Waste? What’s that?

Alice Grindhammer is a member of the global Responsible Leaders Network within the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. The “enfant terrible” among social entrepreneurs is firmly convinced that sustainable economic management is profitable and will change former ways of thinking within business enterprises. In her CRCLR House she creates the prerequisites for combining ecological and social ideas and for implementing projects.

Hello Frau Grindhammer, you believe in the »power of good« in business and admit to being a »money enthusiast«. At the same time, you advocate an ecological and social revolution that will subject our economical system to radical change. How do the two go together?

(Laughs) They indeed go very well together. The economic processes we are familiar with are linear: Raw materials become a product, which in turn is delivered to the consumer. It is used and finally ends up as waste. We have practiced this linear economic thinking for several hundred years now. Sometimes it almost seems to be running on autopilot. But let’s not deceive ourselves: It is becoming increasingly obvious that this system works neither for the environment nor for human beings. If we want to change this, we can make use of the possibilities business offers us. But this means, among other things, that we have to reconsider the way we handle economic management and develop business models that aim predominantly at achieving a positive social and ecological impact, but which at the same time are still financially profitable.     

When you say “a new way of economic thinking”, are you referring to the circular economy?

Correct. Circular economy means, among other things, reconsidering the relationship between production, consumption, market and resources and acknowledging the fact that everything has a value. So we must find ways and means of designing and manufacturing products that can be recycled, reprocessed or reallocated after use. In this way – as a side effect so to speak – the waste concept is also shelved. After all, we don’t have a planet B.

You studied Political Sciences, Sociology and European Business with a focus on “Finance”. And during the course of your career you have become acquainted with the recycling industry around the globe. You were, among other things, in charge of the trading of recycled paper in Southern Europe and the recycling of plastic by the Port of Hamburg for sale in Asia. In Amman you helped to improve the recycling system and you participated in the disposal of hazardous waste from ISAF bases in Afghanistan.

All over the world I see businesses that are responsible for “simply” clearing the waste away, i.e. just getting rid of it. We are searching for holistic solutions for the entire production and waste cycle. To achieve this, we need product and service designers who develop products with recycling in mind, so that they do not end up as waste, but can qua design continue to be used. This is where we need to take action. But it is not just a question of the one, greatly successful idea. We are faced with an enormous task that we can only overcome step by step. It is crucial that social and ecological aspects are also incorporated into the profit and loss account. After all, what do we gain in the long term from business that is profitable for the few but increases inequality and ecological disasters? We need economy management that places social and ecological added value into the centre of its actions. 

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Take the building industry for example: Today, buildings that are demolished are simply seen as rubble and waste. I take a different view. Buildings are resource reservoirs. This also applies in a similar way to vehicles. I am glad that there are many clever people working for small and large companies who are concerned about mobility of the future. They ask, for example, how primary raw materials can be avoided in the production of vehicles so that secondary raw materials can be used instead. Considerations as to how in terms of raw materials a vehicle can be designed to ultimately consist of old vehicles are an elementary step and exemplary to the circular economy.

So you regard companies like BMW as important partners, because they can help you build bridges on the way to sustainability.

Yes, of course. One example is the approach of those vehicle manufacturers who think beyond classic automobile development and work on concepts that guarantee comprehensive and sustainable mobility. The high degree of acceptance by car sharing business models for instance shows that our understanding of mobility has changed. It is no longer a question of having your own car, but of getting from A to B comfortably, safely, inexpensively and without harming the environment. The further development of automotive companies into comprehensive service providers incorporates this idea and renders it profitable. Now we are faced with the challenge of developing a circular mobility concept without producing waste.  Everything should be repairable or reusable.

But these can only be the initial steps on the way to a circular economy.

We need a combination of various different approaches: Firstly, by creative people who work, for example, on ensuring that car manufacturing and mobility become more sustainable. And secondly, by shareholders who are aware of the profitability of sustainable management. Thirdly, this also includes a market logic according to which people demand more sustainable products which they can, however, also afford. And finally, we also need further pressure through framework legislation.

I now understand why some colleagues refer to you as a “pragmatic revolutionary”...

… Sustainability and social equity need to come out of the shadows and become established in economic management. We must earn money with these concepts, otherwise only a small elite will be able to afford such a lifestyle and we won’t be able to solve the major crises of our time. This is a central approach in our CRCLR House.

Your Circular Economy House in Berlin is a kind of catalyst for change.

We have a 99-year usage right for a brewery building with around 2,000 square metres of floor space. This is currently undergoing conversion. Here we aim to extend our possibilities so that an increasing number of persons and institutions can exchange ideas and work on joint projects dealing with the circular economy. I am firmly convinced that we are currently experiencing a kind of momentum: The zeitgeist for a new way of thinking and acting has arrived! If we make use of it, then maybe in a few decades, children will only be able to read about unused waste in history books. Then, hopefully, they will ask: Waste? What was that?