Imperfect circularity - the best we can hope for?

07 November 2022
Imperfect circularity - the best we can hope for?

As we know, today’s challenges aren’t that simple and the solution is not binary, it’s messy. We are in a climate emergency – and we really should all be thinking about global warming in those terms – but, for all sorts of reasons, many of the remedial solutions will take time to have an effect; the most notable of these is, wait for it, human nature.

My 97-year-old mother has long explained life on earth being at the mercy of two immutable forces: a beautiful but unforgiving universe, and, human nature, which “hasn’t changed a jot for thousands of years.” 

This has helped me reconcile how we can feel both “doomed” and “optimistic” about humanity’s predicament at the very same time, and how some can deny undeniable facts, or value libertarian freedoms over society’s greater good. It also explains why, for any circular economy to work, it has to start and finish with us all as individuals, but also needs governments and the private sector – both also shaped by human nature – to lead.

There will always be climate deniers and protectionist lobbies, and the war in Ukraine has fuelled both, but the optimistic me also concludes that weaning ourselves off Russian oil and investing more heavily in renewables, carbob capture and battery storage might just end up accelerating the move away from fossil fuels, whilst also shortening the lifespan of repressive oil-funded regimes.

Just last week, Shell announced $9.5bn quarterly profits and BP $8.2bn, but both were dwarfed by Saudi Aramco which reported a $42bn profit for the same 3-month period, underlining human nature’s unashamed pursuit of profit in absolutely any circumstance.

While most countries are taxing these super profits, UK political ideology appears to prevents this happening here. Political ideology is human nature made zealously manifest, so while the UK struggles to recover from the follies of a Brexity libertarian experiment to fund tax cuts for the rich, it will now end up taxing everyone more. Except for the energy majors.

Progress with deviation

Frank Zappa once said that “without deviation, progress is not possible” and he was quite right in at least one sense..

Progress is being made alongside retrograde steps, not least President Biden’s climate legislation. $370bn is a big number which will power a green revolution in the USA and should appeal to entrepreneurs who might see this as an incentive to focus their attention on making “greener” money. Hopefully other governments will take note.

At the same time, we’re also seeing regulators start to play their part, with the UK advertising watchdog banning HSBC’s ads for “greenwashing” in their COP 26 advertising campaign last year, and others being fined for exaggerating green claims.

While greener technologies are advancing fast, few, if any, offer magic silver bullets. Instead, they are all part of the messy transition to a low carbon future. Zappa clearly understood that progress is full of ambiguities and contradictions which are not always easy to explain, and our public and private sector leaders need to be aware that overclaiming will backfire and may just create more green cynics and sceptics.

For climate activists a step-by-step transition may not be enough and, let’s be clear, they are probably right, but gaining momentum is vital, as Newtonian mechanics proves that velocity gained for a growing mass becomes increasingly hard to stop. We are late, and we’re now in a race which we have to win, which, after another year of new climate records being set, should not be lost on any of us. The world needs the private sector to do what it does best – create profitable new businesses, but ones that are more and more circular and sustainable, while decommissioning dirty ones.

Sustainable brands need to do better

This is where branding comes in. Powerful, inspiring brand stories need to be told, clearly, transparently and honestly so customers can make the right choices and be able to tell the pale, mid or dark green from the greenwash. 

The need for clearly articulated communication is evidenced by new research from emlyon business school in Lyon, The University of Portsmouth and The University of Queensland, which shows that consumers are mostly sceptical about green claims and over-claiming almost always backfires. Based on original research and reviewing over 100 academic papers on the issue, the study concluded 3 key findings:

  • More sustainable products carry more labelling which consumers see as ambiguous, contradictory or embellishing the truth
  • Sustainable products are associated with a lack of quality, taste, or performance, and therefore view luxury and sustainability as incompatible
  • Consumption of sustainable products is still seen as unconventionally “hippy” or socially negative, especially for men

At Nucleus we think it’s crucial that any social stigmas associated with more sustainable brands are addressed head-on. In our branding work this year, we’ve created new brands in all sorts of more sustainable sectors, but none of our clients would claim they have a silver bullet. Most are cautious about making claims, which is sensible, but the common thread is that all these brands are on a journey to net zero and beyond, and by taking steps, sometimes small ones, business can make a difference by creating brands that deserve to exist in a lower carbon, non-polluting and socially fair future.

Read more about sustainable branding in our blog "What is sustainable branding.'

What we need is more and more circularity

The overall vision to create a sustainable, circular economy may be shared by an increasing number of companies, but each one of them needs to communicate an evidence-based plan, with every step identified with the data to back up how well they are doing. Effective branding needs to tell these stories, transparently, and without over-claiming, demonstrating that they are making a difference and understand the urgency of the situation.

Inevitably, even with everyone trying their hardest, the best we can hope for is imperfect circularity, where business uses its profit motive to move the dial down back to 1.5°C, but governments and us, the citizens of the planet, also have to do our bit.

Carbon capture is a good example of where governments should lead. The technology works and there are at least 35 commercial facilities already operating around the world, with 200 more opening before 2030, capable of capturing 220 Mt of CO2 per year, but rolling this out more widely requires government-level leadership in terms of investment in transporting and safely disposing of the carbon captured in dirty industrial processes. Here in the UK we have decommissioned gas fields in the North Sea that could become effective carbon storage 'sinks' deep below the sea, but there are currently no plans for the infrastructure industry needs to get it there.

At an individual level, every one of us has to commit to being less wasteful, more thoughtful about all our small actions and support the brands that are making a difference. We also must avoid making ‘perfect the enemy of the good’, and realise imperfect circularity is probably the best we can aim for. 

Peter Matthews
Founder and CEO Nucleus