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Waste not, want not firms go full circle

6 Oct 2021

Trailblazing entrepreneurs are carving a space in the circular economy by reducing, reusing and recycling resources, says Rebecca Burn-Callander.

In a 150,000sq ft remanufacturing space built by Top 50 leader Rod Neale, founder of Circular Computing, people are busy turning used laptops into remanufactured laptops that provide 97 per cent of the performance of a new machine for a fraction of the carbon footprint or cost.

Neale’s ambitious vision is to give every used laptop a second, third and even fourth life. He is a pioneer in the field of circular-economy computing and he has created the capacity to produce 10,000 remanufactured computers every month, capacity that will double when his second facility is finished.

Neale’s success is an example of how entrepreneurial grit and determination can help solve the pressing challenges we face today. Some corporations around the world lease their equipment for just three years, contributing to the 53.6m tonnes of e-waste produced every year.

“We use 99 per cent of all the laptops we get from the used market,” he says. “Less than one per cent goes for recycling; everything is broken up for spare parts if we can’t rebuild it.”

The circular economy is considered the antidote to the traditional “take, make, waste” approach to global resources. In a circular model, the emphasis is on reuse, recycle and repurpose. The aim of a circular economy is to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution.

“Today’s system is predominantly linear and it is heartening to see entrepreneurs moving their industries in the right direction, towards becoming more regenerative,” says Joe Iles, who leads the Circular Design programme at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity that promotes the circular economy.

“We want to see those businesses grow and for the ambitious leaders behind them to be recognised. It is really hard to go against the grain and do things a different way.” Many of this year’s Top 50 leaders are disrupting their respective industries with their sustainable business models. Take BAM Bamboo Clothing managing director Ryan Shannon.

In 2018, he set the goal of making the ethical fashion brand impact-positive by 2030. It planted over 9,000 mangrove trees last year, developed 100 per cent recyclable clothing and it offsets 100 per cent of the emissions associated with running the business and the manufacture of its clothing (going so far as to offset 50 customer washes for every item of clothing).

“We have identified every business in our supply chain,” says Shannon. “We’re also visiting every yarn mill and bamboo forest, shining a light on every part of the process.”

To help accelerate change, Shannon has shared with the world – even with his rivals – all he has learned about building a circular-economy fashion house.

“Fashion is one of the most polluting industries, contributing 350,000 tonnes to landfill each year in the UK alone,” he says. “We share our findings with competitors because we want them to do the right thing as well. We want to be a catalyst for change.”

A third of consumers look for brands that demonstrate strong ethical and sustainable credentials, according to 2021 research by Deloitte. Many brands may be looking to re-engineer their products in light of changing consumer tastes. “I’m so excited about growing a successful, profitable business, while also being a force for change and good,” adds Shannon.

orange quote mark
I’m so excited about growing a successful, profitable business, while also being a force for change and good.”
Ryan Shannon
BAM Bamboo Clothing

When people want to get rid of bulky, household items, waste management firm Clearabee can step in and make sure they get reused or recycled. “We use more than 200 recycling facilities for different materials each day,” says Clearabee founder Daniel Long.

The Birmingham-based business has grown to 160 vehicles and 288 employees in just under a decade, and it’s still growing 30 per cent a year. “We’re building a brand that people can
trust,” adds Long.

Clearabee is now focusing its efforts on upcycling. Long is opening a new reupholstery centre in Aston, Birmingham, so that he can take away old sofas and bring them back to life. But it’s not just the premises Long is building – he’s also creating the technology needed to make this part of the circular economy work.

“We have software engineers building solutions so that companies like DFS can integrate us into their app and ask customers if they want us to come and take their old sofas away,” Long explains. “In 10 years’ time, recycling will be a dirty word. It will be all about reuse and repair.”

Almost 80 per cent of the stuff we use every day, from plastics to food and fashion, ends up as waste, says Iles. “It is exciting to see so many companies embrace the concept of reuse, to see them investing in the reverse chain.

That’s a significant economic opportunity. “Of course, to make the greatest impact, we need to stop waste from being created in the first place. We look forward to seeing more entrepreneurs and designers take on that creative challenge.”

Do your bit to bridge the skills gap

Leaders who invest in the skills of the future not only address shortages but also keep their business relevant to the modern world.

The skills that drive the global economy today are vastly different to the skills that dominated it a decade ago – and now, skills shortages abound. Many of the Top 50 leaders are dedicated to preserving vital skills to help futureproof the UK economy.

“We’ve invested in British manufacturing,” says The Cambridge Satchel Co. founder Julie Deane CBE. “With the impact of Brexit and the pandemic, everyone is realising how important all different kinds of jobs are – manufacturing is a huge sector and we almost lost it.”

When she founded the company, Deane was astounded by how hard it was to get a satchel – that most British of bags – made in the UK.

“By making it here in the Midlands, you get to say ‘Come take a look in our workshops’, and when people get the bag they can be really proud of it. People are not only supporting skills and UK manufacturing – they have something that will last.”

By 2030, two-thirds of the UK workforce could be lacking in basic digital skills, according to consultancy firm McKinsey. Top 50 agile software developer Scrumconnect, which creates apps and web solutions for a wide variety of clients, is doing its bit to stem the tide. The fast-growing firm hires people of all ages and gives them training to have a fulfilling career in technology.

“Our vision is to reduce the digital skills gap,” says CEO and founder Praveen Karadiguddi. “We are training up apprentices and have taken part in the government’s Kickstart scheme.”

Through Kickstart, Scrumconnect is taking on 15 trainees who are at risk of long-term unemployment. And this is just the beginning – Karadiguddi is committed to taking on several more, and crucially, Scrumconnect isn’t just creating new skills within reach of its London base: “We are helping to train new talent in Newcastle, Coventry and Manchester,” Karadiguddi says. “These skills will be vital to the future regional economy.”

Leaders who invest in the skills of the future are ensuring their firms stay relevant in the modern world. They are also giving people meaningful careers and ensuring workers aren’t left behind as business needs evolve.