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Freshfields Sustainability

| 7 minutes read

New York Circular City initiative report launch

On 1st October, Freshfields launched the New York Circular City Initiative report, a collaboration of over 20 experts, influencers and thought leaders who have worked together to help the City of New York make the transition to the circular economy. The report ‘Complex Challenges, Circular Solutions’ offers a new vision for the future and provides a roadmap for establishing a circular economy in New York City that can support the city’s recovery by delivering jobs and economic growth while helping the city address its waste and climate challenges. You can watch the recording of the launch event and the full report can now be accessed here.

The launch took place as a global webinar and the panel included;

  • Joey Bergstein, CEO Seventh Generation and Unilever North America Home Care Lead
  • Kate Daly, Managing Director Center for the Circular Economy, Closed Loop Partners
  • Oliver Dudok van Heel, Lead Author and Head of Client Sustainability and Environment, Freshfields
  • Joke Dufourmont, Lead, Circular Jobs Initiative, Circle Economy
  • James Patchett, President and CEO, NYC Economic Development Corporation
  • Tom Szaky, CEO and Founder, TerraCycle
  • Timothy Wilkins, Global Partner for Client Sustainability, Freshfields

The virtual event kicked off with an introduction by Timothy Wilkins, Partner for Client Sustainability at Freshfields who began by reflecting on the past 18 months from when Freshfields first launched its client sustainability practice. While the initial report launch was due in March, “The pandemic was a time for reflection for everyone and this prompted us to go further in our research in New York City’s recovery, job growth, economic stimulation and to tackle inequality”. He went onto thank all the contributors to the research and stressed the importance of assembling such a multi-stakeholder group. “The world is facing some huge challenges. Put simply, these challenges require partnerships and collaborations to solve”. These opening remarks were closely followed by a summary of the report findings and recommendations by Oliver Dudok van Heel, Head of Client Sustainability and Environment at Freshfields. The initial thinking and reasoning behind launching this initiative can be found in Oliver’s previous blog – Why circular cities are key to the pandemic recovery, Circular New York City launch.

The lively panel discussion then further looked at a number of different issues within the current linear economy and discussed circular opportunities, all the while reflecting on the last few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key takeaways 

Learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

James Patchett, President and CEO of NYC Economic Development Corporation initiated the panel discussion on a positive note by highlighting some of the valuable lessons learnt from the pandemic. His quote “We may have not learned them in the way we wanted but we have certainly learned some valuable lessons very quickly, which we must not forget” was a common theme echoed throughout the discussion as all of the panellists reflected on the past few months.

Some key learnings and circular themes from the report were further explored in the discussion:

 Localising supply chains and increasing resilience 

COVID-19 has shown just how global and complex our supply chains are along with their vulnerability to disruption. This has caused many of us to re-think and take steps to re-localise our supply chains, purely out of necessity. A key example of this in New York is approaching local manufacturers to re-tool for the manufacture of medical PPE (personal protective equipment) at the start of the pandemic. Many cities, including New York, struggled to source adequate PPE when the crisis first began due to an overreliance on markets such as China and India and thus suffering from continuity of supply issues. Medical PPE is just one of many supply chain examples that have come under scrutiny for their globalised and complex structure during the pandemic. It is worth noting that various global supply chains have also been criticised for many years against a backdrop of environmental and human rights allegations. This point was also picked up in the questions and answers section where a question on the role the circular economy can play in helping to tackle modern slavery issues in supply chains was raised. Joey Bergstein, CEO Seventh Generation and Unilever North America Home Care Lead gave an example from Unilever where Ben & Jerry’s sources from local bakeries, which shortens supply chains thus reducing environmental impact and creates local employment where employees are paid a living wage.

Job creation 

As a result of COVID-19, many industries such as hospitality and tourism are sadly on the brink of collapse and have led to mass unemployment. There is a very large number of people currently out of work whose skills could be put to good use. This will not only benefit the wellbeing of those individuals but also support the now many struggling economies worldwide, and of course in New York. Joke Dufourmont, Lead of the Circular Jobs Initiative from Circle Economy delved into some of the details of their circular jobs analysis which led to the conclusion of the potential for 11,000 good quality jobs linked to the circular economy in New York.

