Climate Now

Breaking the link between how much we consume and economic growth

December 22, 2022 James Lawler Season 1 Episode 80
Climate Now
Breaking the link between how much we consume and economic growth
Show Notes Transcript

The carbon footprint of stuff

For the last two centuries, continuous economic growth (the increase in the quantity and quality of the economic goods and services that a society produces, per capita) has been recognized as the critical driver in the drastic global decrease in extreme poverty. 

The problem is, an ever-increasing "quantity and quality of economic goods and services" - in the current economy at least - requires ever increasing consumption of raw materials: minerals, water, energy, trees, soil. And consumption has its own price. In addition to myriad environmental and biodiversity impacts, an estimated 45% of global greenhouse emissions come from the extraction of raw materials and the production of goods: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the products we use.

So is it possible to break the link between decreasing poverty and increasing consumption? Climate Now sat down with two experts on 'the circular economy' - an idea that hinges on eliminating waste from the production process, circulating products and materials instead of disposing of them at their end of life, and engaging in practices that preserve or regenerate natural resources. Dr. Ke Wang, project leader for the World Resource Institutes' Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), and Laura Wittig, Founder and CEO of Brightly, a consumer services company with a mission of scaling sustainable consumerism, joined us to explain what needs to happen to create a more circular economy - from the scale of global economies all the way down to the individual consumer.  

Key Questions:

  1. How can we be more sustainable in what we produce and how we use goods and materials? 
  2. Can waste be recycled or repurposed to generate a near closed-loop system? 
  3. How can consumers make a difference in their daily lives?

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James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, a podcast that explores the ideas, technologies, and the practical on the ground solutions that we'll need to address the global climate crisis and achieve a net zero future. I'm James Lawler, and if you like this episode, leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Share this episode with your friends, or tell us what you think at

This week we're going to explore the topic of the circular economy with Dr. Ke Wang from the World Resource Institute's Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, or PACE. Later on in the podcast, we'll speak with Laura Wittig, who founded Brightly, which is a website that's focused on connecting people with information and products to foster more climate friendly consumption.

Together, our guests this week will help us understand the concept of the circular economy, and how it's different from our current economic system. Some questions that we'll consider are:

  • How can we be more sustainable in what we produce and how we use goods and materials? 
  • Can the circular economy scale so that our [00:01:00] economy becomes less wasteful and more resourceful?
  • Is it even theoretically possible that our waste could be recycled or repurposed to generate a near closed loop system?

We'll start the conversation with Dr. Wang for an introduction to the circular economy and to share some examples for how it works in practice. We'll then dig into the challenges around waste and recycling before discussing at greater length where individual consumers fit into the picture.

Welcome, Dr. Wang. It's great to have you on Climate Now. Thanks so much for making time to be with us.

Ke Wang: Thanks for having me, James. 

James Lawler: So what do we mean when we say circular economy?

Ke Wang: When people hear circular economy, probably the first thing that pops into their mind is recycling, right? Recycling is a very important part of circular economy, but circular economy is so much more than just recycling.

Maybe to explain what's circular, let's start with what's linear. So our current way of working in the economy that we extract materials from the planet, right? By mining, by agriculture, we, we make them [00:02:00] into the stuff that we use every day and then we throw them away at the end and that cycle is getting faster and faster cuz we are encouraged to consume more and use more.

So now the world is extracting about 100 billion tonnes of materials a year, and that's three times as much as back in the 1970s and it, and it'll, it's projected to double again by 2050. So if you look at the triple planetary crisis defined by the UN: that's climate change, biodiversity loss, and the pollution, and all of them has a common root cause: that is material extraction and use. It's also contributing to the waste issues, right? All the stuff at the end of the life, they end up being landfills, incinerators, or they get dumped in the nature. Think about the plastic soup in the ocean. So the way we're using our materials is, is causing a lot of damage to the [00:03:00] nature.

James Lawler: So that's the linear approach we've taken historically in human civilization. We pull the most accessible materials and extract value as quickly as possible and throw away the rest and proceed as though these resources were limitless and the impacts of what we discard are negligible. And we're sort of facing, facing a reckoning, and finally realizing that there is actual cost to continuing in this fashion, hence the necessity of a circular economy. And so what do we mean by that?

Ke Wang: What? What does circular economy do? 

James Lawler: Yeah… (laughs)

Ke Wang: It's an umbrella term: circular economy. There are so many things that can fit under the umbrella, and if we try to cluster them a little bit, they can be clustered into four, four buckets. So the first bucket is, how can we reduce input?

