bRIC with a small b Part II: 4 opportunities for a circular economy in Brazil

In this blog post I argue that there are key intervention points within the Brazilian economic, social and legal structures that open up opportunities for a circular economy. It is intended as a follow-up from my last blog post, which discussed key trends that point to the need for Brazil to embrace a more sustainable economic model.

Why the circular economy: an opportunity for restoration

I am currently reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, which outlines the destructive effects of our global linear economy. A fact I read this morning during my commute put our urgent situation into perspective:

Our human economy utilizes, consumes, converts, […] and burns annually more than 40% of the total net primary production* of the planet. […] Our species, out of 5-30 million species, is directly and indirectly claiming 40% of the earth’s production for itself. If, as predicted, population grows to 9 billion, we will usurp 60% of the primary production of the planet. […] We will quadruple our impact, a physical impossibility.

(*Net primary primary production of the planet = defined as the sum of all photosynthetic production minus the energy required to maintain and support those plants.)

The economic activity described above is currently being driven largely by Western consumption and demand for goods. As Brazil, and other emerging and developing countries, move towards high levels of income and consumption, this will compound the destructive effect illustrated by Paul Hawken.

With the EU and China taking positive steps towards such a transition, the circular economy has been gaining attention from business, government and society.

The circular economy is an opportunity for growth, enabling the development of a restorative economy that protects the environment and natural resources. This can be achieved through a broad range of strategies, including closed-loop material flows, replacing end-of-life waste disposal with repair, design theories such as Design for Remanufacture and Design for Disassembly, and Cradle-to-Cradle production and Industrial Ecology (see image below).

Kretslopp eng 09 2009 300ppi

How industrial ecology works: a schematic diagram

These strategies lie in stark opposition to those practiced by our ‘take-make-waste’ economic and industrial systems. This structure depends on linear modes of production, namely: extracting resources, manufacturing goods, transportation, sale, use, disposal. Whilst we have enjoyed a boom in trade, economic prosperity (not for all) and mass production since the Industrial Revolution, this has been at the expense of ecosystems, cheap labour, abundant resources and energy. As the price for energy and resources rise (see graph below), there is an urgent need for a non-destructive, restorative economic as an alternative to our ‘take-make-waste’ model, and current trends in Brazil give rise to the opportunity for a more circular economy.

Screen shot 2012-07-21 at 20.44.54

A warning sign? Price hikes for key commodities in the past 12 years have offset a cumulative decline in resource prices over 100 years.

Key intervention points Brazil can leverage in order to restructure for a more circular economy 

1. National Policy on Solid Waste 

After much dithering (approximately 20 years) the Brazilian government introduced the country’s first national law on solid waste, the Política Nacional de Resíduos Sólidos. The policy focuses on six hazardous waste types, including e-waste and aims to decrease the production of waste and improve the sustainability of municipal solid waste management. 

Key features of the policy render it a viable platform from which to build a circular economy:

  • the policy introduces the waste hierarchy that determines priorities for post-consumer waste management, stressing the need for prevention and reduction, which has implications on product design
  • polluter pays principle is upheld, as producers are obliged to pay for waste management
  • reverse logistics and supply chains are to be developed, in order to divert waste from landfill and dumps and return end-of-life products to the producer

It is this last point concerning reverse logistics, in particular, that is of importance. Reverse logistics help transition an economy from a ‘take-make-waste’ model to one which operates based on closed-loop models of production, where waste is reused as an input. This Brazilian law requires producers within a given industry to work together to build reverse supply chains, which fosters greater collaboration, information sharing and communication between key players. Of course, there are large institutional, physical and economic barriers involved in developing reverse logistics. For example, whilst Brazil has the fourth largest road network in the world, only 13% of it is paved, which sets challenges for the development of road cargo for reverse logistics (CIA World Factbook).

Nevertheless, in developing reverse supply chains, Brazilian industries could be setting themselves up for circular modes of design, production and reuse.

2. Policies and financial mechanisms

Several funding sources and policies exist that incentivise the production of sustainable goods:

  • National Fund for Climate Change – Climate Fund Fundo Nacional sobre Mudança Climatica – Fundo Clima will soon support projects that develop reverse logistics
  • FINEP’s (Projects Financing Institution) Brasil Sustentável invests in projects that promote sustainable production and innovation in technology
  • BNDES (Brazilian National Bank for Sustainable Development) Funtec invests in sustainable innovation in technology
  • National Action Plan for Sustainable Production and Consumption Plano de Ação para Produção e Consumo Sustentáveis

The three funds above are national programmes that provide investment to help sustainable business, technology and services overcome market barriers. Brasil Sustentável, for example, has access to US$ 987 million in funding that is intended for the development of sustainable products, technologies and innovation. 75% will go towards projects that enhance company innovation and the remaining 25% will subsidise the development of new technologies in priority areas that hold relevance to the Circular Economy.

