The sustainable sourcing of materials is crucial to the circular economy

  
Fresh vegetables at a market. [Shutterstock/Sunlover].
Fresh vegetables at a market. [Shutterstock/Sunlover].

SPECIAL REPORT / The sustainable sourcing of raw materials is a crucial phase at the beginning of the economic cycle. Yet this initial sourcing phase has so far been largely neglected by targeted EU resource efficiency policies. “But it’s time for change,”, said WWF, Unilever and the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE).

This opinion piece was co-authored by the WWF, an environmental non-governmental organisation, Unilever, a food and drink multinational, and the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), an industry association.

A lot of ink has been used up over resource efficiency – now part of that elite policy group of EU 2020 strategies. And not surprisingly. “Today in Europe we are consuming the equivalent of 2.8 planets worth of natural resources, and yet we have only one planet, meaning we are in serious resource debt,” says Tony Long, Director of WWF’s European Policy Office, on the occasion of Green Week. Yet despite all the political hype surrounding the issue, the EU has left some pretty large gaps in its practical response to the challenge.

ACE, WWF and Unilever agree that sustainable sourcing is key to unlocking the potential for a circular economy and a prerequisite in order to build a resource-efficient society in Europe and other regions. For sustainable sourcing to make an optimal contribution to resource efficiency and Europe’s circular economy, the EU has to step in.The EU should use its position as one of the largest markets in the world to promote policies and strategies that drive a sustainable management of natural resources worldwide. It should also support the sustainable and transparent use and trade of resources and products by promoting responsible consumption.

Hence a joint call is being made by ACE, Unilever and WWF for “the EU to develop ambitious principles and standards for sustainable sourcing.”  With focused EU support, “sustainably sourced materials can become the market standard, rather than the niche they currently are,” says Christiaan Prins, Unilever’s European External Affairs Director. Appropriate legislation, which could in part base itself on lessons learned from existing voluntary agreements on sustainable sourcing, could trigger the spread of such practices Europe-wide.

This doesn’t mean however that the EU’s contribution to date should be overlooked. The contribution of EU waste policies to the circular economy is one to highlight. Levels of recycling have progressed dramatically in recent years with attendant gains for resource efficiency, as secondary raw materials substitute some of the demand for virgin resources. All good of course, but with new and ambitious material recycling rates expected in the upcoming review of EU waste legislation, the scope for further action will tend to narrow and reach inevitable limits.

This is not true at the other end of the product life cycle. Here, at the sourcing phase, the scope for action on sustainability remains great, its potential contribution to sustainable production largely untapped, and the case for action is strong.

“If their depletion and misuse are to be avoided,” says ACE Director General Katarina Molin, “natural resources need to be efficiently and acceptably sourced – and demonstrably so. Even the positive impact of recycling could be undermined if recycled materials fail to show they have been sustainably managed at the outset.”  Hence the importance of third party verification of ACE’s voluntary commitment to source all wood fibre for beverage carton production, from FSC certified or FSC controlled wood sources by 2015. First created by ACE beverage carton manufacturers in 2007 and independently tested since, the commitment had by 2013 reached 93% of its final 100% target.

Similarly, Unilever is committed to source 100% of its raw materials sustainably by 2020. As well as protecting the planet’s natural resources, sustainable sourcing helps Unilever to manage a core business risk by ensuring security of supply for the long term. “By end last year, 48% of our agricultural raw materials were sustainably sourced, and we had engaged with 570,000 smallholder farmers to this end,” says Prins. “Good progress but more to do,” he comments.

Indeed the EU should leverage its international market clout to drive the sustainable management of natural resources not only in Europe but worldwide. “In this way Europe would begin repaying the planet’s massive resource debt,” says WWF’s Long, ”without this commitment not only nature suffers, but so will people, businesses and the economy impacted by rising prices due to resource scarcity.”

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