So what we take from the nature into our, our economy, and that can be done by many different ways. It can be done by simply using less stuff, right? Do we really need a [00:04:00] second car? We really need another pair of shoes? Just by using less. It can also be done by better product design in manufacturing: how can we deliver the same function with less materials in the product?

So that's a first bucket, less input. The second bucket is use stuff for longer. So for products that's already made, how can we use them for a longer time instead of throwing them away? Single use plastic is a good example, right? Lots of plastic have a used life of a few minutes and then they're dumped. Or the phones, do we really need a new phone every two years?

Can we keep using them for longer? That's a second bucket. And there are lots of ways to do that: repair, upgrade, durable design, refurbishment, remanufacture, secondary markets, lots of stuff to do there. And the third bucket is for what is coming out? End of life, end of use products: how can we cycle the materials [00:05:00] back?

So that's the recycling part. How can we bring the raw materials back into the economy instead of dumping them as waste? And the fourth bucket is, is more like enveloping. It’s looking at: when we do all these things, how can we do it in a way that does not harm nature? Agriculture, for example, we're extracting materials from nature, but how can we do it in a way that is not polluting the air, not polluting the water, not degrading our soil, right?

And also, if we do need to dump waste, how can we do it in a way that is not polluting the environment? 

James Lawler: At first blush, it strikes me that at least two of them would kind of run in the face of what the capitalist economy has decreed as like totally essential, which is regular GDP growth year over year.


Ke Wang: Yep.

James Lawler: in that if we're consuming less, then we're not buying as much, and so [00:06:00] that's a damper on growth, shall we say? And if we're using products for longer, similarly we're buying less, we're not consuming as much. So I'd love to start with those two buckets. How is PACE approaching those two buckets?

Ke Wang: That's a really good question, James. It's, it's quite spot on. I think it's really tackling the maybe the root cause why circular economy is not scaling as fast as it should. It's, it's really the, the fundamental economic model. The world knows that's the only successful model so far that’s delivered prosperity.

So can we do it in a, in a different way? Nobody, I don't think anybody really has an answer to that question. There are solutions, ideas, maybe at a more micro scale. So how can companies, for example, continue to grow their revenue without growing the sales. There are ideas there. So there are things called circular business models where companies charge based on the function and the performance of a product instead of selling the ownership of the product.

For [00:07:00] example, lights, lamps for illumination. So you can either sell the lamp itself, or you can sell the light it generates. So there are companies who are, you know, hitting contracts with, for example, airports, and the company basically is responsible for delivering the whole illumination system and charge the airport for the light delivered. And this would give a company incentives. All of a sudden, all the light bulbs, LEDs become an asset of the company, right? So if they can deliver the same amount of light with less stuff, they increase their profit. So these are, these are kind of a new business models, which could potentially be a win win for…yeah, financially and also environmentally.

James Lawler: Interesting. You mentioned the two other buckets being recycling and then sort of the envelope around our activities. 

Ke Wang: Yeah. Recycling for the electronics, waste recycling. It has a lot of value in it, lots of valuable metals, [00:08:00] minerals in it, but it's also a high tech recycling facility, right. It's not something everybody can do. You need a really advanced facility to do that properly, and it's not economically viable to have such a facility in every country. Maybe for the US, yes, but for European countries, you know, smaller countries, it doesn't make sense. So, which means, you know, end of use, end of life, electronics need to be transported, shipped across country borders for proper recycling and that's reverse logistics, right? Shipping things after use for recycling, and that's heavily regulated because electronic waste is hazardous. This reverse logistics is very costly, very time consuming, very inefficient. So from an economic point of view, from a business point of view, it is not a very viable supply chain yet.

So then we bring companies who are, who would like to do more recycling, but are facing this [00:09:00] practical challenge and with the public sectors, be it national governments or be it multilateral organizations together to say, “Hey, you know, we understand why the regulation is there, but what practical solutions can be found to make this recycling operation a bit more efficient, so the recycled material can be a bit more competitive with the virgin material.”

James Lawler: So you recently published a paper along with colleagues from WRI and NREL, National Renewable Energy Lab, and Chatham House, which is called “Circular economy as a climate strategy: current knowledge and calls-to-action.” The paper synthesizes the role that the circular economy can play in mitigating and adaption into climate change in particular. It then identifies actions that can be taken to accelerate the circular economy strategies where they can be most effective and contribute to climate goals.

And I'm wondering, you know, based on that research, what are the sectors in which the circular economy could play a major role in helping to address climate change? Specifically where, where are those main [00:10:00] focus areas? 

Ke Wang: Yeah, so actually circular economy can play a role pretty much in all the sectors to reduce their climate impact.

But if we look at what are the most high potential sectors in terms of the magnitude of the potential benefits, those are the built environment: so buildings, construction, food, transport, and energy, clean energy. So maybe to, to explain why is that we need to dial back a little bit to see where the, the emissions are coming from.

So about half of the global greenhouse gas emission come from materials. About one third comes from our industrial process. So how we, the way we extract and the processing metals, mineral cement especially, and the chemicals. About a quarter comes from agriculture, so mainly producing food and there's a little bit come from waste management.So that come from incinerator and landfills.

 So altogether this, this material [00:11:00] related embedded carbon is about half of global emission. But if we look at our climate actions today, I think most of them focus on the other half: energy related emission, right. The emission from fuel using cars, airplanes, ships.

James Lawler: Combustion. 

Ke Wang: Combustion, yeah. And power, electricity that we use or energy we use to cool and, and heat the house. So while circular economy act mainly on the embedded carbon half: o material related emissions, and as we said before, economy can slow down our demand for virgin materials and for new products and because lots of emission comes from producing the materials and producing the new products.

If we reduce the demand or slow down the demand, then we also can slow down or reduce the emission coming from their manufacturing. And that's a main mechanism how circular economy can [00:12:00] contribute to climate change mitigation for, for building environment, for transport. 

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. . Now when we talk about embedded carbon, you know, carbon that's associated with building the built environment in particular, what are the ways in which, you know, different actors, whether it's the individual, or you know, companies or governments can move the needle in terms of using less..

Ke Wang: Yeah. 

James Lawler: How, how do we approach this problem? 

Ke Wang: Yeah. That's also a, a good question because people still often think about recycling. If we recycle steel more, if we… how can we recycle cement in a better way? Recycling does play an important role to reduce greenhouse gas emission from the build sector.

But as you already said, the strategies with with higher potential is more in the upstream, right? How can we reduce the floor area per person, and how can we design buildings with less materials? And especially on the first one, I think reduce floor area per person in the richer countries, right? We're talking about really OECD countries.

It's [00:13:00] it's not an easy one to realize, cuz I think by human nature we always want bigger houses, right? If we get a salary raise, we will say, “Hey, we can move to a bigger house.” So how can, how can we encourage people to, to live in smaller buildings? It's, it's a really good question. There are examples there in the US, I think also a bit in Europe, there are small house movements, so encouraging people to live in houses less than, I think 40 square meters or so.

But these still remain to be a niche. There are ways from a, a design perspective, for example, in city planning, urban planning, because urban demography changes, right? Age change. And also the, the way of living change like COVID make… we don't, we need office less than before. Lots of us work from home.

So, so the, so the people's needs change and how can buildings also be adapt, to adapt to people's needs? So there are research looking at how buildings can be [00:14:00] designed in a way they're more adaptable, they can be repurposed more easily. 

James Lawler: One of the high level takeaways from the report was that the largest potential greenhouse gas emission reductions through circularity come from consumption side measures and product design measures.

Can you just name a few examples of circular consumption side measures and design measures that you've seen taken? And by whom and how well are they working? Paint us a picture of what that means. 

Ke Wang: Yeah, there are lots of examples. I think earlier we mentioned the the small house movement, right? Encouraging people to live in smaller houses, so examples on product design... There's a Dutch company designing phones, smartphones in a modular way so they can be repaired and everything is like lego blocks that you can take out a component and, and replace it for, for repair. There are fashion brands who are looking to timeless design, so quite the opposite of fast fashion, which, you know, they're designed to go out of fashion very soon.

There are companies looking [00:15:00] to how can, uh, how can they design timeless fashion so people are emotionally bonded to it for longer. So there are lots, lots of examples, um, at different levels. I would say most of these are, are still small in scale, so they're still pretty far from the scale that's needed to really make a substantial impact.

So consumer education is one aspect, right? It's an important intervention, but it might, it might be slow. It might take time to reach the scale to change really consumer behavior at mass. 

James Lawler: Consumer behavior is, in fact, exactly what our next guest, Laura Wittig, is trying to influence. Laura is the founder and CEO of Brightly, a company that helps consumers make eco-friendly choices in how they spend their money, which we just learned can potentially have a big impact on climate change and can help us move towards a more circular economy.