Furthermore, the Brazilian government recently launched the National Action Plan for Sustainable Production and Consumption, which I have written about here. In brief, the Plan sets out sustainability  objectives and targets for six key sectors (see table below) that are aimed at transitioning Brazil towards a more sustainable society. This Plan provides a necessary regulatory framework from which to grow the market for sustainable goods and services.

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Priority sustainable development areas for the Brazilian National Action Plan for Sustainable Production and Consumption

One of the biggest barriers concerns the market demand for sustainable goods: currently only 5% of Brazilian consumers consider themselves as ‘conscious consumers’ (Instituto Akatu). This stifles innovation and sustainability efforts, as the return of investment for sustainable products remains very low. Other challenges include high running costs in Brazil, known as custo Brazil, and bureaucratic processes that act as barriers to market entry.

3. São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro: a South East city-region opportunity 

Brazil is typically divided into five regions, which group together several states. The South Eastern region is made up of four states, including some of Brazil’s most competitive and tech-savvy cities: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Curitiba (The World Bank, 2010).

The South Eastern and Southern regions of Brazil provide the biggest enabling factors for a circular economy, given:

  • Most of Brazil’s industrial activity is concentrated in the city regions of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which between them contribute on average 25% to Brazil’s GDP annually
  • The largest amount of waste is produced in the South East, most driven by São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro cities
  • Eco-Industrial Parks are flourishing in the state of Rio de Janeiro, originally set up by a government initiative and now private sector led
  • The best road infrastructure lies within the South East, facilitating the development of reverse logistics at lower cost
  • The majority of the BNDES funding mentioned in point 2 above went to companies based in this South Eastern region of Brazil

4. Entrepreneurs & SMEs in the driving seat

Finally, entrepreneurs and SMEs have a real opportunity to grow niche markets and lead the way in the design and production of sustainable goods, given their ability to innovate around products, as exemplified by TerraCycle, NovoCiclo and EPEA Brasil. These actors benefit from not being locked-in into resource and energy intensive production and processes. The National Law on Solid Waste offers the opportunity to generate new market opportunities, supported by sustainable finance offered by FINEP and BNDES that support entrepreneurs and SMEs, which lowers the barriers to entry.

Admittedly, the Brazilian government hasn’t developed the best operating environment for start-ups and entrepreneurs, but the good news is that change is imminent: last month the government announced it would invest R$200,000 for each of 100 selected start-ups that demonstrate the most potential for growth and opportunities for scaling up.

The verdict

There are certainly opportunities that can be leveraged to transition Brazil to a circular economy. The above four points lower the ‘barriers to entry’ for such a transition to occur. I have also attempted to (very) briefly outlined some of the key challenges involved in this process, one of which remains political will. With a track record of influential government leadership and the use legislative solutions, political will and backing is required for any economic transition to take place in Brazil (without it many initiatives fail to be successful). The above points remain context specific in isolation, however, when taken in aggregate, they represent a network of opportunities for a new economic system, business and consumption models that will help Brazil develop into a sustainable, resilient society.


National Fund for Climate ChangeFundo Nacional sobre Mudanca Climatica

FINEP’s Brasil Sustentável (Projects Financing Institution)

BNDES Funtec (Brazilian National Bank for Sustainable Development)

National Action Plan for Sustainable Production and Consumption Plano de Ação para Produção e Consumo Sustentáveis

Competitiveness and growth in Brazilian cities: local policies and action for innovation

bRIC With a Small ‘b’: Rethinking Business Models for the Emerging Middle Class

Screen shot 2013-01-01 at 08.03.36

Go home Michael, the party’s been cancelled.

Whilst Brazil’s economy boomed up to 2010, it has dramatically slowed. There’s a need for a new economic growth model.

In 2012 Brazil overtook the UK as the world’s 6th largest economy, moving closer to meeting the expectations set by the novelist Stefan Zweig in 1942, when he said that “Brazil is the country of the future”.

Unfortunately it seems that Brazil has slipped back a few paces, as the UK economy resumes its place in world rankings ahead of the South American nation, much to the dismay of a proud, nationalist country that likes to celebrate occasions: “We have to go back to being the ‘country of the future’ “, says Marcos Troyjo, director of the BRICLab at Columbia University in his guest blog for the FT.

