This short Q&A outlines why Veolia pride themselves on their approach to the circular economy, and how they believe it to be paramount to the success of any modern business

As part of the knowledge exchange in the build up to the Responsible Business Summit 2016 (London, 7-8 June) we sat down with Estelle Brachlianoff, Senior Executive Vice-President UK & Ireland , Veolia, to hear her thoughts on and approach to the circular economy. One key component of the exchange is the importance placed on circular approach for business. For another example, download Patagonia's innovative circular strategy case study.

Ethical Corporation: If you wouldn’t mind giving us a brief introduction Estelle; what’s your current role and what are your responsibilities?

Estelle Brachlianoff:

As Senior Executive Vice-President UK & Ireland I lead the Veolia activities for the merged water, waste and energy business.

By leading the £1 billion investment programme, as part of our Resourcing the World strategy, my role has transformed as we’ve made the change from being a traditional environmental services provider to becoming a global resource management company.

As a company we are addressing the biggest single issue our planet faces, namely the scarcity of resources to meet the needs of the 7.2 billion people living here now, let alone the forecast 9.6 billion by 2050. We know the take-make-dispose model is dead – so we are challenging the norm by promoting the circular economy. My role, and that of my team, is to make this reality through collaboration with customers, partners and policy makers in the area of sustainability. I look to lead by example but it’s how we influence others which will make the real difference if the planet is going to have sufficient capacity for all our needs

EC: Which projects are you most proud of in your current role at Veolia?

EB: For me our major achievement is that Veolia is now leading a circular revolution changing how the company and its customers do business – helping our customers with the sustainability and business issues they face.

Our ‘Resourcing the World’ strategy has now transformed the company to reduce dependency on natural resources designed to respond to key environmental issues – climate change, resource scarcity and energy costs. By 2020 over £440 million of Veolia’s UK and Ireland revenue will come from the circular economy and green energy.

By working with our customers to make the Circular Economy (CE) viable we have taken a leading role in its promotion, both highlighting the success of the approach, and widely promoting it across the national media and speaker platforms. This role in promoting the Circular Economy, which we believe is the road to a low carbon society, was recognised at ‘The Circulars’ in Davos where Veolia was jointly awarded ‘Best Multinational’.

Most importantly, our strategy supports sustainable development in its widest sense, championing inclusivity with over 10% of Veoila’s new employees from traditionally marginalised groups e.g. long-tem unemployed, ex-military, ex-offenders and NEETs.

EC: The Circular Economy has existed (to an extent) for quite a while under the simpler guise of “recycling.” Can you comment on the evolution of both the process, and on the awareness around the issue?

EB: Demand is growing and the world needs new resources, this means we need to be more inventive, more responsible and more efficient. By transforming the traditional recycling approach into Circular Economy thinking we can now help companies and communities save resources, become more resilient and more profitable. This has enabled us to take a leading role in its promotion, highlighting the success of the approach, across the national media and speaker platforms.

Businesses can have a positive environmental impact on communities of the future and the industries that serve them. Independent research from Imperial College London, commissioned by Veolia, supported the business case by identifying that ‘closing the loop’ on resource use has the potential to add £2.9bn per annum to UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The biggest risk for us was to break with our traditional business, and by sharing value and the benefits in partnership with our customers, and monetising this we have advanced environmental resilience. To break established perceptions of us and what is achievable, it was vital to have positive belief in our mission from our 14,000 UK workforce, other organisations, industries and communities.

And it appears in the area of recycling where the attitude to products made from recycled materials has changed overnight that there is the greatest scope for circular thinking. Making a product from recycled materials is now competitive to virgin materials in terms of price, equivalent or superior in quality and assured in terms of supply. It’s vital we think about the value we can offer if living circular is going to become second nature.

EC: More generally, the broad umbrella of sustainability has changed a lot over the years, how do you see corporate sustainability evolving over the next 5 years?

EB: We stand on the verge of the second industrial revolution the planet needs. Ironically, whilst it was the sheer availability of raw materials which made the first industrial revolution possible, it is the fear of shortages which are starting to drive the circular revolution – one which the World Economic Forum believes will be worth more than $1 trillion globally a year by 2025.

Looking at the the cost, volatility and scarcity of natural resources - the increasing difficulty of extracting them and the reality that between 1980 and 2020 we will have doubled how much we take out of the earth.

We’re talking about the industries of renewal. Companies are examining their supply chains forensically and understanding where they are vulnerable. Manufacturing is looking at all the resources involved in the production process, if they need them all, and whether there is additional value to be extracted from them. From repair to reuse, redistribution and refurbishment and remanufacturing to recycling, we need to start thinking of raw materials as precious. By embedding these activities as the norm we will protect tomorrow’s environment.

To a resourcing or sustainability manager the circular economy makes perfect business sense. But to make it happen we are going to need a change of mindset which requires boardroom recognition that the earth’s resources are finite not infinite. Fostering local circular loops is now the driver to securing the supply, and this will drive the evolution of corporate responsibility and address resources and sustainability in the widest sense – whether it’s materials, energy, water, people or finance.

Estelle will be talking further on Veolia's strategy at RBS Europe in a session on how technology is driving the city of the future. Find out more about the summit here.

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