How can businesses move towards sustainability?

Written by Emily Leeming
April 08, 2019

In the third part of our series on sustainability we caught up with Tom Leech from Department 22, an innovation consultancy that helps businesses to tell a new sustainable story. Department 22 currently have an exhibition London 2026: Recipes for Building a Food Capital at the Roca Gallery in Fulham (9 February to 18 May 2019).

Circular economy definition: A circular economy is an economic system aimed at minimising waste and making the most of resources. This regenerative approach is in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which has a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Circular Economies

“Circular economy” seems to be the latest buzzword on the tip of the sustainable tongue. In essence, a circular economy is based on three principles; designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. It’s a movement that started in the 70s but has more recently been propelled forward by the Ellen McArthur Foundation. ‘A circular economy is really all about recognising that some resources are finite’, says Tom Leech from innovation consultancy Department 22. ‘It’s an economic system aimed at minimising waste and making the most of resources – really great opportunities for companies, particularly young start-ups, to be real pioneers, to trailblaze ways of doing things differently.

Department 22

Department 22 helps businesses to work out how to get what they need but in a new and more sustainable way. They use circular economy thinking to not only create a positive environmental impact but also to build new relationships with customers and to generate revenue. ‘We use visual mapping to help to unpick complexities, and storytelling for the client to understand their customers better’, says Tom. ‘As a business progresses on this journey, they build confidence, some feel-good stories emerge – which reinforces existing customer loyalty – generating positive attention and attracting new customers.’

For the food industry especially, there can be difficulties with complex supply chains and a highly competitive market. ‘The business world is waking up to how dependent the economy is on the environment. Companies want to do the right thing but often they have knee-jerk reactions to sustainability challenges that don’t really solve anything. So for example, just switching from plastic packaging to biodegradable packaging might do more harm than good if you don’t understand what the customer will do with a new material in an existing recycling system.’

London 2026: Recipes for Building a Food Capital

Tom explains that the purpose of their current exhibition at the Roca Gallery called London 2026: Recipes for Building a Food Capital is to stimulate debate and to inspire and communicate the business models behind existing sustainable projects right in the here-and-now. Department 22 chose to pitch the exhibition at 2026 as it happens to be when the London population is set to hit 10 million. It’s also a realistic target for architects, designers and entrepreneurs to have time to plan a more sustainable food ecosystem. ‘It's not just about vertical urban farms, rooftop greenhouses or insect incubators – we know our cities will never be able to feed us entirely. It's about making citizens more aware of their food, and reconnecting them with nature and natural systems. For example, we currently discard around 17m tonnes of food waste every year, with devastating environmental impact at every step. If you unpick what we are throwing away, you find there is a massive value attached to this. So some of our projects are looking at how to make better use of what is basically a resource in the wrong place.’

There seem to be so many opportunities for businesses looking to become more sustainable – and the hardest bit may just be getting started in the first place. ‘We encourage businesses to be open to what they're doing, to emphasise that they're trying to change for the better’ Tom says. ‘You can't tackle all of these issues at once - it's a step-by-step journey and sometimes difficult. There are some exciting examples being set by different companies all over the world - we want to help companies be ahead of the game in rewriting the rules of how business works.’

Do you want your business to be one of these innovative game changers? Department 22 have provided a list of resources below, your sustainable toolkit as it were, to help you step towards creating positive social and environmental impact with your business. 

Sustainable Toolkit

The Lean Start-up by Eric Riles

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Choinard

Hungry City by Carol Steel

IDEO Designing a Circular Economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Circular Design Guide


Department 22 specialises in design, technology, sustainability and food. Through design-thinking processes they help businesses shift to circular economies, creating environmental benefits for companies and the planet. They offer workshops and training, as well as design and innovation consulting.

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