SNV Story No. 3: Circular economy: on everyone’s lips

ISO has its finger on the pulse of the most diverse issues and is often a step ahead of governments. Standards are created pragmatically where political frameworks drag their feet. The internationally composed working groups draw on an almost endless pool of theoretical and practical knowledge. This is also the case in the field of the circular economy. The technical committee ISO/TC 323 will publish an ambitious package combining three standards at the beginning of 2024. We spoke to René Wasmer, Chairman of the Swiss standardization committee INB/NK 174 Environment & Sustainability and co-creator of this package.

Why was the ISO technical committee ISO/TC 323 Circular Economy created?
There are several burning issues related to the environment, from climate protection to biodiversity. It’s not only about subject content, but also about equity between regions or generations. Ultimately, it is about behavioural changes in production, consumption or investment, so that together we can achieve the defined climate targets. Resources are limited and valuable, and can only be preserved if they are used responsibly. The circular economy focuses on maintaining and increasing value. ISO/TC 323 was established in 2018 and started work in 2019. The standards to be developed in the package also make a significant contribution to the overarching Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Currently, 71 member countries are active in ISO/TC 323, 14 are observers and eight standards projects are under development.
 
What does the specific work package look like and who is working on it?
As the committee is still very young, the foundation had to be laid first. It began with a package of three standards:
Since the contents of the three packages are intertwined, they are being developed in parallel. A remarkably positive signal is that all relevant countries are cooperating. The standard is only credible and effective if all relevant actors and regions are given a voice and give their consensus. The 47-member team of experts in the standardization committee INB/NK 174 Environment & Sustainability was commissioned by the SNV to take the lead in Swiss participation in the ISO expert group TC 323.
 
What does the ISO 59004 standard regulate?
This normative document defines the key terms, sets out the principles of the circular economy and provides guidance on how the circular economy can be introduced and used in industry across the value chain. Over three years, a consensus was reached in sometimes heated discussions. The technical content of the standard stands. Now it’s a question of fine-tuning for the best possible user benefit.
 
Do you start from scratch when developing such a foundation?
On the contrary. The circular economy may have only recently entered the collective consciousness, but the topic is anything but new. ETH Zurich, for example, published on this more than 20 years ago. The global knowledge is vast. The Herculean task is above all to bundle this as an international standard and to reach a consensus among the experts. The working groups contain a balanced mix of theoretical knowledge and long-standing, cross-sectoral project knowledge. Around the world, governments and the World Bank have been financing circular economy projects for several years. The experience gained from this flows directly into the standardization work. Likewise, numerous relevant interested parties have been involved from the beginning, such as experts from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development or from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Its founder circumnavigated the world in 2005 as the fastest female solo sailor. After all the travel impressions, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.
 
How does ISO 59020 standard measure circularity?
The measurement must make sense in context and be reliable. There is no one solution. The ISO 59020 standard has carefully compiled core indicators in clear, easy-to-read tables. This provides users with clear guidelines and conceptual specifications on how to establish their circularity performance in the company on the basis of a clear understanding of the system, thereby making good strategic decisions and not exposing themselves to the danger of greenwashing in their communication.
 
Practicality of standards is a good keyword. How does one ensure this?
The ISO 59020 working group brings together representatives with a high level of technical knowledge and a wide range of practical experience. They ensure that the language used is easy to read and that recommendations for action can be implemented in a practical way. Furthermore, we also involve representatives of industry in Switzerland, because there is a strong interest in the topic. Another advantage is that we have experienced and competent advisors in the Swiss working group. These publicise the standardization package and its importance to the business community.
 
Why do you think businesses should embrace the circular economy and how does the package of standards help them to do so?
I see three main reasons for businesses:
  • Corporate responsibility towards social challenges
  • Cost responsibility and economic success  
  • Innovation and use of technological progress
This requires solid awareness of the topic of the circular economy, its relevance and its opportunities for productive use in the business. The ISO standards package is the optimal starting point for taking on the challenges, proceeding systematically, benefiting from experience and achieving expected results more quickly. General sustainability awareness is well anchored in the Swiss economy. In recent years, companies have increasingly expanded their sustainability teams, brought them up to date with the latest knowledge and are pushing ahead with projects. This is cause for optimism. Compared to other countries, however, more speed is required. I hope for more commitment from the regulator, for example in the form of awareness raising, benefit generation, support for action and incentives for action.
 
