a reference business model for circular economy?

“Today, I’m not going to talk about the company. I’m going to talk about Mother Earth, and she is in trouble”. Who could have guessed that this sentence was pronounced in 1995 by Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, the worldwide leader in carpet sustainable design and manufacturing? So surprising that the reaction of the stock market was radical: the value of Interface stock fell by 50% the following day.

Today Interface is a multinational company that is worth 1 billion dollars. It is one of the greatest entrepreneurial successes that shows it is possible to combine economic growth with a real environmental strategy. This can be explained by the « Mission Zero » program the company has implemented since the 90’s. Its objective: to eliminate any negative impact the company may have on the environment by 2020.

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What are the results today compared to 1996? 94% reduction in waste sent in landfill per unit of production, water intake in manufacturing was reduced by 83%, total energy use diminished by 39%, GHG emissions cut by 71% and 49% of total raw materials are now recycled or bio-based.

If the objectives of « Mission Zero » are not completed yet, the progress achieved is undeniable.

For Geanne Van Arkel, Head of Sustainable Development at Interface, these achievements can be explained by both a strong will of the company to turn sustainable and responsible but also by the implementation of an efficient business model. In order to take back the raw materials that Interface is using to produce its carpets, the company has created a leasing system with its customers. Instead of being sold, the carpet is rented and when the customer wants to change it, he sends it back to Interface that provides him with another one. This closed loop system is one of the key success factors of the company. It enables Interface to cover itself against the price volatility of the raw materials needed to conceive the carpets.

Interface has been innovating at other levels as well. Eco-conception is at the heart of the production model. The carpet is conceived so that it is easy to recycle and the materials are selected so that they are easily reusable. Biomimicry, or the art of inspiring from the ecosystem in order to reduce our impact on the environment, is also implemented. For instance, instead of using a toxic glue to fix the carpet on the ground, Interface studied the adhesive power of lizards’ legs in order to create an adhesive tape that replaces this toxic product.

In the frame of its « Mission Zero », Interface is also looking at different ways to have a positive impact on the environment. Among the programs the company has implemented, the initiative « Net-Works » in the Philippines caught our attention. Local fishermen are paid in order to collect old nylon fishing nets that are damaging the coast fauna and flora. Once collected, these fishing nets are recycled and turned into carpets by Interface. Since the implementation of the program, 26 villages are taking part to the initiative and 30 tons of fishing nets have already been collected.

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Geanne Van Arkel (Interface) and Raphaël (Circul’R)

When we ask to Geanne Van Arkel if these changes in the business model of the company are cost-effective, she answers with a smile: « These actions enabled us to save 450M$. It was not easy to make it and it is a permanent challenge to convince our stakeholders that these actions are actually interesting both on a financial and sustainable point of view ». So Interface is a model that works! Its success is the proof that it is possible to combine economic and environmental performances and this should foster other companies to innovate in order to do business in the right way.



4 billion of smartphones are used worldwide today and it seems impossible not to use them for more than 24 hours. But do we actually know what they are made of?

A smartphone gathers more than 30 different types of minerals. Some of them, such as tin or tantalum, come from conflict zones. That is the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo where most of the mines are under the control of rebel forces that are using child labor to extract minerals and that do not respect human rights. As no one really knows about this situation and due to the lack of responsible alternatives, the consumers are indirectly involved in this system.

But should we stop using smartphones because of that? The answer is obviously… no! To solve this issue, a change must be done in the way smartphones are produced and conceived.

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It is a young Dutch designer, Bas Van Abdel, who has first tried to tackle this issue in 2010. Aware of this critical situation in the smartphone industry, he decided to take up a challenge: create the first sustainable and ethical phone, the « Fairphone ».

In 2010, he launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to raise funds for the production of a first batch of 5 000 Fairphones. In three weeks, 10 000 orders were registered and it gave birth to the Fairphone start-up.

The Fairphone 1 tackles the supply chain transparency issue. The company tries to work as much as possible with responsible suppliers and use « clean » minerals that are not coming from conflict zones. With Fairphone 1, the company uses radical transparency regarding its supply chain, but acknowledges that there is still room for improvement to reach the objective of a 100% responsible and sustainable procurement. However, Fairphone 1 has been a great consumer success with more than 60.000 smartphones sold in total.

The Fairphone 2, that is to be released in summer 2015, tackles another issue of the smartphone industry: planned obsolescence. Most of the smartphones are not conceived to last and this contributes to a growing production of electronic waste (known as e-waste). Millions of smartphones end up in landfill each year. Today, only 7% of the electronic components used in mobile devices are recycled. To tackle this problem, the Fairphone 2 has been designed in such a way that it is easy to repair. For Miquel Ballester, in charge of circular economy at Fairphone, « the design of the smartphone is key, combining the use of sustainable minerals and eco-conception, so that the product is built to last». All the plastic components used in the Fairphone are coming from recycled plastic and with Fairphone 2 the objective is to reach 50% of recycled components in total.

The start-up has also launched different recycling programs: one in Europe to take back the old smartphones of the Fairphone users and one in Ghana to raise awareness of the local population about recycling and about the danger of e-waste. Thanks to these initiatives 70 000 mobile phones have already been collected.

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Even if Fairphone remains a small player compared to Apple or Samsung, it has created a real movement of responsible consumers that are now aware of the issues of the smartphone industry. For Bas Van Abdel, the main goal of Fairphone is not to become a leader in the smartphone industry but rather to enhance a real change in the way smartphones are produced: this implies more transparency on the supply chain and smart design in order to move to a sustainable phone. We now have a question: when will the first 100% ethical smartphone be available?