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Circular Economy produces “hard” but also “soft” innovation

"There is a lack of understanding of circular economy and sustainable development. The main challenge for HR managers is training on these topics: to increase their own awareness, then that of management and employees",
says Sébastien Bourdin, Professor of Economic Geography and Associate Dean of the Faculty at EM Normandie Business School.

What do you think would be the first challenge for HR managers in the transition to a circular economy ?

Sébastien Bourdin : "Moving from a linear economic model - extract, produce, consume, throw away - to a circular model comprises the idea of no longer maximising, but optimising, which inevitably resonates in the field of human resources allocation. There are many definitions of circular economy, but a certain number of terms come up constantly: share, repair, reuse, recycle... The first challenge for HR managers is to raise awareness of these issues: their own awareness first of all, then that of management and employees. There is a great lack of awareness of what circular economy and, more broadly, sustainable development really is. It is true that we hear a little about it in all kinds of ways, everywhere in the media. But it is difficult to get an overview.  So, in companies, these subjects are most often perceived as carrying constraints, 'extra' things to do, and additional costs. However, a growing number of studies demonstrate that they should rather be seen as investments to be made. There is therefore a fundamental need for training on what the circular economy is, on what it can bring to the company, etc., with, in addition, a generational issue to be taken into account." 


Optimising more than maximising, you say. Is it through this lense that HR can also  view circularity

Sébastien Bourdin : "Notably. Businesses frequently come to the conclusion that certain resources, including their human resources, are misallocated. The idea of a circular economy proposes that the system should be as self-sufficient as possible. In other words, there is not always a need to go looking for an additional resource: perhaps it exists internally, whether it is unknown, undisclosed or misused. It is very easy to draw a parallel with the skills and talents of workers. For example, as Dean of a faculty with 83 colleagues under my responsibility, I have a good view of what they do from a teaching and research perspective. However, in proposing to summarise it in a few lines in a global file, I added a column 'hidden talents'. There, I found a lot of varied skills that were absolutely unknown, but which can be used for the management and development of the faculty, and more broadly for the whole school. Sometimes, in a completely unexpected way: a professor has, for example, a specialisation in yoga and, rather than calling on an outside company for a programme of well-being at work in times of health crisis, we asked her for help. Many of our colleagues took part in a virtual yoga session, which helped to create buy-in and to value our colleague in another way. It's a good twist to the idea that circular economy would cost money! The task of revealing and optimizing knowledge of skills and talents is a great challenge for HR because, in a business, we often only know one facet of the employee, the one for which we hired him or her. In a large group, this can have a significant multiplier effect."  


The circular economy model is also based on the creation of positive value loops: how would you translate this into HRM ?

Sébastien Bourdin : "For example, it could be to involve the company stakeholders in  making better use of the skills that exist in the territory. Sometimes, there is no need to look for skills on the other side of the world when they can be found locally, for example by working on untapped talent pools related to diversity: under-qualified people who can be trained, female profiles for technical jobs where there is a shortage of candidates, disabled people with specific skills... Feedback loops also apply to skill development: take a worker who has a skill in one area and passes it on to another. The latter will probably not pass it on to a third worker in the same way, but will enrich it with his or her own talents, with a possible return to the original worker. This can contribute to a general increase in skills. If it is stimulated, the process can be very interesting."


How does the circular economy concept generate innovation

Sébastien Bourdin : "Research in which we took part, conducted among a thousand chemical companies, shows that the propensity of companies to implement circularity is very much linked to their innovative behaviour. 69% of companies that generate product innovation - creating a new product or improving existing ones - show a strong commitment to circular economy. Being accustomed to innovation, they have the technical and economic skills to set up new processes and make the right choices in terms of research, investment and market intervention. But innovation is not only technical. It is also social and organisational, moving towards greater fluidity, agility... One of the riches of circular economy lies in the fact that it is not limited to hard innovation, but that it is also about innovation that may not be soft, but supple. The study also shows that young managers are more likely to make this kind of commitment to circular economy than older managers, and that lack of knowledge about the subject among employees is a barrier to getting started. You can have a young and dynamic boss who is hyper-committed to circularity, if employees don't join the project because they don't know what we're talking about or because they don't understand, it will be a flop. Hence the challenge of raising awareness..."      


HR Directors sometimes have to struggle to talk about human beings in the Executive Committee. Isn't there a risk, when bringing the topic of circularity or more circular HRM, of being idealist, or worse, foolhardy? How can the subject be brought up ?

Sébastien Bourdin : "The approach can be done in two stages. First of all, as an HRD, it is legitimate to want to assess the state of knowledge of leadership, managers and workers on sustainable development and circular economy. I tantalize my students myself by telling them: 'Why is this course on sustainable development in your programme ? You're in business school, you're here to learn how to make money, aren't you ? In the face of their reactions, I then try to get them to suggest ways of approaching it in the company. Usually, ideas such as car-sharing or actions such as 'we have to save the planet' come out of it. But as CEO, I wouldn't 'buy' them! The challenge is rather to reconcile the idea of sustainable development with the company's purpose, which is to make a profit. And the introduction of car-sharing is not going to help! The aim of the course is to make them understand that it is not a question of saving the planet - which will continue to live well without us - but of saving mankind on the planet. The environment in which he will live is not only environmental, it is also economic and social. In the same way, the HRD could push managers and employees in a very frontal and destabilising way into their entrenchment of what sustainable development can really be, by not stopping at the idea of saving the planet or the idea of putting green everywhere. The aim must be to place the company in a perspective of economic, social and environmental gains. This way of opening up the debate will unblock a lot of things. From there, it is possible to highlight academic work and examples showing that companies that invest in sustainable development are able to optimise their resources and prove themselves better on the market. You start to move the lines and you can then encourage each department or service to start thinking about ways of introducing sustainability and circularity, including within the HR teams themselves, which are affected just as much as the others. This makes it possible to evoke a circular HR management model as a way of reconfiguring HR practices in line with the principles of the circular economy. In this way, you will avoid, as an HR Director, being seen as someone who has heard a new buzzword or who has attended a seminar on the subject and is going to annoy everyone by wanting to apply it. People would be quick to say that they have something else to do. On the other hand, demonstrating what is at stake today, the fact that we can't help but get started and that we're going to think about it collectively initiates a much more federative dynamic."  


Christophe Lo Giudice


Project Coordinator

Rue Coenraets 66,
1060 Bruxelles – Belgium
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Salima Chitalia, Project Manager

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