Last week leading figures from the mobile phone, fashion and FMCG industries came together at SXSW Sydney 2023 to discuss the rapidly growing circular economy and how business and sustainability can combine to meet the urgent needs of our planet.
Moderator Claire Press, host of sustainability podcast Wardrobe Crisis, joined panelists Hastings Singh from next-gen mobile phone company Kingfisher; Brooke Eichhorn, head of fashion at eBay Australia; and Lottie Dalziel from eco platform Banish; to talk about changing up entrenched systems, habits and modes of behaviour - and the role consumers play.
“It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to go around presuming the world is like this bottomless supermarket,” Press told the audience gathered at the Chau Chak auditorium at UTS for the talk New to Renew: The Circular Revolution.
“Resources often are finite. Planetary boundaries are a thing. And, if we acknowledge that, then I think that's where circular economy becomes exciting because it's about keeping products in continuous flow.”
Press asked the panel to consider the three pillars of a circular economy as defined by solo world sailor and eco warrior Ellen MacArthur:
- Eliminate waste and pollution
- Circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
- Regenerate nature
“So we might be talking about keeping products in flow,” she said, “but ultimately we want to respect and protect nature and make sure that we have a viable planet to live on.”
Kingfisher’s CCO Hastings Singh said with approx six billion mobile phones currently in use around the world and another five billion lying unused in drawers or going to landfill, his company’s mission is to educate the public to reuse, recycle and reap the benefits of its World Phone Amnesty (WPA) cash back program.
“What our aim is about is actually changing the way people deal with and treat their previous device,” he said. “Every single smartphone made is incredibly carbon intensive…it’s about 85 kilos of CO2 equivalent for every single phone that's made and most of that, about 80%, is incurred in the manufacture.
“If we get those devices back and if we can give those devices a second life, the carbon footprint is about 85% reduced.
“If we can just change behaviour and change the industry, we can actually make this a much less damaging part of the environmental footprint cost.”
Lottie Dalziel said she believes consumers should move away from thinking recycling is the best and only option for their used goods.
“I think recycling is important,” said Dalziel, who has just recycled her two millionth blister pack, sent to her from people all over the country. “I think Australians love recycling more than sliced bread. When you put something in the recycling bin, it's really actionable. It feels great to do.
“But I think we're almost falling into the trap of relying on these recycling systems too much where we should actually be looking to circular principles more.
“At its most basic, we're talking about moving from a linear take/make/discard model to a virtuous circle, which sounds impossible, but actually there are ways we can achieve it.”
Dalziel added: “(For instance,) it’s great that Kingfisher is bringing out this reuse model rather than a recycling model because most people out there don't need a brand new phone. They don't need all the bells and whistles, that titanium.”
Brooke Eichhorn said her role at eBay Australia showed her there was a strong market for the circular economy, with 50% of Australians intending to purchase pre-loved clothing in the coming year.
“As head of fashion, there was a decision to make,” she said. “Do we keep building new fashion or do we use our platform and our resources to really propel the circular economy forwards? So we chose the circular economy and it was really just the right thing to do, but also made really good business sense for us.”
With a pre-loved fashion item selling every 30 seconds on eBay, the decision to go circular was backed up by rising sales.
“Gen Z is driving 50% of the growth in the market,” said Eichhorn. “And, for us, looking at the flywheel and loyalty, we know that when someone buys pre-loved fashion, then they’re more predisposed to also sell it.”
Hastings Singh said now is the right time for mobile phones to be a viable part of the circular economy, with 52% of people willing to trade their devices and 47% open to taking a second life device.
“The mobile phone market today is mature,” he said. “There's no significant innovation that's happening. These phones can last five plus years. And there's no reason why devices need to be only owned by one person.
“At Kingfisher we are trying to work with the industry to support people to actually provide their phones back. And there's lots of people that would take that good quality second life device and happily use it.
“If we could do that for, say, 10 million phones to start with, that would be the same as taking about 155,000 cars off the road for a year.”