Laura spent her career building, designing and writing for companies like Google, Amazon, and Adobe. She went from being a typical American consumer to [00:16:00] reflecting on her own consumption habits, eventually leveraging her experience in tech to empower what she calls conscious consumerism. Laura, it's great to have you on the podcast.

Laura Wittig: Thanks so much, James. I'm excited to be here.

James Lawler: Can you start by telling us… what is Brightly, and what exactly are you trying to accomplish? 

Laura Wittig: We exist to connect consumers all over the world with the best information, the best products, brands, stories, et cetera out there in the lens of conscious consumerism. So everything from understanding what certain labels mean on products, to talking about how an avocado glut, right now, is happening in Australia. So getting people to understand like how our food supply chain impacts our daily lives. Like we kind of cover it all because, from my perspective, there's not been a company out there that has tackled the problem of quote unquote ‘conscious consumerism’ in a more encompassing way, and to do it from a realistic, and authentic perspective is really important to us.

So having conversations about confusing things [00:17:00] that I myself might not be a huge expert in, but getting an expert, discussing things and doing it from a really, really thoughtful and authentic point of view. 

James Lawler: What does conscious consumerism mean?

Laura Wittig: Yeah, 

James Lawler: For the uninitiated…

Laura Wittig: Absolutely. There's not a standard definition, but the one that seems to be circling up the the most, and the one that I really identify with is making positive, impactful, thoughtful choices when you go out to spend your money.

So some people say like shopping with your values.Voting with your dollars, et cetera. There's a lot of that type of frame of reference, but I've always thought about... as individuals, we all have different values and you might put sustainability as one of your core values, but there's so many different lenses there, right?

Like do you care the most about products that are made with fair trade certifications? Maybe you're a vegan and so you really only want to eat vegan food and purchase vegan friendly products. It's a very personal journey that most of us are on, and so it's another reason why treating the landscape as a one [00:18:00] size fits all perspective or problem is, is definitely a mistake in my mind.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. It seems as if every consumer facing company wants to wear the mantle of sustainability, right? And they want to be able to say that their products are green or that they do this and that. How can consumers sort of protect themselves against false claims, and I'm wondering what your kind of advice to people might be along those lines. 

Laura Wittig: You know, a lot of times people will say, “well, what about the kind of evil corporations of the world,” if you will, who are coming out and doing these more or less greenwashing campaigns with products? I like to look at it from two different angles:

Number one, having a big corporation in today's day and age come out and make small steps towards sustainability in their company is actually a really big deal. I think Coca-Cola is an example, right? People like to think of, of that company as a big behemoth. That has had a lot of impact, for lack of a better word, on the world around us.

They've started to test a new type of bottle that's made of different types of [00:19:00] plastics that are supposedly going to degrade in a more eco-friendly way. Now granted, is that the most perfect solution? Absolutely not. Same thing with Starbucks trying to get people to reuse reusable cups. Because consumers are pushing on these companies, the companies are starting to realize, “hey, if we don't start to bake in more sustainable practices into the way we do business, we are going to be absolutely not in a good place from a revenue perspective.” And so conscious consumerism is making a difference. So first of all, take a deep breath, pick what matters the most to you in terms of your personal values, and then do a little bit of research.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. One question that we have related to that is how does Brightly, sort of practically speaking, reduce the climate impacts of consumerism? How do you quantify the reduction or benefits of various products and brands, and how do you select the brands or partners that are then featured on Brightly?

Laura Wittig: I was actually just kind of going through this thought process recently with the team. [00:20:00] Brightly actually directly levels up to one of the UN Sustainable Development goals, number 12, which is related to responsible consumption and trying to get that to become more of a trend or part of our daily life.

And within that goal, number 12, there's areas of focus, such as the circular economy, food waste, and even one of the, the big points of that goal also talks about getting corporations to do better. So Brightly actually hits on quite a few of these things in a bunch of different ways. So number one, we are obsessed with waste around here, and as a matter of fact, if I had to pick one vector of, of conscious consumerism for Brightly to focus on, it would be waste.

That's where a lot of our resources are spent. So getting people to think more critically about single use items, one of the products that Brightly actually developed ourselves because we, in addition to vetting products through a variety of sustainability criteria such as supply chains, materials, et cetera, we also do occasionally develop our own products where we [00:21:00] see a big need, and one that we recently came up with was, was the concept of greeting card waste around the holidays, because…I don't know about you, but my family loves to send out cards and we all like to see them and then they go in the trash after a few months.