A model driven by consumption

The love for celebration is strongly expressed in a very consumerist society. Brazil’s GDP grew by 8% in 2010, its fastest growth rate in over 25 years (Euromonitor International, 2012), reducing unemployment and boosting household disposable income (Accenture, 2011). Yet GDP growth has been volatile, dropping to 2% in 2012 , and is expected to remain under 2% until 2013.

Economists attribute the past growth in the Brazilian economy mainly to:

i) policies and a culture that favours consumption,

ii) easy access to personal credit,

iii) income distribution methods.

The combination of the above has resulted in a consumption boom. According to the marketing research agency Euromonitor, Brazilian consumers rank top four in almost all product categories. They are also marked by vanity, as an Accenture study revealed that

“72% of 8000 consumers [interviewed] that the electronics brand they own is important to be perceived as most innovative.”

Rising domestic consumption has been the main driver in lifting Brazil into the ranks of a middle class economy, which now makes up 60% of the population.

This shift was spurred on by social and economic policies targeting social inequality from Lula’s government that helped 30 million people move up from the lowest socio-economic bands between 2003 and 2010.

The Family Grant (Bolsa Família) and growth in the minimum wage are key policies that have increased Brazilian consumer spending power. In addition, increase in credit access and rising incomes boosted domestic consumption, increasing consumer confidence and spending.

But is this growth model also limited by consumption? 

But now, in 2013, it seems that the boom as been cancelled – at least until 2015 (the World Cup and Olympics are sure to give a helping hand, however temporary and despite Michael Palin’s visit).

As an emerging economy struggling to develop a stable, strong economy, it seems that the

“the old consumption-led model of development is now less likely to deliver impressive rates of growth that it has done in the past.”

Neil Shearing, Capital Economics

The rise in consumption has not been paralleled by a rise in productivity. During the same period, productivity increased 4% in China, whilst it grew by a mere 0.2% in Brazil.

And what’s more, the socio-economic benefits from the emerging middle class are questionable. Yes, 30 million people have been lifted out of poverty, but they are now heavily in debt, and inequality hasn’t decreased. Easy access to credit and a culture that encourages consumption has led to a ‘consumerisation’ of Brazilians. Debt has surged to represent 43% of a family’s income, limiting the economic sovereignty of Brazilians, and has developed a culture of material ownership that mirrors the USA.

I have had conversations with many Brazilians who would prefer to be stuck in a traffic jam for 2 hours than take the public transport, as they value the status gained from driving and owning a car. Almost all big-ticket items are paid for in 12, 24 and even 36 instalments over several years, often pulling families deeper into debt. The need to own is strong.

How fair is to to bring people into the middle class status when this burdens them with debt and is dependent on their consumption, therefore fuelling more debt? Additionally, lack of investment in public education has resulted in an elitist education system, benefiting those who can pay and locking those into poverty who can’t.

An ill-fitting business model

Screen shot 2012-12-31 at 22.00.26It would seem then that a consumer-dependent model was ill-fitting for this huge emerging middle class. A conversation I had with Alexandre Fernandes, Founder of EPEA Brasil, challenged conventional consumer business models: what if one could meet the needs of the emerging middle class by supplying products through a different ownership model?

He mentioned that Brazilians, once they can afford it, opt to buy a washing machine or dish washer, as this “frees up manual labour and time for leisure”. Yet there are long-term consequences when 30 million people buy and own a new washing machine. In a consumer society based on ownership, questions regarding the end-of-life are left unanswered, especially in a country like Brazil where over 80% of collected rubbish goes to landfill and less than 1% of all electronic waste is recycled (roughly 10,000 tonnes a year is collected for recycling).

As a result, electronic waste is landfilled and increases the risk of pollution, people are held ransom to consumption, resources are used inefficiently and, ultimately, middle class prosperity is falsely upheld.

We already know that UK and US lifestyles require the equivalent of three planets to support their needs, and that the planet’s resources are currently being overused by  25% (most management consultancies would cringe at this level of inefficiency in a business) and a consumption economy will further exacerbate these stresses. Is this really the dream, the lifestyle we want to ‘export’ to emerging economies?

Rethinking ownership: performance, quality and equality

So, let’s take a look at different model, one based on performance rather than ownership. Instead of 30 million people buying a washing machine, they buy into a service contract with a company, who owns the washing machine and retains customer loyalty through enhanced customer service and replacement. Competition is therefore not only led by cost, but also by customer service, performance and quality.

