03/08/2013 12:48 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Goodbye Western Lifestyles, Long Live Circularity!

There is no chance we can continue to play, live and work the way we do today. Extreme consumption as we know it will soon be a past and obsolete trend. Looking back at 'that time' we will feel ashamed of how we even thought of living like that. And this is not another pledge at being careful or preaching for the odd times ahead of us, it is a belief that there is something beyond our consumption patterns -- a sort of halfway-through-life as we enjoy it today and patterns that we will, hopefully soon, learn to respect and follow. Needless to say that we will move to this new era without waiting for another dramatic event as we too often experience these days -- from extreme droughts to heavy rainfalls, from rampant desertification to drowning lands. It all seems as if we are not meant to react and be able to act accordingly in front of these early signs from nature. Not so early in fact as this is a daily reality for millions of displaced people on Earth from Mongolia to Bangladesh, or climate change related jobless ones from Australia to Russia, for years already.

Just imagine the unimaginable: soon-to-be 9 billion (then 11 billion and up according to the latest United Nations projections) inhabitants on Earth aiming at living the "American Way of Life" or anything that one could see in movies these days -- from wealthy Indian actors to dexterous Chinese fighter guys. In a 7 billion inhabitants' world today, we are already in an ecological overshoot situation where we use and abuse the Earth like we would do with the weakest human beings among us i.e. take advantage of it and run. We are egocentric and we do not feel that there is anything wrong with our manners. Furthermore, we think we are so smart. "Killing ourselves softly" smiling at the ones that tell us, relentlessly, that our lives are at stake. What dramatic ending are we offering to the Human Species...? Can anyone out there understand that one cannot live like the average European or American from any corner of the globe, and especially not in Europe and America? Can these societies (or any other ones ready to lead!?) set the pace for a more responsible way of living on our single, unique 'plan A only' planet -- moving away from the three planet average footprint that we are all experiencing no matter what the effort made? Who believes people in Qatar can live like they do -- a five planet per person as a minimum -- for years? Who thinks the millions of people displaced in Northern Mongolia and Bangladesh will ever come back to their original homelands? Who believes that the almost 15,000 deaths France once experienced over few summer weeks will not be soon worse? What else do we need to wake us up and act?

As John Elkington says, there are people that start to positively think otherwise -- against all odds. He calls them "The Zeronauts" aiming at Zero as an ultimate impact goal: zero carbon, zero net water, zero fossil fuel, etc. Zeronauts are researchers, academics, intra-preneurs, CEOs, and other consultants that are thinking their way through the unsustainable patterns inherited from our Western lifestyles where everyone can afford nearly anything they could dream of on sometime virtual money cycle i.e. continuously dreaming on. They all are aiming at breaking the sustainability barrier. There is one Zeronaut that John Elkington did not list (as yet): Dame Ellen MacArthur, not the sailor (although she broke our mind's barrier too when she sailed over records), the one that will soon be remembered as The Circular Economist's guru! Let's now forget what we know of our lifestyles or of Ellen-MacArthur-the-sailor. Reset. Go!

Welcome to the Circular Economy! Shops are no longer seeing me as a consumer where easy money (or bank money) could be used and abused. I am now seen as a long-term loyal user of a brand, be it in washing machines, cars or in home furniture. Anything I want I can have just over a website click or a phone call! I have become a service user, no longer a lambda consumer who buys a standard product, use and abuse it, and throw it away discreetly. How about the value of that thrown away good? What economic nonsense have we put ourselves into? Producing to throw? Have we really managed to preserve and cherish most value in our economic models? Do we really believe that 'take-make-waste' model -- as late Ray Anderson would say -- is such a smart model? Instead, Dame Ellen and her partners suggest that we enter into an era of circularity. An approach to responsible consumption where manufacturers -- and new breeds of re-manufacturers (new jobs to be created soon!) -- will all find profitability in a service based approach model while keeping ownership of the product to be reused several times and fully reinserted in the production loop for new goods to be created. How about signing up for a premium service agreement for your washing machine over several years where the original manufacturer will agree to provide you with full 24/7 service, maintenance, support while switching your high-end ecological washing machine model to the latest trendy model every two years, without asking for it and only pay per wash cycle? With proven savings of higher than 30 percent on leasing schemes for the user and leasing arrangements from the manufacturer we at the same time do good to planet Earth by reducing the number of products produced and associated waste. No more headache as to what will happen the day your washing machine stops washing. No question asked to whether you made the right choice of product on the purchase day. No longer "have I paid too much upfront" for something that does not deliver as I expected? Instead you are guaranteed to get the best service from the original manufacturer, at all times of the day and night, at the pay-per-use price, protecting both your wallet and the one and only planet we have. Once your machine is being switched with the latest model, it goes into a regular agreement with another user who decided to go with a second-hand machine rather than signing a premium contract. Why not, as the machine will be checked and look like new? Besides you will in any case be guaranteed for a 24/7 full maintenance or replacement. Two years down the line the new breed re-manufacturer will take over and still be able to offer the services from the same washing machine after some part changes and product refreshes. Later on, the machine -- property of the original manufacturer -- will go back to the production line to be dismantled and subsequently upcycled, recycled or downcycled (according to Braungart & McDonough), making sure that we value all parts of the product and reinsert it completely in the production line as a better washing machine (upcycle), the same machine model (recycle) or five irons (downcycle).

This is what Dame Ellen calls 'technical nutrients' (versus biological nutrients) that have a circular lifestyle as being produced for a reason, maintained for a better reason, reused for longer happiness, re-manufactured for endless pleasure and recycled for a smarter society. And guess what, everybody makes or saves more money! The now -- you and me -- 'happy user' spend less upfront CapEx money, and as we use service-as-it-goes, improving on our financial situation; the manufacturer earns twice or -- at times -- thrice more money given the longer-smartly-managed product lifecycle; the re-manufacturer creates new jobs that did not exist before while having a sustainable promising business; and the recycler is even more proud of recycling as it now makes business sense. Everyone fits in nicely and Mother Nature sees less junk, extracted chemicals and more biological nutrients reinserted into the biomass for improved soils. Why did not we think about this earlier? Are we that smart? Could we even go beyond restorative circular economy into a full regenerative spheroid approach where we would bring more benefits back to our planet than we grab? What could potentially be the impact on the world's poorest who could now access greater services in markets where circular economy implementation could experience some leapfrogged technology shifts? It may not pull them out of poverty but it will certainly improve their way of life, the real one this time.