Place: the missing key for unlocking a circular economy - RSA

Place: the missing key for unlocking a circular economy


  • Community and place-based action
  • Environment

The RSA recently partnered with Zero Waste Leeds to explore the role that Leeds could have in transforming the fashion system. On the face of it this might seem like a strange intervention, what could one city in the UK do to change a huge, global and complex industry?

Well, we only need look to history to see that the answer to that is plenty. Over centuries, innovations in technology, business models and behaviours which started in Leeds have transformed the fashion system, from the medieval cloth markets to mass-production to retail giants like Marks & Spencer. In turn, the fashion and textiles industry has played a key role in shaping global economies.

Maybe then, Leeds is a good place to look for the seeds of a new future for our clothing. Because we need another transformation, this time away from an industrialised and extractive economy into one which is circular and regenerative, and able to meet the climate, environmental and social challenges we face today.

Through working with people from across the city, in policy, in business, in culture and in civil society, the Leeds Fashion Futures project convened new narratives, innovative interventions and burgeoning new business models to explore the assets that Leeds has today and the positive future it could be working towards. From world-leading research, to community led reuse, to cutting-edge manufacturing and sustainable practices, there is plenty to be excited about. Most of all, however, we saw a huge appetite and energy for driving change from this city. But it was also clear that without greater resource and support to nurture and grow this local movement for change, this enormous potential will struggle to be realised.

It is becoming increasingly evident, not only in fashion, that place needs to be put front and centre in the shift to a circular economy. Because the kind of transformative change needed doesn’t happen abstractly – out there – it happens here, in our houses, our offices, our streets, our river catchments, our institutions. And critically, change happens in our own ways of thinking and being.

To create a circular and regenerative future, we should be looking at our neighbourhoods as fertile grounds of change, not merely as consumers of change decided elsewhere.

Why place is essential for a circular economy

Even in the digital age, life happens in our places and spaces. In recent decades our neighbourhoods have been moulded by an increasingly global, linear and extractive economy: with identikit high streets, out of town retail parks and curb-side refuse collections, we are used to materials flowing in and flowing out of our lives with ease. Now we know that the way we consume needs to shift, what needs to change in our neighbourhoods?

As we seek to answer this question, we need to be alert to context and not ask ‘what will work, generically?’ but ‘what will work and be right for this place and contribute to the bigger picture?’ - because population size, landscape, climate, skills, identity and culture all hold opportunities and barriers for change. This is a flip from an industrialised mindset which, in looking for scale and efficiency, creates homogeneity and one-size-fits-none solutions. Instead, working from place aligns with nature’s approach, where diversity, plurality and niches create resilient and dynamic systems. To build a better future, we need to nurture distributed (but networked) capacities and capabilities to deal with the complex and changing conditions that we know are coming. We can think of this as growing a new, regenerative, system from the ground up. Doing this requires investment and support.

Two recommendations for supporting more place-based action on circular economy

1. Nurture new visions and narratives which centre place in a circular economy

Moving to circular and regenerative economies requires changing the way we make and use resources, but more deeply it also requires us to shift business and economic models and our way of thinking. Narratives which give us purpose and provide visions of a different future are therefore essential.

As we saw in Leeds, place-based innovators are shaping their own stories and visions for building regenerative and circular economies, but they alone do not have the resources to amplify and spread new narratives. Support is needed from institutional players for these to be able to connect, both horizontally and across system levels. Only then will these narratives be able to transcend localised change and be more widely transformative.

Examples of organisations working to nurture this narrative infrastructure in the UK include Fab City, a global initiative which challenges cities to produce everything they consume by 2054 (Plymouth is the first UK city to sign up); Transition Network, a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world and stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local; Doughnut Economics Action Lab, which is working with communities to bring the Doughnut Economics model to life in their neighbourhoods; and there is also increasing interest from funders like The National Lottery Community Fund, for supporting ‘imagination infrastructure’ to support communities to dream big and co-create radical new futures. More similar action is needed.

Greater support from policy is essential, across innovation, industrial strategy, waste and resources, environment, education and skills. This is needed to help signal away from focus on new products alone towards more repair, reuse and care; away from a narrative where places view only certain industrial categories, such as digital, as being relevant for innovation and towards more support for all kinds of sectors and materials; and away from the narrative of citizens as consumers, towards a narrative where we are all co-creators, co-designers and collaborators on shared challenges.

2. Resource place-based innovation and infrastructure to build movements of change

In Leeds we saw many examples of exemplary local innovation, but there is a need for infrastructure support to knit these together, to enable them to learn and develop as a field, and to collectively shape wider transformation. We see this need in many locations and sectors. Where support is available it is often focused on individual interventions, through accelerator models or project-based grant funding. This is important, but missing is the support for connecting and creating change that is greater than the sum of these individual interventions.

Designer Dr. Francesco Mazzarella recently described this to me as the ‘middle-up-down’, the space between grassroots innovations and institutional, policy and governance systems, and it is vital for effecting change. This is a space of public innovation and those who fill it act as conveners, interpreters, translators, diffusers of knowledge. Understanding place, identity and culture is central to the role. Zero Waste Leeds, for example, play this unique and vital role in Leeds of convener, catalyst and narrative holder. Through their work, such as the Leeds School Uniform Exchange, and their network, they create a focal point for discussions on sustainability and, crucially, bridges policy, civil society and citizen action.

Changing the flow of materials in our economy requires developing entirely new interactions between elements, be that figuring out how to connect unwanted clothing with designers who can repurpose it or ensuring that material recovery experts advise on the development of new buildings. These new connections can only develop with intentional support and resource to convene disparate stakeholders and catalyse new connections. Without access to funding and investment for strategic systems change, individual interventions will struggle to create wider impact.

Organisations like Zero Waste Leeds are needed for enabling grassroots change to collectively lead upwards towards regional policy and governance. Other examples across the UK include Civic Square, who are taking a bold approach to visioning, building and investing in civic infrastructure for neighbourhoods of the future in Birmingham; Participatory City, who are working to create large scale participation infrastructure to enable locally rooted circular economies; Onion Collective, who work in North Somerset to deliver ambitious and community-led regeneration schemes benefiting people and planet, and Art Gene, who use art and creativity as a way to develop community-led research and initiatives to regenerate social, natural and built environments.

Moving towards regenerative futures means looking for, nurturing and weaving together change from across all places and scales. This requires our institutions, our funders, our investors, our policy makers and us all as individuals to shift in our thinking about where change comes from and how we resource it. Big ideas are not only found in the big scale but in the collective action of many local changemakers.

Find out more about Leeds Fashion Futures and hear the voices of the Leodensians involved in this podcast by local broadcaster and presenter Peg Alexander.

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