Companies retain ownership over resources, bringing down the need to exploit virgin resources, decreasing the rise in resources cost and limiting environmental damage by minimising waste. This type of business model requires reverse supply chains and generates new jobs in logistics, remanufacture, repair and distribution. Concerning job potential for reverse supply chains,

“Microsoft found that computer reuse creates 296 jobs for every 10,000 tons of material disposed of each year”

– United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, 2009

In comparison, incineration creates merely 20-40 jobs for 10,000 tonnes of material, whilst landfill a meagre total of 10 jobs (Huisman, Magalini et al. 2007).

The ownership model is steadily establishing itself, with classic and quality examples including Interface, Desso, Caterpillar, Spotify and Ricoh.

Consumption of electronics has risen rapidly in Brazil and is highest in the world as as a proportion of GDP. Globally, Brazil is the world’s fifth largest producer of computers (Oliveira et al., 2012) and the Brazilian industry electronics association ABINEE has estimated that in 10 years Brazil will be second globally in terms of purchase figures. There is a real opportunity to provide these goods in a way that lessens the burden on resources, waste and energy and that promotes economic activity.

As it happens, Brazil isn’t very good at promoting innovation. It tends to focus on innovating new processes within existing businesses, rather than innovating new goods. In fact, the most common form of innovation is copying ideas from the West, but adding a Brazilian flavour to it. What’s more, it is notoriously difficult and costly to set up a business, which doesn’t attract entrepreneurs and locks existing businesses into heavily bureaucratic structures.

Going forwards: the $200 billion opportunity

Screen shot 2013-01-01 at 08.36.55Brazil has the opportunity to tackle its economic slump and structural problems, known as Custo Brasil, by implementing policies that encourage business models based on performance, and improving environmental and social standards.

The opportunity within Brazil is huge, as the Carbon Trust recently issued a report that the Brazilian low carbon economy is worth $200 billion.

The question is whether Brazil can restructure its economy, and what key intervention points it can leverage to do so, which I’ll be taking a look at in my next blog post.

The EU commits to a Circular Economy

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 01.17.48

This is a press release you probably missed. On December 17th, the EU issued a press statement confirming its commitment to transition towards a circular economy:

“In a world with growing pressures on resources and the environment, the EU has no choice but to go for the transition to a resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy.”

Resource efficiency isn’t new to the EU, and over the past decade this topic has gained strength and attention in discussion and debate. Europe 2020 is the EU’s growth strategy for the following decade, building on lessons learned from its predecessor the Lisbon Strategy. EU 2020 focusses on helping its members states to build “smart, sustainable and inclusive economies”. This strategy has produced other key documents, such as the The Road to a Resource Efficient Europe.

However, UK residents will know that the politics of climate change are complicated and convoluted at a national level, let alone a continental level. It remains to be seen how the Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe will be implemented and how member states will react.

Elsewhere in the world 


china energyCurrently, China is the only other country to have integrated the transition to a more circular economy in its economic development strategy. China has seized the opportunity to tackle economic instability, use of natural resources and environmental degradation through a systemic “root-and-branch” restructuring of its economy, becoming the world’s first country to adopt closed-loop economic principles (Mathews et al. 2011). Historically, China’s growth has been driven by abundant and cheap resources, which is likely to change (ibid.). Therefore the objective is to shift to a new growth model, namely one that maximises GDP, and protects natural resources to maintain long-term economic stability (Zhijun & Nailing, 2007).

Announced in its 12th Five Year Plan, China’s strategy seeks to solve both the waste and resource issues at source and to “minimise the throughputs of both energy and materials” (Zhijun & Nailing, 2007). The Chinese government has begun with implementing the Circular Economy at an Industrial level, having approved the development of 30 Eco-Industrial Parks based on circular economy principles.

Here is a link to a good summary of environmental implications of the 12th Fiver Year Plan. 


sustentavelsitioHaving carried out my MSc thesis research on the opportunity for a circular economy in Brazil, I was startled to find little research having been carried out on resource efficiency in the Brazilian economy. The truth is that Brazil benefits from vast material, labour and land resources, rendering the concept of scarcity not a priority.

However, the Brazilian government recently launched the National Action Plan on Sustainable Production and Consumption (PPCS).

The PPCS aims to take a systems-based view, acting as a central link between seven other government action plans, the UNEP and international conventions, agreements and environmental bodies to advance sustainable production and consumption.

Key priorities include:

  1. Education for sustainable consumption
  2. Sustainable public procurement
  3. Embedding the environmental agenda into public policy
  4. Increasing solid waste recycling
  5. Sustainable retail
  6. Sustainable built environment

A radical strategy? 

