October 8, 2021

How going circular can help businesses tackle biodiversity loss

Life on Earth is extraordinarily diverse. But with an increased frequency of extreme weather events, the 1 million species that are at risk of extinction, and the Amazon now emitting more CO₂ than it absorbs, the past couple of years have loudly and clearly signaled to us that it is high time to take action if we are to preserve even a fraction of the biodiversity we’re surrounded by today.

Biodiversity is beautiful, but its importance does not solely lie in its aesthetic and intrinsic value. In fact, biodiversity underpins our entire system. If ecosystems continue to deteriorate, we could even be putting the global economy at risk, as the World Economic Forum estimates that over half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature.

Luckily, there are promising solutions. We’ve spoken to Cindy Venho, Research Analyst at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, about the hows and whys of transitioning to a circular economy – in the name of biodiversity.

Society’s survival depends on nature’s wellbeing

Cindy begins by reminding us of how it’s important to recognize society’s dependency on biodiversity. “We directly depend on nature for food, materials, and a lot of other ecosystem services. And economically speaking, about 44 trillion US dollars are dependent on nature,” she says.

While certain industries are directly reliant on nature – take for example a pulp and paper mill that produces their goods from wood and other plant materials – others can benefit from biodiversity in less obvious ways. “There are also some indirect dependencies. For the built environment sector, we have mangrove forests, for instance, which are really good for storm and flood protection,” Cindy adds. In other words, by safeguarding mangrove ecosystems, costly damage to infrastructure can be prevented while at the same time making sure that biodiversity is preserved.

Why circularity should be part of the answer

A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation compellingly presents that if biodiversity loss is to be halted and reversed, preservation efforts alone, as we know them today, won’t suffice. While ambitions to conserve and restore biodiversity are crucial steps into the right direction, such endeavors don’t tackle the root of the problem, only the symptoms. “We also need to fundamentally rethink how we produce and use our products and materials, and how we grow and consume our food,” Cindy Venho adds.

Our current economy is based on a self-destructive ‘take-make-waste’ approach, where virgin resources are being extracted at an unsustainably high rate. According to a 2019 report by the International Resource Panel, 90% of biodiversity loss can be attributed to the extraction and processing of natural resources. What this tells us, is that we urgently need to adopt smarter models that allow us to limit our continuous need for new materials.

This is where circular economy comes into the picture. Such an economy is based upon the following core principles:

  • Eliminating waste and pollution, as this minimizes the threats to biodiversity.
  • Circulating products and materials, as this leaves more room for biodiversity, due to a reduced demand for virgin materials.
  • Regenerating nature, as this allows biodiversity and ecosystems to thrive while simultaneously reducing the need to clear more land due to degradation.

How can businesses align with the principles of a circular economy?

Cindy advises businesses to focus on the design stage, as she believes this to be the area with the best potential for large-scale change.

“80% of a product’s environmental footprint is determined at the design stage of the lifecycle. So really thinking about how you can implement the circular economy principles to the very design of your product or service, will have the biggest impact.”

Going into more detail, the recently released report deals with this question by taking a deep dive into four major sectors – food, the built environment, fashion, and plastic packaging – and guides the reader through real-life examples of companies and initiatives that have successfully implemented circular solutions to combat biodiversity loss.

We’ve extracted the report’s key messages with regards to what exactly it is that businesses within these four sectors can do to become more circular:

Food

Switching to regenerative land-use models such as agroforestry or intensive silvopasture, designing food products using these regeneratively grown, as well as low-impact, diverse, and upcycled ingredients, reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and redistributing by-products are all methods that can improve biodiversity, for instance by improving soil quality or reducing the need to free up more land for agriculture. An industry example is U.S.-based GreenWave, who – through a practice called regenerative ocean farming – grow oysters, seaweeds, mussels and other seafood while repairing degraded coastal ecosystems by making the vertical farm structures act as reefs.

The built environment

Within this sector, circular companies focus on using renewable materials like timber or hemp that have been regeneratively grown, keeping existing buildings and materials in use, and building compactly to leave more space for biodiversity to flourish. In 2018, the Quay Quarter Tower (built in 1976) in Australia began a redevelopment process to modernize and expand the building. Major negative impacts on nature are being avoided by skipping the demolishing and reconstruction stages and instead adopting an adaptive reuse approach to convert the existing building to fit a new use.

Fashion

One way to adopt the key principles of a circular economy within the fashion industry is by designing items and fibers to last, and by adopting innovative business models to enable their circulation. Together, these ways of keeping clothing and fibers in use can reduce the number of garments needed to satisfy demand and, as such, lower the pressures placed on biodiversity by the extraction of new virgin fibers. Additionally, ensuring that any natural fibers still required are produced regeneratively, can help establish healthy agroecosystems beneficial for biodiversity, and reduce sector-emissions. At the same time, designing out harmful chemicals from the production process will be important to reduce environmental pollution. A fashion company that has put ideas like these into practice is thredUP, who facilitates the selling and buying of pre-owned clothes by acting as a resale marketplace, thereby saving water and avoiding emissions occurring during the manufacturing and disposal stages.

Plastic packaging

Phasing out plastics that do not serve an essential function, or alternatively making sure that packaging is recycled and reused (which currently is the case for only 14% of all plastic packaging!) is key in order to avoid materials ending up in our environment and causing long-lasting damage to ecosystems and wildlife. Innovative replacements to plastic packaging already exist on the market. Take for example Notpla, who create compostable – and in some cases even edible – packaging made from seaweed and other plants.

 

Leading businesses have already started taking on a circular approach to help them meet their biodiversity targets. Peers can follow suit by

  1. assessing their biodiversity impacts and dependencies, based on which they can set concrete ambitions (such as science-based targets for nature),
  2. identifying suitable circular opportunities that help them meet their biodiversity targets, and
  3. collaborating along and across value chains to find solutions that can bring about large-scale change.

 

For a more comprehensive overview of the linkages between circular economy and biodiversity (as well as what all of this means for business), we highly recommend adding ‘The Nature Imperative’: how the circular economy tackles biodiversity loss to your reading list.