My viewpoint: Giles Whiteley talks “Circular Economy”

IT MIGHT sound strange coming from someone whose working life is about helping firms to improve their sustainable credentials but I can’t abide the term “circular economy”. 

Foodservice Footprint Signs-Low-Res-300x198 My viewpoint: Giles Whiteley talks "Circular Economy" Comment Features  SWR Giles Whiteley circular economy










It’s one of those phrases that was invented to engage people on particular topic but has since become a buzz-phase and been applied to anything to do with recycling and good sustainable behaviour. It has therefore lost most of its meaning and is likely to cause as much confusion as it is to engender positive change.


So let’s start with what “Circular Economy” really means. Quite simply it means keeping resources circulating within one economic system. Normally it refers to the UK but it could just as well be applied to Europe or even wider. In other words, once used a material is collected for recycling, taken to be processed into a raw material and used again without leaving our shores (in the case of the UK). Largely it arose in the UK context as a reaction to the fact that a lot of recyclable materials are exported to places like China. It is a whole other debate on whether it makes sense to ship used cardboard to be recycled in the places where they need to make more boxes to package the consumer goods being manufactured there (a global circular economy). Sustainability is rarely the black and white set of issues that some would like.


So, do Foodservice businesses have a role to play in the circular economy? Well yes, two main roles in fact. For any resource to circulate it needs to be presented for recycling and for recycled materials to have a market and find their way back into use people need to buy products that use them.


So really what this latest buzz-phase means is the good solid sustainable practices that we are all familiar with but could all improve to a greater or lesser degree; Sustainable procurement and sustainable waste management and recycling. The fact you are reading this via Footprint would suggest you are one of those that have really bought into these goals.



I was asked to write a piece about the drive towards the circular economy. Rather than that I am saying don’t be distracted by it. Let’s keep talking about the basics; the components that we can affect in our companies and lives haven’t changed and collectively we have a long way to go yet.


I’m sure you know the questions… How much of your waste could be avoided? How much do you recycle? If you purchased differently could you recycle more, or throw away less? Do you have a sustainable purchasing policy? Is this adhered to or green-wash for your website? Are your goals in all of these areas aggressive enough? There are few (if any) businesses that can’t ask these without finding more opportunities for improvement.



I sense we are at a bit of a plateau the UK in the drive to this “Circular Economy” (There, I’ve met my brief!). Sustainable ethics are driven too much by profit and not on core values. Many companies seem satisfied with their performance now, not because it is great but because they have improved from unimpressive starting points. Spending more to be more sustainable is still too rare an occurrence in my experience. I have confidence that this will change as the leading companies (which I hope includes yours) raise the bar and therefore the expectation on what good performance means.