What do you associate with the Nordic countries? Probably snow, Santa Claus, design, the social welfare state and high prices. Soon we will also associate them with one more thing as they become leaders in the circular economy.
The goal of the circular economy is to take full advantage of all available resources through reducing, reusing, repairing and recycling. The recent Nordic Circular Summit in Copenhagen, which I attended, covered topics from public administration programmes to innovative techniques and renewable practices in the marine and food industries. What can we learn about the circular economy from the Nordic perspective?
Firstly, the level of cooperation within the region is impressive. The Nordic countries include Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, plus the three independent states of the Faroe Islands, Greenland (Denmark) and Åland (Finland). From the outside, these states are similar in terms of politics, welfare and trust in public institutions, but of course, from the inside there are many cultural and historical differences. However, the Nordic countries have been able to rise above these differences to create a united front against the biggest challenge of our time, climate change. Niina Aagaard, COO of Nordic Innovation, believes that cooperation among the Nordic countries plays a vital role in the circular transition by engaging relevant stakeholders in all 8 nation states to achieve a green and competitive Nordic region. The goal of this cooperation is to influence politics, learn from each other, inspire each other and maybe even incorporate new cross-border partnerships.
International dialogue: This is the most visible aspect of the Nordic vision of climate action, perhaps best embodied in the activist Greta Thunberg. But the movement against the climate change among young people reaches far beyond just one person. Organisations like CATALY(C)ST and Regeneration2030 participated in debates throughout the Summit and were, by their own admission, very integrated in the planning. According to Ella Turta, Secretary General of Regeneración 2030, “This new generation will be the leaders, innovators and decision makers of the future. This means that we are already encouraging new types of leaders that will play an important role in the transition towards a society that is both circular and sustainable. In the future, organisations with values and purpose will be the norm instead of the exception, and this future depends on the norms and values that we instil in tomorrow’s leaders”.(1)
One convincing argument of the organisers of the Nordic Circular Summit was that the current generation of leaders must “step up or step aside” so that the youth movement can take over.
Democracy, equality and diversity: In the Nordic countries, democracy stems from equal access, the assured public welfare and freedom of political opinion. In fact, these states find themselves better equipped to tackle climate change because they are not facing a parallel social crisis at the same time. Why are equality and diversity important in the new economy? Diversity will help us identify the blind spots of the current system, encouraging alternative values and perspectives. Moreover, this will eliminate the dominate focus on economic growth that we now realise has created the climate crisis. The famous egalitarianism in which everyone is treated as equals means that in an event like the Nordic Circular Summit, everyone has a voice in the debate and is treated with respect, from a CEO to the media and the youngest participants. Furthermore, the commitment to gender equality can be seen in the numerous women speakers, which is still not commonplace in conferences in other countries.
Design as a motor for circularity: Scandinavian design is famous worldwide for its simplicity and tastefulness. It is highly regarded in the marketplace and recognised as a driving sector in the Scandinavian economy. This recognition is evidenced by the Lifestyle & Design Cluster, a Danish business group dedicated to design, fashion and furniture. During its sessions, fashion and furniture brands are invited to share how they have adopted circular strategies. Design is strategically important in the transition to a circular economy to create solutions and practices that are environmentally and socially sustainable. The idea that design is part of a larger strategic vision in the Nordic countries was shared by the companies at the Summit, like fashion brand Ganni certifying its materials as sustainable and the furniture company Wehler promoting recycling through closed-loop recycling.
Digitalisation for transformation: One of the winners of the Danish Design Awards 2021 is Målbar, a technology designed to analyse and manage the evaluation of lifecycles of any product manufactured. Apart from new green methodologies and technologies that are developed and funded in the Nordic countries, a recent report entitled “Enabling the Digital Green Transition” makes specific recommendations to politicians. Published by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the report urges politicians to support the adoption of digital practices in favour of the circular economy such as protocols of open data for products, industries and other uses. Relevant information is often not available to everyone, and Nordic companies are considering digital product passports proposed by the EU that contain information about the supply chain and materials.
Brands with a big heart: In the Nordic countries, there is evidence that some brands align their products or services with a larger purpose, and that they have the budget to do so. However, Nordic Innovation, an organisation that supports many circular projects in the region, confirms that levels of Nordic consumption are very high. Fortunately, some key players, such as Lego and IKEA, are taking decisive measures to change this by introducing products designed to be long-lasting and integrate into the circular economy. IKEA has even begun selling renewable energies for homes.
In summary, I hope that these aspects of the Nordic vision of the circular economy inspire us all to face the challenges of climate change with innovation and collaboration.
Written by Julia Wolny, PhD
Director of the Postgrado en Transformación Sostenible, EADA Business School Barcelona