What I Learned from the Sustainability & Circular Economy Summit

By: Alan Barton

I had the good fortune to attend the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Fourth Annual Sustainability and Circular Economy Summit. The roughly 200 attendees were from remarkably diverse organizations—industry leaders in a wide range of markets, consulting companies with deep experience in sustainability, local and federal government representatives from the U.S. and Europe, and several important non-profit organizations with an interest in the circular economy.

The meetings were organized around large plenary sessions and smaller workshops, all focused on moving from theory to action and making sustainability real. Distilling hours of debate and discussion into a short post is challenging; inevitably, someone’s important strategy or successful program will be left out and for that, my apologies! Here are my takeaways:

Sustainability is strategy
A senior leader at a global chemical company discussed how his organization has made sustainability a “gate” in its strategic planning and portfolio management process. If a business cannot make a robust argument for its role in improving the sustainability of its supply chain, it may not be in the portfolio much longer. The copper mining industry recognizes that improving its sustainability profile—in terms of waste, pollution, human rights, and energy consumption—is essential for continuing to be allowed to operate in a given country. The coffee industry will be hit hard by climate change; how can they make a more sustainable supply chain that can withstand weather disruption and the impact on growers? Almost every session discussed how concepts of sustainability and circular economy must be an integral part of a successful business strategy.

Waste reduction and re-use are easy wins
Many companies and organizations told of their success in reducing waste—Subaru, MGM Resorts, American Red Cross, UPS—the list was long. All it required was focus, setting clear targets and ensuring adequate staffing, and costs begin to reduce all along the supply chain. At the same time as profit margins benefited, less waste was going to landfill or incineration, reducing the CO2 burden. Enrolling big organizations in waste reduction can be quite easy and helps build momentum for sustainability and success.

Several of the speakers that have roles in marketing or public relations emphasized that getting the messaging right for the audience, be it internally or externally, is crucial. The CEO of Futerra talked about how guilt is not a good motivator to get consumers to be more sustainable. In contrast, everyone benefits if the sustainability messaging emphasizes doing good things, and is inspiring and fun. Manufacturers and brands talked about how their B2B customers and even consumers are now demanding transparency in reporting, in reaction to the use of greenwashing to appear sustainable. Reporting data is seen as not enough, especially by younger consumers and employees, who want to know about impact on the environment and their communities.

Everybody cares
I was struck by how almost all sectors of our communities and economy were represented and their enthusiastic endorsement of the imperatives of sustainability and the circular economy. Any organization that ignores this growing movement will lose. Their image and credibility will be diminished, and their growth and profitability will suffer.

I represented Lehigh Technologies, a Michelin Group Company, in a panel discussion on “Getting to Zero”, which focused on waste reduction and business models that can reduce the need for landfills. We discussed how Lehigh takes post-industrial waste from retread manufacturers and transforms it into customized micronized rubber powder (MRP). These micron-scale powders are then used as an additive in the manufacture of new retreads – a fully closed loop, zero waste process that allows manufacturers to be more sustainable, lower their costs and deliver performance without compromise.

This type of conference sets a standard for information transfer, inspirational storytelling and collaboration. Kudos to the U.S. Chamber Foundation, keep up the good work!