The world is becoming less circular. It is moving further and further from an ideal where waste is eradicated and economic activities strengthen the environment and society at large. Shifting to a new way of doing business will be challenging and will require trailblazers, innovative entrepreneurs aiming to trigger change across industries and entire value chains.
Building a circular economy requires that innovative circular solutions become the standard across industries. Only a small group of organizations are well positioned to build innovative businesses in the circular economy that can trigger systems change: circular trailblazers.
I am proud to contribute the research report into success factors of circular trailblazers published by the World Economic Forum together with ScaleUpNation.
Why trailblazers are different
According to our research, successful circular trailblazers use these 5 strategies to achieve impact beyond their own size:
Storytelling for impact: Trailblazers use storytelling to raise awareness regarding the societal challenge they are aiming to tackle, and the type of solution they see as the way forward. They craft a compelling and authentic story, create or find the right stage, and engage effective storytellers inside and outside their organization. For example, Dutch circular mobile phone manufacturer Fairphone looks to shape a sustainable electronics industry. It shares stories of changemakers through blogs, podcasts, workshops, and events to forge memorable human connections while building awareness and support for ideas such as worker well-being and reducing electronics waste.
Setting a higher standard: Circular trailblazers raise the standard for their product category and even create new categories with their innovative offer. Their entry into any established space can threaten incumbents, but by continuing model transparency and inclusive industry change, they can grow support for their movement. Packaging company Polymateria, for instance, didn’t just develop an innovative biodegradable solution for conventional plastic packaging, it worked with legislators to ensure its solution could officially become the new benchmark for the British standard in biodegradability. This trailblazer’s one-of-a-kind approach is both commercially viable and is helping reshape the sector.
Sharing insights: Trailblazers share their intellectual property openly. This practice helps others provide circular solutions that build support for new standards. Such sharing could take many forms, such as licensing technological knowledge, training others or even open-source tools. Trailblazers share in a way that helps grow the market without sacrificing their own competitive position. For example, fashion company Rapanui founded Teemill, a T-shirt brand with circular production process. It has opened access to this process allowing thousands of other brands to participate, helping to further reduce water inputs and emissions. The system allows Teemill to thrive while breaking down barriers to the circular transition.
Initiating collaboration: Trailblazers understand they don’t act alone. They build alliances with a wide range of actors, including policy makers, academics and industry experts as they push for technological breakthroughs, new industry standards and wider market access. Such systems change will often require the involvement of likely and unlikely allies such as scale-up peers, big corporates, academia and non-profits. Trailblazers collaborate because they know they cannot change entire industries on their own.
Influencing public policy: Trailblazers work to influence public policy to break down barriers to the circular transition. They do this by building consortiums to advocate for policy changes such as stricter regulation, certifications, taxes for harmful practices, or subsidies for circular practices. As an example, US based clothing brand Outerknown has published a call to action to other players in the fashion industry to jointly lobby for preferential tariffs for the use of circular fibres. Such a move shows an understanding for the need for public policies that support systems-wide change.
The full report can be downloaded here: