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DSM’s Views on the Role of Women in Circular Economy

As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation puts it, a circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Doing so will involve shifting the system, involving everyone and everything: businesses, governments, and us as individuals; our cities, our products, and our jobs. A circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It is also a huge opportunity for women to be a central part of the shift.

With the Women in Food & Agriculture Summit  only weeks away (December 3 – 4 at the NH Grand Hotel, Krasnapolsky, Amsterdam), we spoke to Kimberley Chan who is ‘Global Lead – Circular Economy’ at DSM.

Ms. Chan has been helping DSM shape its circularity agenda to improve operational footprint, enable more sustainable and circular solutions within its business groups, and advocate for the transition to a circular economy.

Ms. Chan, why is gender equality important for the circular economy?

Gender equality is vital for sustainable development. We can only call ourselves successful with the reaching of all of the sustainable development goals, which includes SDG 5 on gender equality, and SDG 12 on responsible consumption & production (which relates to the circular economy). The transition from a linear to a circular economy needs to be inclusive and collaborative in all its aspects and with the participation of both genders.

Women around the world tend to be at the centre of households and communities, and there is a trend in the growing number of female entrepreneurs in both developed and developing countries, through micro-financing. Women tend to be more caring and receptive to circular behaviours, such as reuse, repair and simply prolonging the use of an item for as long as possible. Thus, gender equality and greater participation of women in economic development is important for circularity, because women can drive responsible consumption and production behaviours through role modelling and cultivating a culture for circularity at the many levels women participate in daily life.

What is the role of women in the circular economy? How do you live the circular economy yourself?

A circular economy is only possible with systemic change across the board – in government policies, in the way companies source and use raw materials, in the design of new products and solutions, enabling infrastructure for collection and recycling, education, changing consumer behaviours… Women have a role to play in this system change in all these stages – across value chains and sectors, and to introduce more sustainable business practices that tie in well with profit and positive social impact.

Living the circular economy is about making better choices – for yourself, as well as for the earth. I recently read a line which really resonated: “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth”. This is a kind reminder that we come from the earth and are completely dependent on it for the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. Our actions benefit both the planet and ultimately us. When we think that the planet belongs to us, we treat it as if it were a disposable commodity.

I live the circular economy by being conscious of my own purchasing power. It can be as simple as sharing instead of owning, where possible. Buying ‘slow fashion’, instead of fast fashion through more timeless designs and higher quality pieces that inevitably last longer. Staying up-to-date with new technology platforms and innovations which help us save and share resources (for example, the TooGoodToGo app which aims to fight food waste in cities and car sharing through Via Van). It is also about advocacy, sharing knowledge, and trying to effect change within your sphere of influence no matter how small or big you think that is.

At DSM, since 2017, you have been in charge of leading the company’s circular economy agenda and related stakeholder engagement. What progress have you witnessed in the past two years?

Externally, circular economy as a topic has become more visible on the global agenda. DSM joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100 program since its formation five years ago, and we are proud to still be a member of this organisation that put the concept of circular economy on the world map. In the last two years, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and World Economic Forum have also created platforms for the business community to collaborate to accelerate the transition. All of these international organisations are working hard to make the circular economy a reality by encouraging public-private partnerships and action. We also now see governments and cities making ambitious roadmaps towards circularity (for e.g., the Netherlands have a plan to become circular by 2050). This is obviously very impactful, as it is predicted two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050 and is where drastic changes are needed most. In addition, what has been most impressive to witness is how resilient, resourceful and creative humans can be. In my role, I get to learn about new innovations and solutions that embrace circularity concepts. For example, Orange Fiber (founded by female entrepreneurs) creates fabrics from citrus juice by-products that would otherwise be thrown away; and gDiapers have redesigned diapers with compostable inserts to address the waste problem of single-use diapers (diapers are the 3rd largest consumer item in landfills).

