A journey through Circular Glasgow

A journey through Circular Glasgow

Alison McRae is Senior Director of Circular Glasgow, an initiative of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce that works to inspire businesses of all sizes to innovate and adopt circular strategies, within the collective ambition of positioning Glasgow as a leading circular city. As a network and partnerships entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience, Alison leads the creative team for Circular Glasgow and is responsible for enabling its vision and strategic goals. Circular Glasgow has been recently shortlisted as finalist for the Circulars 2019 global awards, in the category circular economy public sector.


Hi Alison, I’m delighted to have you here taking us on a circular journey through Glasgow. To begin with, how was Circular Glasgow born and which actors are involved?

Circular Glasgow is an initiative of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. We are a small and independent membership organisation, and we are all about supporting our members and championing Glasgow. Part of my role is to be always on the lookout for trends and opportunities for our business community. Circular Glasgow started with a conversation I had with Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, around 3 years ago, at a time when Iain had just met Guido Braam from the Circle Economy in The Netherlands. At that time, Iain was exploring how to do circular economy by sectors, and Guido said: why not look at cities? Cities and regions are key to the successful roll out of circular economy principles because of the critical mass of people and business.

When I met Iain, we had already done a lot of deep dive activities with our business community on other themes such as youth employability and looking at how digital innovation affects businesses and consumer behaviour in a city centre. He loved that and he recognized that—as the voice of the business community in Glasgow—we really had a strong network in the city alongside a capacity to innovate on relevant business themes. Our journey started from there.

Our founding partners are Zero Waste Scotland, Glasgow City Council, and Circle Economy. It has been an enviable partnership in many ways, as we’ve been able to adjust and adapt along the journey with common values including openness to change and responsiveness to what it needs to be delivered on the ground. Circle Economy has been very beneficial for us, because of the expertise and the work they had been doing in Amsterdam already. They had done the first circular city scan in Amsterdam several years ago, and we were the second city in the world to do it.

I think it is easy to spend a lot of time creating strategies and then this becomes the focus rather than the implementation part. Of course, a strategic ambition is key. So within our collective aspiration to have Glasgow as a leading circular city, we thought let’s just take a first step and do the circular scan in the city. We launched the city scan in June 2016 and invited along 60 key stakeholders across the city. The area was new to us and we wanted to have a conversation about the circular economy and about what it might mean for their own businesses and for the city.

I hope you will understand my curiosity here, what did the 60 invited guests answer?

We knew we were onto something really strong when 59 out of the 60 invited delegates attended on the day and the energy in the room was really strong. We delivered this first summit in collaboration with Circle Economy. In the first instance it was about explaining what circular economy strategies and business models actually are. We also focused on how to look differently at the manufacturing processes of a product like a washing machine or a mobile phone, and on legislation and the 7 different strategies that businesses can adopt. This was how it all began.

You mentioned the Circular City Scan as a first step, what came out of that?

The Circular City Scan used a lot of economic data that we already had across our city partners to show material flows in the city and where the opportunities were to start the journey. Here it was manufacturing, in other cities it might be in a totally different sector, but to have that evidence base that can give you a place of solidity to start your journey from is very important. Because Amsterdam chose the construction sector, we deliberately decided not to choose construction to start with. Instead the team chose food and drink, which I think was a really brilliant move! Glasgow is a huge driver of manufacturing and industry. It is the largest city in Scotland and a significant metropolitan region, with a huge business critical mass; engineering and manufacturing are very key for the economy here.

Food and drink is a very important sector to the city, and it has also got a really strong consumer appeal, which creates a double benefit. Within the food and drink sector, we started with a number of pilot strategies to get momentum building: bread to beer, beer to bread, aquaponics, and heat recovery. On the back of the first summit, the first pilot project: a craft beer being produced from leftover rolls was born with two businesses creating an unexpected collaboration. In the West of Scotland we have a very distinctive kind of roll, called a morning roll. It has got low sugar content, and a lot of them are wasted at the end of each day. In this pilot, Aulds the Bakery and Jaw Brew, a craft brewery, decided to use the leftover rolls to turn them into a low-alcohol craft beer, called Hard Tack. The media absolutely loved that, there was coverage literally everywhere, and it is exciting because people started to see how to add value to products that would otherwise be wasted.

