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Virtuous circle: Exploring the circular economy with global leaders AkzoNobel & Shaw Contract

AkzoNobel, the paints and coating firm, and Shaw Contract, the carpet manufacturer (members of WorldGBC’s Corporate Advisory Board), have pioneering but unique approaches to the “circular economy” – the restorative and regenerative economic system in which resources are retained and reused within businesses, as opposed to being wasted. Chris Cook, Global Sustainability Director at AkzoNobel, and Todd Jarvis, Global Marketing Director at Shaw Contract, speak to WorldGBC’s CEO Terri Wills.

How do you define the ‘circular economy’? What is the difference to ‘Cradle to Cradle’?

Chris Cook (CC): The traditional linear economy is often considered a “take, make and waste” model. The circular economy approach does not look at waste as waste, but more as a valuable resource with new potential. At AkzoNobel, we first understand where waste occurs in the value chain, and then minimise and repurpose.

Todd Jarvis (TJ): The terms ‘closed loop economy’, ‘circular economy’ and Cradle to Cradle are all similar: they are resource efficiency philosophies that have evolved since the 1970s. But Cradle to Cradle is different: it is a philosophy, but also a rigorous certification system. If we’re going to save the planet, we need a plan. And Cradle to Cradle is a plan.

“We try not to think of waste as waste, but more as a valuable resource with new potential.” – Chris Cook, AkzoNobel

What is the business case for taking these approaches?

TJ: At Shaw, Cradle to Cradle guides target setting and decision making, but it’s also becoming widely recognised and embedded in some Green Building Councils’ ratings tools, which helps to create demand. As William McDonough (the champion of Cradle to Cradle) says, “we are storing our future inventory on our customers’ floors”. Anytime we can produce a product without extracting raw materials from the earth, we are having a more positive impact – but we are also managing the risk of fluctuating and uncertain costs of raw materials.

CC: Sometimes for us it’s more about the social impact of these initiatives rather than hard financial benefits. Our initiative ‘Community RePaint’ allows paint to be collected, remanufactured on a small scale, and made available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford Dulux – a family living below the poverty line who wants to refresh their home, or even a church, charity or community group whose building needs a new paint job.

TJ: Indeed, social fairness is one of the five principles of Cradle to Cradle. It could be anything from donating floors to homes in New Orleans that were damaged during Hurricane Katrina, our staff engaging in volunteering schemes, or donating solar panels to orphanages in Thailand.

“Anytime we can produce a product without extracting raw materials from the earth, we are having a more positive impact.” – Todd Jarvis, Shaw Contract

How challenging is it to get your products back into your companies for re-use?

CC: A key challenge is making sure that we only reclaim paint from a manufacturer who operates to the same standards as us, as we have to be careful what we put back into the system. We don’t want to recycle unhealthy or hazardous chemicals. Creating standards in the industry is critical to facilitate a circular economy approach. A further challenge is creating demand for a product with recycled content. It’s difficult to produce that product at the same price as our core products, and that limits demand.

TJ: At Shaw, we have a similar challenge. We design our products to be upcycled, but not everybody does. Different types of fibres and backings make this a difficult task to take back all carpets.  We have experimented with new to the world technologies, but innovation is “messy” and at this point we don’t have a permanent solution for all carpet types. Being a leader can be difficult but we will continue to charge forward.


Marks and Spencer has pioneered a circular economy approach where clothes can be returned to stores to be resold, reused or recycled. Do you think this could apply to products in the building sector?

TJ: The challenge we find in our sector is working with the community to anticipate in advance when it’s time to replace and recycle, and being there when they do. Carpet doesn’t always wear out, but it “uglies out” – people want a different colour or pattern despite having a lifetime commercial warranty. We are trying to be more proactive by looking at projects that might be getting close to replacing carpet. I’m pleased to say that since 2006 we have recycled in the order of 400million kgs of carpet!

CC: We have a similar challenge – to get old products back you need to get people at the right opportunity. For example, consumers often dispose of paint not when they are about to start a new paint job, but when they are moving properties and clearing out their garages or lofts – which makes take back to store options more challenging. You have to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to recycle.

“Carpet doesn’t always wear out, but it ‘uglies out’ – people want a different colour or pattern despite having a lifetime commercial warranty.” – Todd Jarvis, Shaw Contract

What can WorldGBC and our community of Green Building Councils do to advance circular thinking & encourage other companies to follow your lead?

TJ: WorldGBC can show and communicate that success in this area is not just pie in the sky, but is entirely possible – and that there are tangible examples out there. This will inspire other companies. The community can also promote collaborative opportunities – they can be unexpected and we can learn from one another! For example, we formed a joint venture with another company where we take back 3 billion plastic bottles annually and turn them into carpet fibers.

CC: Understanding that our two companies face the same issues means we can find common ground and a common purpose. This conversation is just the start!

“Understanding that AkzoNobel and Shaw Contract face the same issues means we can find common ground and a common purpose.” – Chris Cook, AkzoNobel

To find out more about AkzoNobel’s approach to the circular economy, click here, or read more about its Planet Possible sustainability strategy.

To learn more about Shaw Contract’s cradle to cradle approach, click here, or its wider sustainability work here.

(Images: Top; a Shaw Contract carpet recycling initiative. Botttom; AkzoNobel’s Community RePaint scheme for Dulux paint)