Internally, I have seen DSM’s businesses become more engaged in circularity. For example, our materials business groups are now making clear ambitions on sourcing bio-based and recycle-based raw materials and working with partners on recycling initiatives for DSM’s end products. Our nutrition business groups are also embracing circularity concepts by using bio-sources, and valorising waste streams. DSM is also one of the founding members of the Farmers for Generations consortium. This group of industry stakeholders and academics aims to develop on the ground solutions for improving soil health through regenerative practices, and resource efficiency together with farmers, and for farmers.

DSM talks about embedding circular & bio-based thinking into sourcing, operations, innovation and portfolio, and enabling ‘closed loop’ solutions through advocacy and partnerships. Can you provide a few recent examples of these DSM “closed loop” solutions that apply to food and agriculture?

Aquaculture is a key source of animal protein, but its growth is highly dependent on finite marine resources. One of our closed loop solutions, Veramaris reduces our reliance on marine resources for fish feed. Veramaris is a joint venture of DSM and Evonik – an example where DSM has partnered with another company to make full use of complementary capabilities to develop an innovation that helps set new standards for sustainable food production. Veramaris produces omega-3 fatty acids for animal nutrition from marine microalgae. The algal oil, a breakthrough innovation, helps conserve the natural biodiversity of our oceans by replacing fish oil omega-3 fatty acids derived from wild-caught fish which is used for the aquaculture industry. One ton of Veramaris replaces 60 ton of wild catch, and the Veramaris capacity will replace the equivalent of 1.2 million tons of wild catch. This “closed loop” solution from regenerative bio-sources (as opposed to finite marine resources) helps to reduce dependence on over-exploited fisheries, while at the same time enabling the aquaculture industry grow and omega-3 levels in fish to be increased.

Another closed loop solution DSM has in our portfolio is that of natural bio-preservatives, which are solutions to naturally extend the shelf life of food. With food loss and waste being a huge resource issue (one-third of all food produced globally is wasted), customers are looking for natural ways to extend shelf life. DSM’s portfolio includes solutions for the preservation of cheese, yoghurt, baked goods and beverages, which leverages our deep microbiology and fermentation expertise. In animal nutrition and health, we apply our knowledge and solutions of optimum vitamin nutrition with the feed and farming industry to enable them to produce quality food. For example, our vitamin solutions help reduce the oxidation of meat, a common issue that leads to discoloration and off flavours, real concerns for the consumer, and often leading to meat being discarded which is otherwise still fit for consumption. Through this approach, we extend the shelf life of fresh meat by up to 6 days and that of frozen meat by up to three months.

What have you set yourself as priorities with regard to the circular economy agenda in the coming few years?

Focusing on the efficient use of Resources & Circularity is a core part of DSM’s purpose and sustainability strategy (alongside a focus on Nutrition & Health and Climate & Renewable Energy). We are excited to be part of the acceleration towards a circular economy with our innovations and solutions. However, we don’t want the circular economy to be just another sustainability buzz word. It is important for us to show a positive contribution and impact. Thus, at DSM, we have set a priority to measure how circular we are – in our own operations, as well as in our portfolio of solutions. Without knowing where we are, it is difficult to know where we can improve on resource efficiency. On measurement and metrics, we are collaborating with other companies through the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, to create a set of circular metrics (Circularity Transition Indicators) which companies can use to measure circularity on a company-level. The framework will be finalised and launched at the World Economic Forum in January 2020. We already measure the environmental and social impact of our products through DSM’s Brighter Living Solutions program, and we aim to better understand our portfolio of solutions through the lens of circularity as well, to help drive future improvements.

Another priority is to support our business groups to scale up and bring greater market acceptance to DSM’s circular solutions. By linking our businesses with the right stakeholder groups and partners, we can make our circular dreams a reality. We have the brains and innovation, but much work is needed to change the whole system through partnerships and collaboration.

When it comes to the food system, we also need to build a better circular economy. Our priorities in the coming years will be to contribute to the redesign of the food system with our innovations. Priorities include sourcing bio-based raw materials, addressing food loss and waste, helping to ensure food by-products are used at their highest value, and contributing to healthier food products.

Kimberley Chan
Global Lead – Circular Economy


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