I guess that’s one of the fundamental and challenging tasks indeed, to make the business community and general public realize the concrete benefits and opportunities coming with a circular economy. How do you do that?

Language is definitely a key factor in this journey, and since the beginning we had to think how to talk about all this to make it accessible and relevant for businesses. The way we refer to the circular economy in our business community is that it is all about innovation and future-proofing your business. For SMEs there are great opportunities to make money, save money, and form unexpected collaborations and partnerships—like a bakery collaborating with a craft brewery, who would have ever thought?

We say that if you start doing this now, looking at these business models and thinking differently about your own business and how you work with your supply chain, then you are going to get a competitive advantage. And you are going to have a very loyal customer following, which is good for the future of your business. We know all about resource scarcity, rising temperatures, and planetary issues; these are things that are getting increasing levels of coverage now. Even since we started this journey, legislation has been changing. So now is the time to act and we have been working with our business community to help them do just that.

We needed to move it away from talking exclusively about waste management systems and recycling – as we know recycling is the last option on a circular journey - and make it more about innovation and about how to incorporate digital technologies and, in particular, design!

So the narrative you use in the business community in relation to the circular economy is fundamentally an economic one, rather than an environmental one.

Yes. At Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, we have a focus on economic drivers as part of our role, because we are a 1200 strong business network and a successful economy is core business for all. We seek to be pioneering; looking for opportunities, and being all about facilitation and connection. We have deliberately not gone down the road promoting the environment as the primary driver, we have deliberately sent the message that this is about innovation and future proofing your business. It has to make good business sense! The environmental and climate message is something that we use to give the context that if you adopt circular strategies and business models, you are also doing the right thing for the planet and for the community. In terms of getting doors open, that has been absolutely key.

From my point of view, the circular economy is ultimately about a significant economic model shift, from linear to circular, and it is about fundamental shifts in governance, governments, finance, legislation, and in an integrated way. We are mainly doing the business bit; at the end of the day we believe that the only way to make this systemic shift is to be speaking to Chief Executives and Operations Directors, and those who lead the business. If you end up going straight to the sustainability manager, it can take a long time for circular economy principles to be adopted within the business. You got to reach the leadership level in order to fundamentally change a business model.

I read that the ambition of Circular Glasgow is to create a movement. Which activities do you organize to create this movement? And how do you keep all the activities connected with each other?

There is a range of different tools that we have used. The first one is the summit I mentioned where 59 people showed up. What we have noticed in the last two years is that every time we do an event, which is usually every six months or so, there has been an increase in momentum and increase of energy and excitement in the room. We contact people once we hear they are doing something circular and we take that as a case study to inspire others.  In terms of events, we have done two summits. The first one was the city scan launch, while the second was focused on construction and finance, bringing best practices from Amsterdam. On the back of that summit, we had one major housing organization going to speak to the government—the week after—about how we need to be talking about getting social housing in a circular way. We also have had other discussions about how to incorporate circular principles in construction and finance as a city.

We have engaged over 650 businesses over the last couple of years. We do one-to-one discussions with businesses, and they go through a circular assessment, which was created by Circle Economy. The team has a structured conversation around how they operate and look at possible ways they might become more circular; they look at their supply chains and how they engage with other businesses.  We had to adapt some of the tools to make them right for our market. This is another important message, as the market is slightly different in Glasgow than it is in Amsterdam. For instance, in Amsterdam you might have the CEO and Marketing Direction coming along for two days. Here it would be more like half a day.

Another tool is workshops, where we bring together either businesses from one sector or businesses across different sectors. For example, we did one in November last year, with the design community in Glasgow. You would be interested to know that Glasgow has a very distinctive pedigree in design, which goes back to the 18th century and whose legacy is the Glasgow School of Art, and we have a great design skills-base here in the city. In that room, where we had 20 different design agencies and communications companies, again the energy was incredible. From that, we created another pilot with some companies in Glasgow that have created design interventions, so that a business can look at how does it design things in, how does it design things out, whether its packaging or hazardous materials that do not need to be used. This is really exciting and just emerging.

