Circular argument

Martin Charter, professor of innovation and sustainability at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, explains what the circular economy is and why the bathroom industry needs to start taking it more seriously

The circular economy has been hailed as a significant business opportunity but, in the absence of any legislation, the bathroom industry has been slow to embrace it.

So what exactly is the circular economy? Well, the principles behind it aim to put in place processes, products and new business models that contribute to a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy.

And with the launch this year of BS 8001 – the first national standard on implementing the principles of the circular economy (CE) – the time has now come for bathroom manufacturers to get involved.

Developed by the British Standards Institution (BSI), BS 8001 is explicitly a guidance standard, rather than a certification, to help companies integrate and introduce CE into their businesses, enabling them to take practical action to realise business benefits, as well as safeguarding the environment.

It is the first of its kind anywhere in the world and the hope is that it will become the basis of an international standard so that the benefits of CE can be felt across the world.

There has already been international interest in the standard, with US-based paper-goods giant Kimberly-Clark and two Singapore-based firms among those participating in the piloting and engagement work. The Dutch and Swedish standards bodies, which are usually at the forefront of environmental policy, are also taking a keen interest.

Successful BS 8001 pilots

The standard itself has been developed with businesses at its heart, with many of the clauses being piloted by the likes of Marks and Spencer and Kingfisher. From the bathroom industry, global shower manufacturer Methven was also one of the pilot organisations – and the only SME involved.

Martin Charter
Martin Charter

The organisations tested the content and structure of BS 8001’s core clauses through a programme of pilot sessions – specifically Clause four on the principles of the circular economy and Clause 5 on putting them into practice.

Methven looked at the issue of wastage in the social housing and hotel industry, where best practice and legionella policies advise that shower handsets and hoses should be replaced annually. It is piloting a cleaning and replacement scheme with a number of housing associations to tackle this issue, which has reduced waste, reduced costs by 42% and ensured compliance with legionella regulations.

So how can the bathroom industry use BS 8001? Well, the standard is set out deliberately to engage organisations at different stages in their journey and understanding of CE. There are only a small number of organisations re-engineering their business models to a circular approach. Most are at the beginning of their understanding, so the standard provides them with a way of looking at one product or process at a time.

Opportunities for the bathroom products industry to consider include moving from selling to leasing models through take-back of products to enable, for example, refurbishment and remanufacturing. They might also look at creating products that are more circular – for example, those designed to be upgradable through modular design. The design phase is vitally important, because it is where 80% of the environmental impact comes into consideration.

And so, the industry needs to be looking to design with repair, maintenance, remanufacture and upgrading in mind. No company in the bathroom sector has truly approached the issue in this way so far.

The biggest environmental impact from bathroom products is water and energy consumption, rather than the materials themselves. In the future, the ErP eco-design directive aims to help the EU achieve its target to reduce energy usage by 20% by 2020. It will cover showers and taps, again requiring manufacturers to adopt standards in development to allow upgrade, repair and reuse of energy-related products.

Business opportunities

Water scarcity is another issue that will not be going away – with the Environment Agency already warning of potential droughts in the South-East of England this year. And, as regulation is tightened, water metering expands across the UK and the price of water increases, it will be become even more of a factor.

While a full bathroom replacement is not a regular occurrence in most homes, there are a number of products and components than can be, and are, replaced more regularly – such as showers, hoses and taps. Currently, these are largely simply thrown away.

So the bathroom industry needs to tackle the business opportunities around repair, refurbishment and materials recycling. And, in the most part, this goes back to the original design, manufacturing and reverse-logistics processes, as well as straightforward protocols and services that do not place extra burdens on the industry.

There is no doubt that CE thinking is moving forwards fast and it will become increasingly difficult for industry to ignore it.

In addition to the launch of BS 8001, this year has also seen the staging of a number of key events, including the World CE Forum in Finland in June and the Financial Times Clean Energy Week: Circular Economy, Energy Transitions and Climate Finance conference in May. When respected, quality business press titles like the Financial Times start taking the issue seriously, it is a clear indication that the subject is beginning to make its way up the news agenda.

  • Martin Charter is a founding director of The Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for the Creative Arts and has been working with Methven on a consultancy basis
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