Circular magazine’s editor Ian Farrell speaks to the chief operating officer of Pentatonic Phillip Mossop about the future of the circular economy and much, much more.
Philip Mossop works with some of the biggest brands in business, from Starbucks to Burger King and Esprit to Lego. Through the consultancy Pentatonic, he advises on supply chain management and materials engineering, helping the drive towards net zero.
Philip Mossop describes his work at Pentatonic – a circular economy consultancy specialising in big brands – as his “second career”. The 41-year-old Lancastrian studied business at De Montfort University in Leicester before working in sales for a number of utility companies. He later moved to London and took up a position with a waste management company, competing with local authorities for business.
I remember thinking, it’s always so dirty in London.
“I remember thinking, ‘it’s always so dirty in London’,” says Mossop. “This was in the days before pre-paid bags and collection windows, so you were just stepping in piles of rubbish in the streets all the time. It actually angered me quite a lot.”
After 20 years in the waste management industry, including several entrepreneurial spells developing his own businesses, Mossop joined Pentatonic, where he is now chief operating officer. “We are not a waste-management company,” he declares. “We work with very large brands to strategise how to get things right from the very beginning.”
When Circular caught up with Mossop, Ian Farrell was keen to know whether his formative years in sales informed how he sees the world now.
Circular (C): What was the state of the waste industry when you joined it at the start of your career?
There was a lot of change happening. It was around 2000 and things such as collection windows were just coming in. That was a big challenge for a lot of waste-management companies, which had these big, 26-tonne collection trucks. There was a slew of start-up companies that had more flexible 3.5-tonne tipper transits and could offer a higher level of service. That kind of kickstarted my career and I quickly became fascinated with the industry.
I worked for a number of organisations in sales roles and built up experience. It became about more than just the collection of physical waste; there were these value-added services too, providing things such as out-of-hours support.
The problems that make waste unrecyclable had been created weeks, months or even years before, when products and their packaging were designed.
Back then, waste was a “forgotten industry”, which made it hard to sell in. I was never sitting in a client’s boardroom discussing strategy; I was drinking tea with the procurement guy talking about how cheaply we could do it for. That’s very different now.
The circular economy wasn’t really being discussed, but I remember thinking, “this cannot all be our responsibility to fix”. The problems that make waste unrecyclable had been created weeks, months or even years before, when products and their packaging were designed as cheaply as possible, making separation and recycling virtually impossible. It was like society was saying, “here you go waste industry; we’ve finished with this now – you sort it out”.
C: How is that different from now?
In some ways, it isn’t. Society still thinks that its waste problems are for the waste industry to sort out, but that’s not entirely true. The obligation to create a circular economy is not a silo; it’s a set of principles that have to be shared across every sector, from design and manufacturing to sales and finance, and waste management.
Another difference has been the explosion in new waste streams, such as WEEE [waste electrical and electronic equipment] and textile waste. I’ve seen first-hand the pressure on the waste management industry to come up with new ways to separate things and undo these margin-focused, single-use strategies that designers have applied early on in the life-cycle of a product – getting things out there as cheaply as possible and giving no thought to how things will be dealt with at the end of their lives.
Organisations such as CIWM and Wrap, publications like Circular and companies such as Pentatonic are working to guide others about this, educating industries that are stuck in the mindset of “that can’t be done” or the legacy notion that transformation is out of reach.
C: What common problems do you see in organisations that are trying to become more circular?
There is inertia. Businesses are often afraid to affect their revenue models by changing how they operate. I hear comments such as, “how are we going to do that if it costs us five times as much?” – and that’s true; but it was also true of solar panels and electric cars when they first came out, and look at those now. The race to net zero gets shorter and shorter by the day, and most of our clients are committed to achieving it by 2030. Someone has to start moving.
The supply chain also presents many challenges. We hear so often that brands have requested changes to the materials used in products and packaging, only to be told by suppliers: “No, that won’t work. We’ll chuck some chain extenders and virgin polymer in there.” That’s the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.
Brands say to us, ‘we’ve spent 30 years building a supply chain; how do we even begin to think about changing that?’
But the manufacturers aren’t saying that because of technical limitations alone; it’s essentially uncharted territory for many industries that are deeply rooted in a legacy culture of production. Part of what we do is to say ‘that can be done’ and to pass on the valuable technical knowledge that we have.
For me, sitting adjacent to the waste industry, I feel very fortunate to work with some of the world’s most influential consumer organisations; be in the bunker with them, partnering on developing, piloting and scaling the solutions. Brands say to us, “we’ve spent 30 years building a supply chain; how do we even begin to think about changing that?” They are acutely aware they have seven years to go until their net-zero pledges are here.
C: How big a role does the waste sector have in achieving net zero?
A huge role. The enormous significance of the circular economy’s role in the journey to widespread emissions reduction often focuses on renewable energy alone, yet 45% of emissions are generated by products, packaging and the supply chains associated with their creation and consumption. We simply cannot reach net zero without a circular economy.
