The ‘Circular Economy’ Is More Than Davos-Speak

January 13, 2017, 8:57 PM UTC
The Davos World Economic Forum 2014
A businessman stands on a snow covered outdoor terrace at the InterContinental hotel, operated by InterContinental Hotels Group Plc (IHG), in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the five day event runs from Jan. 22-25. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Chris Ratcliffe — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The “circular economy” may have started off as a pie-in-the-sky concept, but in the last few years, it’s come into its own.

With the world population expected to balloon to nearly 10 billion in 2050, business leaders are increasingly embracing the idea that their products and processes need to be more resource-efficient. Traditionally the economy has followed a linear approach, where energy, food, and other resources are used and then go to waste. In a circular economy, the idea is that materials can be repeatedly reused in some way or another rather than ending up in a landfill.

For companies, that means designing modular goods that can be replaced in pieces when broken or outdated (ahem, smartphones). It means developing technology that can turn industrial waste gases like carbon monoxide into useful biofuels. It means reducing paper waste — a move that could potentially save them $1 billion in the process. At the end of the day, it’s not a question of how a product is disposed, but whether it needs to be disposed of at all.

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Some of the individuals and organizations who have put this ethos into practice will be recognized in an awards ceremony Monday at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The annual awards program, known as The Circulars, is a collaboration between Accenture Strategy and the World Economic Forum, with Fortune as a media partner.

Seven awards will be given, including an award to an individual who has demonstrated “inspirational leadership” in the circular economy, and an award to a multinational that has demonstrated circular economy innovation. (Some of the big-name finalists in the latter category are Cisco, Patagonia, and Johnson Controls.)

This is the third year that the program has been in place. Last year’s winners included a company called Optoro that helps major U.S. retailers do more with their returned and damaged inventory, and Materials Marketplace, a cloud-based platform that tracks and exchanges large and medium-sized companies’ undervalued materials.

Applications for this year’s contest were open from June to September 2016. Last year, there were over 200 entries from 36 countries.