if you look at the circular economy, there are three clear areas there. The actual economic fiscal side of it, the societal impact, and the environment. Certainly in some of our original reports around 2013 and beyond, we spoke about those three different areas, which today a retranslated in different ways, but people, planet, profit is a really up to date literature around that. Whilst we've focused primarily on this fiscal element of the circular economy, the fact that across the globe this is a trillion dollar opportunity. What we have found is that is the best way ... when you're engaging with the business and corporate community, that is the best way to talk to them about terms of growth, which they used to rather than necessarily saying if you don't do this bad things might happen.
James George: Then when we start to drill down further around water, an inclusive economy might look like when you start adopting circular economic principles, that's when we can start to tackle some of these other elements that are really, really critical in this discussion. Even in the last couple of months, New York Climate Week, lots of noise and great discussion around that topic of climate change and the Paris Climate Change accord. We released a paper in conjunction with a number of other of our partners around that time, to look at how circular economy could be utilize as a framework to tackle some of these challenges around C02 emission, and staying below that one and a half degree tap at the end of the century.
James George: Whilst our focus over the last nine, 10 years, has been around the economic rationale, what we're now developing out is around how do you utilize this circular economic framework to start to talk about those other elements? Certainly, in the discussions I had around some of the organizations we do work with, they're seeing a lot of demands in their employees now and from their retaining the best kind of talent around what are they actually doing to meet some of these challenges that we're seeing on the globe stage.
James George: Fundamentally for our perspective, the focus in the first stage is about the economic rationale and then actually what you get from that. The unattended consequences around the social and the environmental impact as well.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Do you see much pushback when ... not so much in economic opportunity, perhaps. Certainly in the others. If people are saying, "Well, where's your data," is it pretty well received? Have you had issues with maybe doing more research to lay out the case more effectively? Or where are you in that journey of making your case?
James George: Yeah, it's a really interesting question because I think over the journey of 10 years, the pervasiveness of the concept and the awareness of the concept has gathered at a monumental pace. Our CEO, Andrew Morlet, [inaudible] around Google search terms, et cetera. Economy back in 2010, the hits were very, very nominal. Over the years, when we look at that trajectory and start to determine its pervasiveness, the angle of the kind of graph is very steep. That's really good because what it means is the concept is out there and the concept is being talked about by different organizations across different geographies and different industries.
James George: The challenge then comes is making sure that the purity of what a future circular economy should look like remains the same. You do see different nuances across different geography and across different industry. Now we're not a consultancy. We're a thought leader. Ours is about talking about what the future looks like, what a future economy looks like, a circular economy looks like. For us it's then down to the other organizations that adopt that methodology then to understand what good looks like.
James George: The answer I guess from my perspective is twofold. One is that there is great encouragement around how pervasive this concept is becoming, at very much a mega trend today. The challenge is then refining what circular economy means for different industries and across different geographies. In terms of the pushback, I think what we have been very careful to do over the years is first and foremost, this has always been about delivering on the science and the facts behind the opportunity, and then taking that information and then finding the right partners to elevate and scale that narrative. Whenever we start any of particular focuses and any of our particular projects, it always starts with internal insight and analysis. What is the analysis that we want to see from our model hypothesis, and what does that mean in terms of the opportunity disruption in particular areas or particular industries?
James George: Then once we have that, we test that idea on our networks to refine our thinking a little bit before we then move that forward.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Got it. Once again, you're listening to the Knowledge Institute, achieving resilience edition, where we talk with thought leaders about achieving resilience in the era of stakeholder capitalism. I'm Jeff Kavanaugh here with James George of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. James, you mentioned the facts. You mentioned how circular economy is relating, even the papers you're writing. The question that it begs is what about those SDGs? How does a circular economy concept relate to sustainable development goals and are there any conflicts or what's that about?
James George: Certainly, no conflict. I mean typically the circular economy now just sits around SDG12, sustainable conjunction and production. We worked very closely with UN Environment, with the likes of EOT Commission, G7, G20, around how we hope to structure some of the thinking around circular economy and the utility that it can show to meet some of the SDG. I think when you put it into those terms, certainly SDG12 is where circular economy very much fits. There are certain tendrils that weed into some of the other areas around water and certainly some of the work around plastics that you see that overlap with some of the other areas. Certainly, SDG12 is the mainstay, the cornerstone of where circular economy [inaudible 00:15:39].
Jeff Kavanaugh: Got it. I was just thinking that as these SDGs have developed, there are metrics associated with those and goals ,and as people look to adopt them, is your work being incorporated into those? It looked like there'd be a lot of synergy.
James George: Yeah, absolutely and I think there's the point around metrics is also really important. You don't know what good looks like if you can't measure it. If we can't generate a foundational start point, how do we know that we're heading in the right direction or in fact, how do we know if we're heading in the wrong direction? Certainly, quite topically as well, this week, one of the products that the foundation has released is Circulate-It, which is our circulator indicator methodology tool set, which is an Opensource tool set available through the foundation website, and which is designed to help organizations take an organizational look at where they are on that journey, but understand where they are now and where the gaps potentially are, where they want to be alongside their strategy for circular economy or alongside their roadmap to what good looks like in the future.