C: Do big brands really care about sustainability, or just the bottom line?
What I’m seeing is that the people in influential roles – the CFOs [chief finance officers], the brand officers – care. They are acutely aware of climate change, whether through their own research or because of pressure from activists, and they want to do something about it.
Every year I have worked in the industry is better than the last. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but that mindset has to change. I could sit here and give bad-news stories all day about how much there is to do and how slow the pace of change is – or I could say “look at the progress we have made. Let’s keep that going and do it better, faster and more”.
Our clients tell us the money for their circular economy campaigns has been ring-fenced. They have committed to net zero by 2035, even though most have a long way to go. We’re off the back of the pandemic; the shareholders want results. There is a genuine sense of responsibility; a fear that (the brands) might be part of the generation that causes all of this damage, having had the opportunity to fix it and not done so. But these companies are made up of individuals, and their power is greater than it once was.
C: It doesn’t always seem like a brand’s actions are keeping up with their words
It’s easy to be unkind and dismissive about the efforts being made, but the narrative has to change. I want to find the common ground and see the good in what’s happening, as well as the bad. I want us all to work together. The reason homo sapiens are where we are is down to our ability to collaborate. We have an ability to work with each other to progress.
Sometimes I wonder if social media is actually driving that ability backwards. Arguments are all too often polarised, without debate or compromise. Our inability to find common ground in society fills me with dread. For example, I could put across a pretty good argument for the great work that BP is doing in the sustainability arena – investing billions and making huge strides in R&D.
But, on the other hand, 90% of its revenue comes from oil and it is responsible for some of the world’s worst environmental incidents. So what’s the answer? Say that BP shouldn’t exist anymore; that it has to stop all oil production? Both of these options would mean the end of its green R&D because there would be no money behind it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is much more nuance to these debates than social media would sometimes lead you to believe.
C: What about the fashion industry?
There is an uncomfortable truth: moving to a circular economy doesn’t mean there won’t be casualties. There absolutely will be – and there needs to be. It’s part of the transformational process when evolution occurs at an industrial scale and opportunity opens up for dynamic new entrants. Blockbuster had the opportunity to embrace the digital devolution but doubled down on analogue. It had the opportunity, but new entrants such as Netflix moved into that gap, and the rest is history.
Sometimes you get situations where new and old approaches co-exist in the same industry – black cabs and Uber, for example – or change can lead to the death of one brand and the launch of another.
In fashion, there are brands doing great things and making good decisions, but what is slowing real progress are the supply chains. We consider our role at Pentatonic as helping to manage materials. It’s one of the fundamental tenets of our organisation – managing material inputs and the manufacture of materials so they are pure, sustainable, etc, and then managing them through to the end of their life.
The circular economy is not an industry; it’s a system for living – an economic model.
We work with luxury fashion brands, which have the money to put into R&D and that are making progress. A bigger problem is fast fashion: £100 at Shein buys you a whole holiday wardrobe, but if you want to buy sustainable clothes, it’s just going to be a couple of T-shirts. We are in that cost-curve situation where we need different materials, but the cost of their manufacture is higher. Over time, that needs to evolve.
I don’t think we will see people taking a stand, saying “I’m not going to buy these bargains at Primark and Shein any more”. We are in a cost-of-living crisis. Parents need to clothe their kids for a new school year – where are they going to turn? The only way to stop fast fashion is through robust legislation.
The circular economy is not an industry; it’s a system for living – an economic model. It’s about changing the way we manufacture, consume and dispose. It has to be driven by a mixture of legislation that taxes, encourages or restricts to get the right kind of decision-making; consumers demanding the right thing and brands working with supply chains to transform how they have operated for the past 20 years’.
C: Who will pay for it all?
It’s all going to require significant investment, but now we are in the world of green-tech financing, so there is much more to be optimistic about. Would investors rather back new technologies, such as mycellium-, lignin- and algae-based materials and fibre-to-fibre recycling plants, or some smartphone app that takes funny pictures of your dog? I think, increasingly, they will choose the green option.
At Pentatonic, we work with some fantastic companies coming through in this space. One is using stem cells to create leather materials, targeting the luxury-brands market. We also came across a company in France that’s taking fish scales, which are rich in collagen, and turning them into composite materials. I mean, who could have predicted that fish scales would present commercial viability as a raw material source? It’s early stages, but it’s such an exciting prospect.
C: You seem excited and optimistic about the future of the waste industry
I liken the waste industry right now to the tech industry at the turn of the century. Go back 25 years and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Snapchat, and LinkedIn – none of them existed.
Now they are multi-million or even multi-billion dollar corporations. I think this will happen to organisations decarbonising the world – the next Facebooks will be those involved in the zero-carbon creation of products and services, and the decommissioning of materials at the end of their life.
We can get to a point, within our lifetime, where our reliance on virgin polymers has all but vanished; I’m sure of that. But I think now is the time to create the new Facebooks and the new TikToks – for circular transformation, not social media. The stars are really aligning. •
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