Events, one-to-one discussions with businesses, and workshops... are there any other ways to keep a high engagement of businesses?

I suppose one of the most important things that we are doing, in terms of keeping linkages and engagement, is story-telling. The team has done a really good job at telling the story and we have had some big media impacts. Using all sorts of different mechanisms, we tell the story, the story captures the imagination, then the story-teller tells the story for us, and that helps to spread the word and to raise awareness of what the circular economy is.

We also used another tool, called Circle Lab—again created by the Circle Economy in the Netherlands in partnership with the eBay Foundation—which is a crowd problem-solving platform. We were the first city in the world to use the platform, putting this question to the world: how could small and medium enterprises engage in a more circular way around major cities’events and conferences? We did it with a Glasgow focus but the results are relevant for cities globally, and we had a reach of 600,000 people from 13 countries around the world. We had over 59 solutions, and we have got 3 specific solutions now being worked up by a range of about 25 businesses across the city, from retailers to repurposing businesses and from hotels to event companies, a whole cross-section of different businesses.  Tremendously interesting stuff is being worked out by these businesses right now.

A challenge is that SMEs might be very excited to talk about the circular economy today, but some operational issues may arise for their business tomorrow and they have to give priority to that. That’s business! So the question is: how do we continue to keep that initial enthusiasm and commitment as ongoing core business? We work with Zero Waste Scotland, who help to give business support and to encourage businesses maintain the momentum and enable their circular ambitions.

Did the project of Circular Glasgow have any impact outside the business sphere?

Beyond business engagement and story-telling, creating this movement we have been able to influence at a policy level. At a national level, the Scottish government—through Zero Waste Scotland—is taking a region and cities approach across the country on the back of what Glasgow has done. So, again through the Chamber of Commerce, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Tayside as cities and regions completed scans in their areas earlier this year. They are now doing business engagement and trying to build up momentum. So, there has been a government policy shift, to cities and regions, based on what we have started to do.

Our own local municipality—or local authority, as we would call it here—Glasgow City Council, at the recent Circular Economy Hotspot in Scotland in Glasgow last month announced that they are now going to do a route map to change their approach and see how they can adopt circular economy principles from their perspective in Glasgow. Glasgow City Council is Scotland’s largest local authority, and to see that change and that commitment happening in such a short time, from the small momentum to this movement that we have been building, has been quite incredible. The Circular Economy Hotspot was the first time we had the opportunity to tell a bit of the Glasgow story to 400 people from 20 countries. What is quite unique about our story is that it has been led by businesses, while a lot of other cities and countries tend to be public sector led. That’s probably what makes us slightly different.

Do you have some other cool examples of projects in Glasgow championing the circular economy?

A really great example, where we did a circular assessment, is a company called Dear Green Coffee. This fabulous young entrepreneur in Glasgow has this amazing coffee roasting business, and she had delivered a couple of coffee festivals previously. In May she decided that she was going to try and run the world’s first coffee festival that had no single-use cups.  She went in partnership with KeepCup and they saved over 18,000 coffee cups over the course of the coffee festival weekend. They also worked in partnership with a company called Revive ECO, which took the waste coffee grounds, and extracted oils from the grounds and made other products with them. One of the first things that they make is compost enhancer, and they have been working with a company called Kabloom, a really cool company that is all about guerrilla gardening. They designed these disintegrable hand grenades—seed bombs—in which you’ve got soil enhancer from Revive ECO and wildflower or herb seeds. The idea is that you take these seed bombs home and you throw them in your urban environment and it builds an ecosystem to attract bees, birds, or butterflies, depending on which seed bomb you are using. It’s such a lovely collaboration of some small businesses, who are entrepreneurs doing something differently with the collective ambition to be circular.

So far, we have mostly talked about the business benefits of a circular economy. What about the benefits for the city and all its citizens?