The panel was unanimous in acknowledging that the circular economy is often associated with recycling alone. Similar to how reusing an item is considerably more valuable than recycling based on the waste hierarchy (e.g. using a reusable coffee cup instead of trying to recycle a disposable one), there is an urgent need to shift from a recycling economy where too much waste is generated in the first place, to a reuse economy. This brings with it a wealth of new job opportunities in sectors that overlap. These potential new jobs do not only cover jobs such as repair and maintenance but encompass a diverse range of industries such as manufacturing, design, engineering, architecture and education. The idea behind a circular economy and circular jobs is that circularity is taken into consideration right from the inception of a product or service. For instance; designing products that are built to last and are easily repairable, rather than planned for obsolescence. The 11,000 potential jobs stated by the Circle Economy analysis also range from local to state-wide in New York, which ties in with the need for more localised supply chains.

Joke went on to stress that resilience (i.e. the ability to adapt after a shock) is one of the missing links when discussing jobs and economies. A diverse economy is vital for resilience and this requires a diverse labour market and diverse labour skills. The circular economy can offer exactly that.

Consumer behaviour or “human” behaviour? 

Despite the huge challenges brought about by the pandemic, individuals have demonstrated that they still care about sustainability. This ties in with the rise of “ethical consumerism”. However, the panellists agreed that using the word “consumer” may not necessarily be representative. Kate Daly, Managing Director Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners interestingly pointed out that it might be more applicable to refer to the notion of consumer behaviour as human behaviour. Joey went on to expand on Kate’s remarks by explaining that the word “consumer” is very one dimensional and that we need to think holistically about people. For instance; Oliver gave the example of the innovative shopping mall in Sweden (ReTuna) that sells only second life products (e.g., clothes, electronics etc.), thus still providing people with that enjoyable shopping experience but by minimising the impact on the environment.

There are many people that want to be purposeful and “help make the world better”. However, Tom Szaky, CEO and Founder of TerraCycle echoed that it is not enough to expect consumers to choose a sustainable option solely because “it’s the right thing to do”. If it is to be truly accessible by everyone, the consumer or “human” choice also needs to be based on many other factors such as price, convenience and value. Quite often, sustainable options are not accessible for many reasons such as financial (e.g. more sustainable or ethical products are typically more expensive) and logistics (e.g. not being near a shop that offers sustainable alternatives such as product refills). This can also help tackle various inequality issues, where sustainable choices are often associated with being far more accessible to the privileged. The interesting point was also raised of the need for the more sustainable products to simply be the better product. Better in terms of quality and user experience. Sustainability (e.g. refurbished products) should not compromise on the value the product has to offer (e.g. a brand-new product). All of these factors feed into choices individuals make.

So- what comes next? 

A legal framework for a circular economy 

As a lawyer himself, Tim asked the very important question of what legislation will be key in supporting the transition to the circular economy. Tom pointed out that he welcomes regulation such as Extended Producer Responsibility, which is a policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility- financial and/or physical for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. However, there is still a need for more to support this transition to a circular economy, particularly in the US, where these legal pressures and regulation are not as widespread as in Europe. However, Tom noted that quite often even commencing the dialogue around legislative reform can drive behaviour as companies seek to respond to consumers and stay ahead of their competition. 

Partnerships for a circular economy 

Cities can create ecosystems for great collaboration and partnerships. For instance; New York has fantastic universities with fresh talent who are challenging the status quo and a thriving entrepreneur pool. Companies are now taking sustainability seriously so it’s a great time to be innovative. There is essentially demand being created in the market due to a number of different factors. However, these innovations need to be accessible and inclusive, as highlighted earlier on.

Kate highlighted that linear economic models are expensive, which is what most of our economies are currently based on. For instance; every year, 60 million dollars of tax payer’s money goes on disposing textiles, which would otherwise have value. There are some great opportunities for partnerships to help solve inefficiencies like this.  

The panel discussed some great examples of partnerships such as a coalition of consumer goods companies and TerraCycle in launching the global shopping system and reuse model- Loop. Loop allows shoppers to consume products in a sustainable manner by refillable packaging which is collected, cleaned and reused by TerraCycle, offering a circular solution. It was stressed that many more partnerships like this are required and that these huge problems can’t be solved by Loop alone. It requires multi-stakeholder collaboration, both in the private and public sector.

The NYC Economic Development Corporation is excited to take this forward and will be making announcements in the coming weeks for various circular economy partnerships. James credited these new partnership opportunities to the New York Circular City initiative convened by Freshfields.  As Tom concluded so eloquently, “Simply put, we are running out of resources, so we simply have no choice but to make economies circular”. 

Simply put, we are running out of resources, so we simply have no choice but to make economies circular. Tom Szaky, CEO TerraCycle


covid-19, covid recovery, sustainability, circular economy, human rights, new york city, waste management