As leading corporations shift to restorative production, water engineers will find themselves at the center of the first wave

Almost 50 years ago, the humankind first saw our planet in a galactic context and transformed engineers’ perspective on manufacturing. These first “selfies” of the earth showed our entire world as an isolated blue marble with the vast void of space, the single location where humans could survive. Space had been the passion storytellers and philosophers, but the dream of space travel had been realized by leading-edge scientists and engineers.

During the 1960s, a new science of industrial ecology redefined industrial operations for the limited resources of a “spaceship world.” In the Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth (1966), Kenneth Ewart Boulding describes a global transition from a “cowboy economy” that naively exploits resources in a world that is a “virtually illimitable plane.” Humankind had begun to see the earth as “a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or pollution.” With all of our resources already onboard, economic well-being cannot be defined simply by the rate of consumption or production: “Man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form,” Boulding wrote. Later, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth laid out a new paradigm for designing operations to balance production and well-being with an eye towards future productivity and resources.

In the last decade, scarcity shocks and ecosystem deterioration have brought that discussion of caring for “spaceship earth” from the realm of economists and policy leaders back to business leaders. Ecosystem degradation and depletion of natural resources are beginning to have far-reaching, bottom-line consequences. Shortages are generating price hikes and supply chain risks, which have caught the eye of investors and leading corporations. Circular economy initiatives are bringing some of the most forward-looking business leaders together to rethink manufacturing and production as well as our concept of progress to build a restorative economy. The circular economy is “a continuous positive development cycle that preserves and enhances natural capital, optimizes resource yields, and minimizes system risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows. It works effectively at every scale.”

Untangling Supply Chains
In 2013, champion solo yachtsman Dame Ellen MacArthur brought the looming waste and raw materials crisis into stark focus at the World Economic Forum. She harked back to images of ships: “At sea, what you have is all you have, stopping en route to restock is not an option, and careful resource management can be a matter of life or death …My boat was my world, I was constantly aware of its supply limits, and when I stepped back ashore, I began to see that our world was not any different. I had become acutely aware of the true meaning of word ‘finite,’ and when I applied it to resources in the global economy, I realized there were some big challenges ahead.” Since then, the MacArthur Foundation has worked with a growing group of partners to organize an initial group of industrial consortia to untangle complex and ever widening supply chains. In 2016, it convened leading companies, city governments philanthropists and policymakers to rethink the future of plastics.

Last week, leaders in the fashion industry announced the Circular Fibres Initiative at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit with industry leaders such as Inditex, H&M, Adidas, Kering, M&S, Bestseller and Nike pledging their support. While manufacturing processes may not be as resource-intensive as mining or electronics manufacturing, the clothing industry can realize critical efficiencies with circular manufacturing and product design. According to McKinsey, clothing production has doubled between 2000 and 2014. Consumers are spending an estimated 60 percent more on clothing and using that clothing for half the time they did 15 years ago. In the US, up to 85 percent of those textiles go to landfill, with precious raw materials lost for the future. The initiative aims to create a vision for a new global textiles system that will replace the linear, “take-make-dispose” model dominating the industry, with a goal of eliminating all textile waste by the year 2037. Initial work by MacArthur, McKinsey, and others has been followed by initiatives from the apparel industry. Signatories of the Call to Action committed to defining a circular strategy, setting targets for 2020 and reporting on their progress.

Is Water Innovation the Starting Point?
Circular economy manufacturing is emerging from the halls of Davos, the European Union, and corporate boardrooms to drive industry action. Over the next five years, circular economy strategy studies and planning projections will mature into budgets and technology adoption. Water technology and innovation will stand at the center of many of these initiatives. “Since water is the single most important shared resource across all supply chains, and wastewater is the largest untapped waste category—as big as all solid-waste categories taken together—it is the natural starting point for the circular revolution,” writes Martin Stuchtey, Managing Partner at SystemIQ and author of the A Good Disruption: Redefining Growth in the Twenty-First Century.

At the BlueTech Forum in Dublin on June 7, senior operations and sustainability executives from leading corporations will be meeting to discuss how they’re translating circular economy strategies into their work plans. Artemis principal Laura Shenkar will be leading a roundtable discussion with Menno Holterman CEO, of Nijhuis Industries.

• Where is the “lowest hanging fruit” for water in circular economy initiatives?
• How much savings justify the expense and risk of new solutions?
• How can pay-for-performance financing offset risks?