I think the primary movement from our perspective is to get the business community to act. However, as part of being a stakeholder in the city, we do have several responsibilities generally and this is why our role in policy is important a well. I mentioned to you that Glasgow City Council is going to do a route map, as a result of what we have been doing in the business community and the wider ambitions that the city has to have Glasgow as a circular city. This leads to the bigger picture of the transition, in which everybody who is a major stakeholder in the city might begin to do something. And we are starting to see a wider engagement of the whole city, so that it becomes truly integrated across business, academia, and public sector. And, because of the public sector intervention, obviously that’s going to have an impact on the consumers and the citizens in the city.

As Chamber of Commerce, we have also started working with partners in schools on the circular agenda. One of our partners is Young Enterprise Scotland, and they are right now across primary schools in Scotland doing a #circulareconomychallenge. The young people are going away and coming up with their solutions on how they can become more circular and some circular ideas for businesses. It’s helping to inspire the next generation of young people coming through education, as a new skill for the future they will need to embrace some of these changes. The objective is to have people in the city that actually want to behave differently because they know what is good today is good for their children and for their children’s children.

Which message would you send to cities that are considering beginning a circular journey? Or, to phrase it differently, why should every city start a conversation on the circular economy?

It’s evident that cities are the way to make the change that we require, because of population critical mass, business critical mass, and transport and infrastructure critical mass. So, all in all, the critical mass of cities and the consumption that happens within cities are the key nodal points around the world that have the responsibility to change.  There is a clear sense that—as the First Minister of Scotland referred to last month—there is a moral imperative to drive towards a circular economy. It is absolutely critical that the cities act now.

In terms of some things that cities should think about—how to do this and where to start—the first one is having some pioneers or champions who are willing to be bold, to look around and see what they can do in their own city. This is fundamental. It doesn’t have necessarily to be a Chamber of Commerce, it might be a different organization in a different city.  Glasgow has got a real history, as part of its character, of repurposing and remodelling itself; it has got a real history of innovation and has always got an ambition with the values of innovation and transforming for the betterment of all. Values are really important because they inform who we are as a city. Think about the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century, when Glasgow flourished; to improve things with practical benefits for society as a whole is something that runs through the DNA of our city. I believe this has been really important for what we have been able to do and all the energy we have seen being generated around the circular economy in the city.

Therefore, the second thing I would get a city to ask is: who are you as a city? What is it, as part of your DNA, that makes you unique? You need to understand your character so that you can build on that to spread circular economy principles across your city. It will be different for every city, it is different here than it was in Amsterdam, and it will be different for other cities too. And this is why you need a city scan, to have an evidence base to start from.  The third point is to choose your partners wisely; form a foundation that wants to do this. It has been key for us having a team with endless commitment and our collaboration with our founding partners. Zero Waste Scotland has helped us with funding, Glasgow City Council as city partner, and Circle Economy as an expert in the field.

The last thing I would say concerns how you go about telling your story and how you share what you are doing. The more we tell the story, and the more creatively we tell the story, the greater the impact. And it does not matter whether the business story is fully circular or partially circular, what’s important is that businesses are taking steps to become more circular. Story-telling is absolutely key and whether it is done through communication and media or through events, case studies exchanges and sharing our networks and environment; it is the combined approach that seems to work targeted to different audiences.

These seem to me great ingredients to start a conversation about the circular economy in any city. As a conclusive question, what are the next steps for Circular Glasgow?

You will see us doing more in food and drink—including also hospitality and tourism—more in construction and finance, more in engineering and a lot more in the design space. We’ll keep to predominantly focus on manufacturing because we think that that’s where we can make the biggest direct impact. It’s not a coincidence that our full name is Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures; manufacturing will be key. What will be different is that we will go more into the route of corporate engagement with supply chain and SMEs, rather than exclusively looking at SMEs. I think that, in terms of influence and effecting change in the long run, that’s where we need to go.

We want to see the city take forward city-wide ambitions, with academia, business and public sector partners, all sitting around the table together. Glasgow is good at that kind of integrated approach and I think clarity of ambitions at that level is going to be very important. As I said at the beginning, it’s a massive economic model shift, and that has also to come from government. But we believe we have an important role to play in it.

Thank you Alison, it has been an insightful and exciting journey discovering the circular face of Glasgow. Look forward to seeing the next initiatives and collaborations that businesses, public sector and academia will put together to advance the circular economy in Glasgow!


January 2019

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