Thoughts on Covid-19 Recovery: ‘Circular’ solutions to Covid-19’s economic aftershocks – blog by Lynn Wilson, A&DS Board

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As we look to at how we build back after the pandemic, we asked our board members to reflect on the recovery from their personal and professional experience. In this blog board member Lynn Wilson, a circular economy specialist, argues that now is the time and place for circular solutions to Covid-19’s economic aftershocks.  

A debate is raging around the need for UK office workers to return their city-based desks. While some commentators argue loudly for a return to ‘business as usual’, it seems certain that many workers will continue to work from home, at least on a part-time basis. City centre retailers, pubs and restaurants are likely to see reduced footfall for the foreseeable future.

Likewise, now that homeworking has been proven technically viable for most office workers, how much longer will large employers continue to lease expensive city centre office space? What then for our beleaguered city spaces?

As a consumer behaviour specialist, with a focus on the Circular Economy, I look at the future of consumer products and services within a model that helps us achieve long term environment goals. I believe the looming crisis in our cities provides us with an opportunity to innovate and introduce more ‘circular economy’ thinking into our patterns of production and consumption.

For the past 250 years, we have developed very successful linear economic systems. These ensure jobs are created, and goods and services are designed, manufactured and supplied to all corners of the globe. Unfortunately, these systems have often evolved without legislative or voluntary responsibility for where the product ends up and its eventual end of life. This, in turn, has led to a global resource shortage, huge environmental consequences and an urgent need to rethink everything.

In 2016, the Scottish Government published Making Things Last – A Circular Economy Strategy for Scotland and became the first country in the world to commit to putting the circular economy at the centre of our economic model.

Circular High-Street?

On 29thJune 2020, many non-essential retail shops reopened in Scotland. I was interested to see if anything had changed or if consumers were still committed to the high street so, on a blustery wet Monday morning, I headed to Princes Street to see Primark open at 08:00.

When I got there, I saw an orderly queue of approximately 80 shoppers. I had expected the queue to be mostly young ‘fast fashion’ fans but, in fact, it was mainly populated with men and women in their mid-30s and older. One man I spoke to told me about his three children aged 5, 8 and 10. He was queuing for children’s clothing because Primark were undercutting supermarket prices and his kids’ frequent growth spurts were putting his wallet under pressure.

This made me think how a shift to a more circular model of consumption is unlikely to be consumer-led. While most people express noble intentions in relation to issues such as environmental damage and fair trade, the hard reality of our own financial circumstances, combined with a lack of alternative options, often dictate the products and services we consume.

What if the man I met had access to an alternative model for clothing his youngsters? What if, for example, he paid a small monthly subscription to a supplier who replaced the garments periodically to cope with the growth spurts? We already lease mobile phones that are replaced/upgraded in this way, so why not clothing? The lifecycle of the garments would be vastly extended if they were cleaned, refreshed and reused by multiple growing kids.

Right time, right place

Of course, while this circular model would be good news for the environment, it would be less welcome for retailers like Primark – or their landlords. It’s important for advocates of a circular economy like myself to ensure that the ‘economy’ bit is given as much consideration as the ‘circular’ bit in any solutions we propose.

So how do we begin to have those discussions? How can the circular economy and the built environment work in harmony with consumers and the need for a prosperous economy?

Built jointly by NHS Health Scotland, the Scottish Government and Architecture and Design Scotland, the Place Standard tool provides a simple framework to structure multi-stakeholder conversations about place, both its physical elements (e.g. buildings, spaces, and transport links) and its social aspects (e.g. community involvement in decision making).The tool provides prompts for discussions, allowing you to consider all the elements of a place in a methodical way, then define priorities and actions for investment.

It’s time to have these discussions, using the Place Standard methodology, and bring the issues surrounding the shift to a Circular Economy into the public conversation. Scotland has an opportunity to strike out, post-Covid 19, with a renewed desire to deliver a truly Circular Economy that works for everyone – let’s take it.

Image (detail) by Lynn Wilson

(Post updated September 2020)

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