The standards package will be available from next year. What are the next steps?
Yes, the definitive publication will be in February 2024. The technical content is already available as a draft and should also be used as of now. The kick-off for the update of the ISO/TC 323 strategic business plan took place in Kigali in September 2022. This work will show the way how standardization work can be continued in addition to the previous projects and further aligned with the needs of the stakeholders. In a nutshell, I expect a future certification option, sector-specific standards and standards on supporting methods or topic-specific guidelines. Such as a guide that describes circular design over the entire life cycle.
 
What do you wish for the future of the circular economy in Switzerland?
Circular economy and sustainable entrepreneurship is not merely a necessity, but rather an entrepreneurial opportunity. The political framework in the form of strategies and measurable targets, incentives, supportive communication, specific support programmes, regulation, use of targets in public procurement and infrastructures, certifications and labels, data and statistics to measure progress, compatibility with European Union developments, etc., should become easier to grasp and more concrete. Sustainable investment should also be further promoted and used so that Switzerland can take a leading role.
Profile ISO/DIS 59004 – Circular Economy – Terminology, Principles and Guidance for Implementation

Launched: 2019
Content: approx. 40 pages with 7 clauses, plus 6 annexes
Provides a common basic understanding of the circular economy and its implementation
Applicability: International
Participating countries: Representatives from Europe, America, Asia and Africa
Technical committee: ISO/TC 323 Circular Economy
Global trend: ISO Trend Report > Environment
Status: 40.00 DIS submitted (International draft standard)
Planned launch: February 2024

Profile ISO/DIS 59010 – Circular Economy ― Guidance on the transition of business models and value networks

Launched: 2019
Content: approx. 34 pages, 8 clauses, 1 annex
Provides guidelines for the transfer of business models and value networks from linear to circular
Applicability: International
Participating countries: Representatives from Europe, America, Asia and Africa
Technical committee: ISO/TC 323 Circular Economy
Global trend: ISO Trend Report > Environment
Status: 40.00 DIS submitted (International draft standard)
Planned launch: February 2024

Profile ISO/DIS 59020 – Circular Economy – Measuring and assessing circularity

Launched: 2019
Content: approx. 35 pages with 8 clauses, plus 8 annexes
Sets the framework for measuring and assessing circularity
Applicability: International
Participating countries: Representatives from Europe, America, Asia and Africa.
Technical committee: ISO/TC 323 Circular Economy
Global trend: ISO Trend Report > Environment
Status: 40.00 DIS submitted (International draft standard)
Planned launch: February 2024

René Wasmer

He brings more than 30 years of experience in the field of sustainability and the world of standards and now runs his own consulting company. His previous roles at the Swiss Association for Quality and Management Systems (SQS) included responsibility for the development and operation of the certification programme for the ISO 14000 series of standards and SQS’ own sustainability. He was deputy managing director of the SQS. Following retirement, he has been involved in sustainability issues and since 2019 has been chair of INB/NK 174 Environment & Sustainability, which includes several subcommittees (UK 207 Environment/UK 322 Sustainable Finance/UK 323 Circular Economy/EG 331 Biodiversity/EG Sustainability of Event Management). René Wasmer is an industrial engineer and holds an Executive MBA from the University of St. Gallen.

René Wasmer is an industrial engineer and holds an Executive MBA from the University of St. Gallen. Following retirement, he has been involved in sustainability issues and since 2019 has been chair of INB/NK 174 Environment & Sustainability.

René Wasmer is an industrial engineer and holds an Executive MBA from the University of St. Gallen. Following retirement, he has been involved in sustainability issues and since 2019 has been chair of INB/NK 174 Environment & Sustainability.

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