And so we thought a lot about this and we thought: how can you make a product that serves a purpose as a greeting card, but also helps people reduce waste and is a multi-use product? It's actually a greeting card that also is a Swedish dishcloth, a Swedish dish cloth for listeners who you're not familiar with, it's a sustainable version of a paper towel.

They don't last forever, but they last a really long time. And when you're done using that dishcloth, you can actually compost it. 

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. So let's say that I wanna kind of take the plunge as a consumer, and I want to do as much as I possibly can to reduce my household's carbon emissions. In terms of consumption, what are some of the levers that I can pull?

Laura Wittig: There's honestly so many things that you can do. You know, there's a study that came out in 2015 published by the Journal of the Industrial Ecology, saying that the [00:22:00] production and use of household goods and services is responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is staggering, right?

I think most people think that greenhouse gas emissions are something done by other entities like corporations and governments, and of course that that's a huge part of things. But the fact that like, over half of greenhouse gas emissions are coming from a household goods and services perspective is pretty mind blowing.

So number one, I want people to know that like these small changes I'm about to talk about do add up and make a difference, even if they feel a little bit silly or just like, “okay, cool. I'm glad I did that. Moving on.”

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. 

Laura Wittig: One thing is thinking about your household energy consumption. Can you use solar energy? Can you use more renewable forms of energy? If they're available to you, can you cut back on certain, you know, just processes around your home perhaps like air dry your clothes every once in a while. 

James Lawler: Mm-hmm or energy efficiency. 

Laura Wittig: Energy [00:23:00] efficiency. Right. Mm-hmm. There's all sorts of fun myth busting that we do on Brightly. One that people are fascinated to know is like most of the time, depending on your, your appliance, using a dishwasher is actually more eco-friendly than hand washing dishes just because of water use which is really fascinating.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. 

Laura Wittig: So just like starting to think about your daily routine and then just going one by one through those activities and thinking about, okay… is there an eco-friendly swap I can do. We use that term a lot. I already mentioned if you're cleaning up the kitchen and you're using a lot of paper towels, you can use something like a Swedish dishcloth.

You can also just think more critically about single use items or we think about food waste. I'm not a huge leftovers fan myself, but I will tell you, once I learned about food waste, I became a leftovers champion because I was just blown away at the amount of energy and obviously greenhouse gas emissions that are created through industrial farming, through the transportation aspect.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. If I'm a consumer looking to make better [00:24:00] choices and I go to Brightly, how would I engage with the site?

Laura Wittig: There's a few different ways. So number one, we are all about really useful, helpful content. So whether you're interested in going to our website and reading an in-depth article about clothing donation and understanding like the impact of donations or fast fashion on the environment, we have really interesting long form articles that are created by our content team and reporters.

We also are very well known for our short videos on social media, so we do a lot hacks and quick short form tips for people on like TikTok and Instagram. One of our most popular series is called “Buy This, Not That,” and it literally just compares the eco-friendly swap to a non eco-friendly swap. We also have a community, so we have thousands of brand ambassadors who have literally raised their hand and said like, “hey, I love what Brightly is doing. I wanna help support in whatever way possible.” [00:25:00] So many of those ambassadors are part of our community space where people can hop on and ask each other questions. So you could say like, “Hey, I'm a new mom,” which I am myself trying to figure out all of these things that go along with, with a new baby, it feels very wasteful. How can I learn from other community members? So people will jump in and help answer questions there as well. And then of course, from a Brightly perspective, we're there to help facilitate conversations and, and jump in with, you know, researched information in, in that perspective as well.

James Lawler: That was Laura Wittig, founder of the website,, which helps consumers make more sustainable choices in their daily lives, like offsetting the waste from the 2 billion Christmas cards mailed each year. Earlier in the program, Dr. Ke Wang introduced us to some of the key concepts behind the circular economy, which could be valued at $4.5 trillion by 2030. For example, the consumer goods industry could capture up to 110 billion by the end of the decade by optimizing its packaging for circularity. But obviously a [00:26:00] lot has to change between now and then to reap those benefits, both financial and environmental.

That's it for this episode of the Climate Now podcast. For more episodes, videos, or to sign up for our newsletter, visit us at We hope you can join us for our next conversation and happy holidays to all.

Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation's climate work can be found