Interview with Cécile van Oppen, Copper8

Cécile van Oppen is the founder and CEO of Copper8, a consultancy with a mission to make a sustainable impact in the manufacturing and construction industry. Here she tells us about why the circular economy is much more than recycling, why collaboration is key to its success and what impact it could have on quality.

How do you work towards the circular economy?

“When looking at the circular economy, a lot of people look at how to remake products, but what we always say is if the product that is made circular isn’t used in a circular way, it’s nothing but a product with really good intentions. We shift the focus from the word ‘circular’ to the word ‘economy’ – what we try to do is to shift the incentives from the linear economic model to the circular model. So, for example, if you're going to make a cradle-to-cradle chair and it ends up on landfill, you haven't actually created a circular economy. Instead, we have to start behaving in a circular way – we have to include the aspect of collaboration both in the value chain in order to increase the repairability of the chair, but also with the end user in order to prevent the chair from ending up on the landfill.”

What are the big challenges with that?

“We need to bend our value chains to make them more circular: to include the waste management company in the value chain rather than contracting them separately, and moreover to allow the waste management company to advise the product designers on circular design. And of course, that's increasingly challenging when you're looking at highly technical products such as electronics... the more complex the product, the more difficult it is to do that.”

“Because of the cost efficiency push, we've really created long and very fragmented value chains over the last few decades. If smartphones would have passports, they would be more filled than the average global citizen. The average phone consists of over 30 components made of over 60 materials derived from eight different countries.”

And the more people involved, the more difficult it is as well?

“Yes! We were involved in the smart meter tender on behalf of Dutch electrical network operators Stedin and Alliander three years ago, and together with Metabolic, we mapped out their value chain as it was then. Optimistically speaking, it consisted of 3,000 value chain partners. It’s really difficult to then make sure that any circular ambitions are translated throughout the entire value chain; there’s no way you can reach down through thousands of suppliers and say, ‘You know, we'd love for you to be circular.’ They’d reply, ‘Well if you pay me more, maybe.’”

Do you think there's a challenge with people understanding the concept of circular?

“There was a study done last year by the University of Utrecht and they found that there are 114 definitions of the circular economy being used in the Netherlands. So there isn't a clear definition of what the circular economy is.”

“Also, what we see now is that even recycling is considered ‘circular economy’. I’m not saying that recycling never counts as circular, but we need to focus on its economic relevance. For example, we have seen governments that have to start putting out more circular tenders, count activities they’ve been doing for years, like paper recycling, as circular. In this case we prefer to not ‘inflate’ the notion of a circular economy and just call it recycling.”

“If you’re trying to create circular initiatives within an organization that is led by financial, short-term (linear) incentives, you’re going to get a clash and the circular initiatives that are focused on long-term value creation are not going to win. You can solve this by either accounting for other (non-financial) values which is proposed by the integrated reporting movement, but also by placing the circular initiatives in a separate incubator in which other incentives are in-place. I think that that is the true challenge, that we need to really change the way we run our businesses. If that doesn't change, we will approach the overshoot and collapse scenario.”

How far do you think we still have to go?

“If you look at the studies that were done in 1971 and 1972 on the ‘Limits to Growth’, there they said that we’re approaching an overshoot and collapse scenario by approximately 2080. I think that if we don't change the way we organize our economy and run our businesses, we are set for this pretty disastrous scenario. 2016 studies showed we’re not far off from the computer simulations.”

“I think the true challenge, and it's the more difficult challenge, is this cultural transition we should be making. We need to rethink the way our businesses are inhibiting the circular economy. We need to rethink the way our economy is organized. And maybe most importantly, we need to overcome the split personality that we tend to adopt: having affinity with circular economy principles as a person, but forgetting this as soon as we step into our professional role.”

What impact do you think circular approaches can have on quality in particular?

“If we were to make the world more circular, we would have to focus on the ultimate quality of our products and make sure that they are of the highest standard, so that products don’t break, so that they’re easy to repair, so that we can adjust our products with minor changes and still have the functionality that we want.”