James George: That launched literally this week, and the team will be spending at least the next number of months talking to all of our network members but of course anyone who operates in that kind of environment from a business perspective, to understand how they score against the score cards, and what they need to do potentially then to improve that score as time progresses.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well that's very exciting. The fact that you've stepped in as I don't want to say a third party, an objective third party that doesn't have a product to sell as much as the thought leadership and a place, hopefully people can trust the data, that's sensitive. Eventually, this will be ... my hypothesis anyway is that it will be something that's reportable and governments will ask companies to report on it. You giving a headstart and getting people to think about this in a specific quantitative way, it's got to be reassuring for you.
James George: Yeah, absolutely. I think there's been a lot of work that's happened around metrics, especially in circular economy in different areas over the years, whether that's through something like a life cycle analysis or the work that WBCSD have done. Certainly anything the foundation produces, we want it to be additive to the effort that's already been out there. Not destructive or subtractive from efforts. I think also historically, it's not been necessarily ... it's not been our driver to be the one to hold what good looks like. Again, as a thought leader, identifying where the North Star is and the general direction it travels, our position has always been around it's down to then the individual organizations to work out what good looks like.
James George: This came from a huge amount of demand from our networks and our partners, to help them understand where they are on that journey. This is why we then put the theme together to look at this over the previous months and almost over the previous year. Then used our network to test and refine this before we brought it and launched it on the 14th of January. Hopefully that's there to stay now and to build on, and to see how that compliments some of the other work that's already gone out there, but certainly to give transparency to individual organizations around where they sit and allow them to have a really open and frank conversation both internally but also with their stakeholders around how they see this journey developing over the coming months and years.
Jeff Kavanaugh: What's the most popular misconception that people have about circular economy?
James George: Again, it depends very much on geography actually. I would almost be a little bit flippant in saying when you take a North American perspective, circular economy sometimes has just been about better recycling. How do we improve the recycling we're already doing? Circular economy is about recycling better or recycling more or recycling more intuitively, but it's actually much more than that. Recycling is part of that complex solution that you need to solve a complex challenge.
James George: Back to the top of the conversation around the principles, keeping material in circulation. Part of that is ultimately when you get to the loop of last resort and you can't do anything more with that material, you do potentially want to break it down to reintroduce the start of the process. Before you get to that stage, you have the opportunity to reuse that material, to remanufacture, to repair, to send it into secondary and tertiary markets, to increase the level of utility. It's a cascade of opportunities. That's some of the misconceptions you see.
James George: Some of the others are that this is just a zero waste agenda. Again, it's much more than that. It's about designing out waste and pollution. We don't see waste and pollution created within biological systems. It's very much a manmade byproduct. In natural and biological systems, there is no waste. There is only secondary resources. This is also about looking at the entire team, the holistic element of the supply chain, at the value chain, and saying, "How do we make sure that none of this becomes waste in the first place and continues to either recirculate or become a secondary resource for another process?" I'd say they're probably the most common misconception around circular economics.
Jeff Kavanaugh: What business recommendation do you feel strongly that most people in industry don't follow or maybe they don't believe? They might buy into the overall concept, but what recommendation do you wish people would follow more?
James George: I think in the conversations that I have, when you get into what is circular economy and what does that mean to a particular industry or the particular opportunity and when you almost see those light bulb moments or the realization that actually this just makes sense, when you dig into the economic argument, when you dig into looking at things from a slightly different lens. The next question is then it's where do we start? That's sometimes the real challenge for organizations because when you take a circular economic approach to some industries, that might mean a fundamental redesign of how they've done business as usual to date.
James George: Because for me, when faced with those kinds of challenges, the question I typically ask organizations is around actually very simply, what are your aspirations? What are you trying to achieve by adopting a circular economic agenda? Once you understand what that is, what good looks like in your particular industry, in your particular part in the value chain, in your particular product, work back from there to see how you're going to achieve it. I very much think that is always going to be the starting point. What is the reason it is now on your agenda? Is it because you're competitors are doing it? Is it because you see an economic opportunity? Is it because your investors or your shareholders or you consumers are asking what are your credentials around it?
James George: I'm pretty ambivalent around what is the reason it brings people to that conversation. The important part is understanding why it's important right now and then building the infrastructure around that to realize how are you going to do it.
Jeff Kavanaugh: If you were to leave our listeners with one thing that they can do after they're thinking about the first engineering part, is there something that you've seen as a good practice that people can also try?
James George: One of the questions is always around as an individual, what can I do? How can I make better choices and make sure that I'm following a better methodology, but better economy of sustainability, also environmentally doing the right thing? The challenge is that in a bad system, there are only bad choices. That's not to say that you shouldn't try to as an individual, as a consumer, to make the right ones, but ultimately this has to be about shifting the system.
James George: If we take the example of back to plastic, we always see loads of really great work done by some really great organizations around ocean clean up and beach clean. These are very much downstream solutions. Solutions that are designed to treat the problem once it's entered into the environment. What if you could come all the way back from the start of that plastic system and engage with the largest protagonists, the Coca Colas, the Nestles, the PepsiCos, the AmCors of this world, and redesign that system in such a way that when you or I or anyone makes decisions, we can only make good decisions because the system allows us to do so.
James George: This is not about necessarily saying no to plastic straws or paying 15 cents for a bag in the store. It's about when we go to make those decisions, we can only make good decisions because the system allows us to do so, and only by engaging with the largest protagonists in that system, do we start to shift fundamentally the way the world around us works.
Jeff Kavanaugh: That's a great question to end on. I think respecting your time, although we could probably talk about this for hours. I'd like to maybe wrap it up. A couple of personal questions. Obviously you're passionate about the topic and have had a very interesting background. Who has been a major influence in your life and how?
James George: I mean it sounds really, really obvious, but the people I work with are a huge influence. I am very fortunate to work with some very, very smart folk and very inspirational folk as well. Even to highlight and pick out people like Ellen, Ellen MacArthur, I still get starstruck when I meet Ellen in and around the halls of the foundation. She just talks very simply and very sincerely about the challenge and about the solution based approach that we need to adopt. It's mesmerizing. Our CEO Andrew as well in any sort of vein, talks with absolute passion. Even down to the folks that I work with day in and day out, just always surprises me around the level of passion and engagement that this small organization based in [inaudible] on the Isle of Wight, down coast of the United Kingdom.
James George: The level of impact and reach and conversations we have is just really inspirational. I have to say fundamentally, just a great way to spend your professional career or your professional time, the point whereby it doesn't ever feel like a job. I won't go as far to say it's a calling, but it's not far off when you look at the impact and opportunities that's out there and the influence that myself as an individual, and through the work of my colleagues and the foundation, has the opportunity to shape.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well said and movingly put. Do you have any books or any other things you might recommend to people that have made an impact on you?
James George: Historically, I've never been a huge reader. Actually, it was only probably post the military that I rediscovered the power of actually just immersing yourself within books. I guess a few that have really stood out over the last 18 to 24 months, the first one of those is Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and I just love it. There's loads of really great nuggets of information in there but the two that stick with me is firstly, if it's not 100% yes it's always a no. That's a really powerful way to try and bring into your busy day-to-day life. The second one is around this idea of what is better, travel 100 miles in one direction or 10 miles in 10 directions. I think that, all of thinking opens for me a really interesting area of self-reflection and self-development.
James George: The second one, which has fundamentally changed the way I approach everything is Why we Sleep by Matthew Walker. Again, I spent, like I'm sure many of the listeners, many people I know as well on the gravy train, working long hours, sleeping very few, living for the weekend and thinking you can just keep performing at your best, and completely having a transformation to where now I quite happily say I'm in bed most nights by 9:00 PM and I try and get at least eight hours sleep a night. The fundamental physical transformation I've found that having has just been remarkable. I recommend that literally to anyone who will listen or give me the chance to stand on the soapbox.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Well, this is your soapbox. Well done. Listen, what online resources do you recommend or how can people find you online?
James George: I think if anyone's looking to get into the circular economy, whether if that's with an embryonic level of understanding or with a level of familiarity, definitely check out our learning hub, which we released in June of last year, which is an Opensource interactive set of modules around the circular economy, looking at a number of different industries that you can dip in and out of. It's very much designed to take you on that journey from little to no understanding to a level of reasonable expertise in the concept. You can find that at EllenMacArthurFoundation.org/learninghub. Then one of the beauties now is there is a wealth of work and documentary everything, and books, and all sorts out there when you just type in circular economy into Google, and about finding the right level of engagement and deep dives that you want.
James George: If anyone has any specific questions around the work of the foundation or our work with business and the other areas that I mentioned earlier on, don't hesitate to get in contact with myself, either through LinkedIn or through info at EllenMacArthurFoundation.org. I'm always happy to answer questions and always happy and ready to help those organizations who are trying to bring circular economy to the mainstay of what they're doing in their day-to-day business.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Great, and also everyone you can find details on our show notes and transcripts at Infosys.com/IKI. That's I-N-F-O-S-Y-S dot com, forward slash I-K-I, in our podcast section. James, thank you so much for your time and a highly interesting discussion and best of luck on the new arrival tomorrow.
James George: Yes, thank you very much. It's been an absolute pleasure.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Everyone, you've been listening to the Knowledge Institute, special edition at Abbey Road Studios where we are talking with thought leaders about achieving resilience in the era of stakeholder capitalism. Thanks to our producer, Yulia De Bari, and the entire Knowledge Institute team. Until next time, keep learning and keep sharing.
About James George
James is part of the business team at the Ellen MacArthur foundation, charity leading the transition to the circular economy. He helps organizations find the right programs and right platforms to partner with the foundation. James recently relocated to the Isle of Wight after spending a dozen years as a mine clearance diving officer with the Royal Navy, traveling the world and enjoying the adventure.
- Connect with James George: LinkedIn
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
- Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
Selected links from the episode