State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


New Class on Circular Economy for Sustainability Professionals

MS in Sustainability Management Professor Stephanie Johnston
MS in Sustainability Management Professor Stephanie Johnston

Stephanie Johnston, a new faculty member in Columbia’s Masters of Science in Sustainability Management program, will bring her diverse experience to the program in Spring 2018. Johnston, who first studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University and then completed a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS University of London, began her career in communications. She then spent around five years working on corporate sustainability in the U.K. and Europe before moving to the U.S. in 2015. In New York she began researching and writing about the circular economy and business model ideas, developing a specialty in the field.

Johnston currently leads the Sustainable Business department at Heineken USA, seeking to integrate circular economic thinking into the organization in line with companies in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100, including Heineken Mexico, which began their transitional journey in the last few years. She also contributes as a freelance writer to publications like Salt Magazine.

In the Spring 2018 semester, Johnston will bring her expertise to the classroom with a new course, Circular Economy for Sustainability Professionals. Instead of today’s linear economy, wherein products are made, used, and thrown away, a circular economy would reuse products for as long as possible, then recycle them at the end of their lifetimes.

Johnston says the field of sustainability has typically attracted people who want to improve the health of our planet by finding ways of using our available resources more cautiously, and putting in place mitigation efforts to stem trends like climate change. However, proponents of circular economy thinking, such as Cradle to Cradle author Bill McDonough, have suggested that this “eco-efficiency” model is inherently flawed and that we’re simply doing “less bad” with the same outcome of failing the planet, just “more slowly”.

“It’s often easy to underestimate the extent to which the circular economy relies on wholesale system change. It is often misrepresented as just another exercise in recycling effectively and ‘closing loops,’ but it goes much deeper, and broader.”

The circular economy is a departure from the traditional sustainability model in that it advocates for wholesale system change, rather than simply trying to operate within the existing socio-economic system we have created. It also moves away from the idea of “eco-efficiency” and instead advocates for regenerative and restorative system-based design thinking that takes full advantage of the resources at our disposal, seeking a world of abundance without depletion or negative externalities.

“I think it’s often easy to underestimate the extent to which the circular economy relies on wholesale system change,” says Johnston. “In other words, it’s a truly economic discipline. It is often misrepresented as just another exercise in recycling effectively and ‘closing loops,’ but it goes much deeper, and broader.”

For all of these reasons, the circular economy is important in the field for the fundamental challenges it presents to status quo thinking. Johnston believes it also represents a viable solution-oriented approach that should be accessible to those who might traditionally have opted for sustainability-focused thinking and methodologies. She says that circular economy thinking is always evolving, with innovations like digital fabrication and digital disruption in the form of artificial intelligence, biomaterials, and quantum computing—all of which are things that will disrupt our economy.

Johnston’s new course will delve into both the theory and practical applications of a circular economy. Achieving perfect circularity represents potentially transformative system change and will involve a fundamental re-think of many of our structures, systems, and processes in the economy at large. Students will study systems thinking, circular design principles, policy and financing, new and emerging business models, as well as exploring real-life examples of circular economic thinking in specific industries and geographies.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit our website to learn more.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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