However, in terms of a more radical shift to sustainable production, the Brazilian PPCS fails to acknowledge the need to close the loop on material and energy throughput, and the need for changing production cycles is left by the wayside. Objectives for use of renewable energy and water efficiency are related to either retail shops or construction only, rather than production. What’s more, innovation for sustainable production is barely cited, which is key to shifting Brazilian industry to greener and cleaner production.

Positive direction

Every strategy ever produced has always fallen short of something, depending on one’s point of view. However, all three strategies cited here recognise the need for more sustainable economic, production and consumption models. It remains to be seen whether economies choose to adopt a protectionist agenda in the face of commodity price rises, or choose to collaborate to share resources and achieve greater resource and energy efficiency along supply chains.

Update on resource conflicts

Following my last post on 21st century gold rushes and growing tensions regarding geopolitics, I am somewhat pleased to announce that China has in fact increased its quota to export rare earth minerals.

The act follows some hefty complaining from the USA, the EU and Japan, who filed a trade complaint to the World Trade Organisation

An article from the Wall Street Journal, however, explains how this move is somewhat vacuous, given that demand for Chinese rare earth metals fell this year.

It’s possible to predict that this move will merely “buy us more time” for now, given that China’s rare earth metals are finite and our demand for them is infinite.

As I pointed out in the last blog post, continuous mining won’t solve the problem of depleting natural resources, and the challenge lies in decoupling this trend from economic growth. My next blog post will look at the principles of the Circular Economy and how it can be employed as a strategy to solve this very conundrum.

A glimpse of future conflicts? The modern gold rush

The high content of rare materials within electrical and electronic devices demonstrates a rising problem of resource scarcity and geopolitics. Consumption of electronics is on a high, and is set to grow exponentially as more consumers join the ranks of the middle class.

In 2007 the combined sales of mobile phones and personal computers represented 3% of global supply of silver and gold, 13% of palladium and 15% of copper.

A PwC report highlighted the growing demand and consumption of these materials as one of the most important drivers for resource scarcity. The same report by PwC highlighted the importance of minerals and metals scarcity as a top priority for 78% of business executives from the high-tech industry.

Geopolitics also plays an important role, as the risk is that resource nationalism becomes self-fueling, and that concerns about the security of supply translate into increased protectionism, less integrated resource markets, and therefore increased uncertainty over price volatility and supply.

China is largely responsible for mining the 17 rare earth metals used to fuel our digital economy. Since announcing that it would export less of these, this has raised many European eyebrows and shifted glances towards Greenland. Unfortunately for the EU, it is completely dependent on imports for 14 out of 17 minerals known as “rare earths”. With thawing of Greenland ice famously underway, European politicians are keen on getting ahead of Chinese competition. Mining has harmful social and environmental consequences if not appropriately regulated. Unfortunately for Greenland, the policies and the regulation framework are largely not in place or appropriately developed yet. Greenland currently lacks the ability to control the behaviour of mining companies, if several were to being operating soon.

Forget Greenland, landfills are the mines of the future

As a quick reminder, there is more gold in a tonne of discarded mobile phones than a tonne of gold mine ore. Mining new materials is a strategy, but it’s an archaic strategy. A more long-term approach to resource security might be to close the loop on materials flow and change our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. For instance, is it sustainable to own 2 mobile phones and replace them every 2 years, whilst not disposing of them correctly?

Regarding electronics, this means getting consumers to dig out the mobile phones they’ve left to dust in drawers and return it to producers, to extract the copper, palladium, gold and other rare earth metals. The EU has already legislated as the Extended Producer Responsiblity under the European WEEE Directive.

Excitingly, Brazil introduced its first national law on solid waste that obliges reverse supply chains to be created for electronics. What’s interesting, unlike the EU where the onus is on the producer to bring the product back to the manufacturer, in Brazil everyone is responsible: the consumer, the retailer, the distributor and the producer. This shared responsibility is set to mobilise hundreds of electronics back to the original manufacturer, where it will be recycled and disposed of correctly.

However, this is for future production. Last year 1.6 billion new phones were introduced into the global market. What’s more, 40 million tonnes of e-waste was produced, of which merely 20% was recycled properly. Huge amounts of e-waste already exist and many electronics have not yet entered the waste stream.

There is huge potential to close the loop on electronics and make materials savings. Keeping copper in circulation is a lot more valuable than sending it to landfill after it was used for 2 years in a mobile phone or as copper wire for electronics.

We should adjust how we value landfills and recognise that one day landfills will become a source for materials. Unfortunately, for now it seems that we prefer to mine unexplored areas before tackling the underlying root causes: our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.