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#32 How to slow the environmental loop in a circular economy with Katie Whalen

proudly Brought to you in association with SA Partners.


Welcome to episode 32 of the Enterprise Excellence Podcast. I am so pleased to have you on the show today. Dr Katherine Whalen or Katie is the host of the "Getting in the Loop" Podcast and a researcher in sustainable business at RISE research institute of Sweden. Katie has dedicated her career to helping create a better future environmentally. Let's get into the episode.


Katie completed a university degree in Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture upon finishing school. Marine Transport accounts for 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is quite a significant figure not spoken about in the industry. Wanting to branch out, Katie then moved to the Netherlands (from the USA, her home country) to study design thinking and then, finally, circular economy in TU Delft. She went from a minor influence in sustainability in the US to being dropped into the epicentre in the Netherlands.

There is a lot of work in Sweden going to close resource loops, like recycling, but there is also a lot of incineration. Sweden currently takes a lot of waste that it can use to burn, which becomes city heating. From a circular economy perspective, Katie believes this is a missed opportunity and is an end of the pipe, not an ideal solution.

The circular economy looks at system outputs and how they can become new inputs. Waste becomes a resource, and there is no such term as waste in the field. Ken Webster, who we have interviewed, speaks about a cherry tree as an analogy. The cherry tree leaves drop to the ground and turn into nutrients in the soil, contributing more nutrients to the cherry tree. Currently, we may be more familiar with the linear system - using landfill or burn. This is not ideal, and we want to avoid the linear system, moving towards the circular.

Katie speaks about closing loops and slowing down loops to extend the useful life of a product. She gives the example of a mobile phone or smartphone. Currently, leading phone brands in a linear system encourage consumers to replace their old phones with new ones. The cause for this may be because it is hard to repair and replace parts. To slow down this technological loop, Fairphone shows how to repair and replace modular smartphones quickly and easily.

Have you got one or maybe four (the Australian average is four) phones sitting in a drawer at your home? Instead of these phones collecting dust in our drawers, a closing loop system would look to companies offering incentives to buy back the phones and recycle them to obtain the precious materials to use again. A Belgium company is doing this and can save one kg of gold from four tonnes of phones. Katie believes the figure for obtaining gold from ore is immensely more than that: 200 tonnes of ore to get one kg of gold. Is it more efficient than collecting gold from phones or ore? Katie says the energy consumption of both practices needs to be analysed!

So, where did the consumerism and consumption of the nineties and naughties come? When did we start to buy disposable products rather than refillable or reparable products? Mass volumes of products: mass factories, mass farms, scaling production and in a way, saying to us, don't worry about replacing or repairing, we have a new one for you. Throw out your broken product! Our world is so much worst off for this attitude, and we have to reverse this thinking to help the environment quickly.

Katie speaks about design thinking and sustainability coming together in a circular economy. She is excited to think about redesigning products that last a long time while still being desirable for humans. A chat about Netflix can help us think about a new system- is it replacing something disposable or breakable? Discs and tapes? Well, yes. Then it is a more sustainable business in terms of materials.

Interface is a sustainable business, and Katie interviewed the son of the company on her podcast "Getting in the Loop". He talked about the shift in culture required as they moved from a linear towards a more circular approach. Each employee needed to be taking it seriously, and champions on every level would lead the way. Interface offered generous incentives to employees whose ideas inspired a way to increase efficiency or reduce waste. They encouraged design thinking in a way - new ideas and blue-sky ideas are rewarded financially.

Design thinking is like stepping into a helicopter and hovering above your organisation, and looking at the whole system from raw materials. Thinking about the design of your products and services right from the cradle (start), creating value for the planet and people.

Katie speaks about three areas gaining traction - textiles and apparel, ICT and electronics, plastics and packaging, and has built an ebook that we will link to below. She believes that the visibility of these products draws consumers' attention (B-C) and is why they are changing more quickly. She also believes that more opportunities could exist B-B (Business to Business) for more sustainable practices.

The chat circles back to boats - perhaps if we think about our products, well, a lot of them arrive on a container ship. Are ships bound to improving their environmental impacts? What if we made shipping more visible in the customer or products journey? Would it affect shipping values?

Key Take-Aways

The key takeaway from this episode was to think of your organisation's system as a whole when considering ways to improve towards a circular economy. Without doing this, there is a risk that you make a gain in one area that produces an impact in another. There are many techniques you can use to achieve this; one of the best I find is cradle to cradle customer journey mapping. This technique allows you to map your customer's experience, organisations systems and environmental impact in the one approach with the customer front and centre and circularity in mind. It is a great technique to help an organisation innovate and improve, which will create additional value and delight for customers and reduce environmental impact.

Thanks for your knowledge and insights, Katie, through our chat today and your Getting in the Loop podcast. I have so enjoyed our conversation, and thank you for helping us to create a better future.

Bye for now.


05:24min Basically, the idea behind the circular economy is trying to decouple economic activity from finite resource consumption. And the way that circular economy champions that is by modelling the economic system off of natural ones that are regenerative and cyclical.

11.02min Essentially, slowing can be thought of as extending the useful life of products, and closing is kind of like, extending the useful life of materials.

18:56min The dominant business logic is this, like, as you said, just pushing things out and having these short cycles. And then you're trying to do slowing and closing loops. It really contrasts with that, and trying to find a way to extend product lifetimes and have your business be financially viable is this contrast with this pushing and with having a new thing every season.

22:12min I sometimes say that I think that circular economy is like design thinking meets sustainability. Because, you know, design thinking is about understanding the user, working towards a solution that is first and foremost desirable from a human perspective but then also feasible and economically viable. And then sustainability is kind of like, how can we make products less fad and how can we do better for the environment? But then, to me, circular economy mixes them together.


Katherine's LinkedIn Account:

Website: (Company Website)

Twitter: whalenka

Ebook - circular sectors navigator: ebook

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