Redefining the Economic Reset: Elevating Circularity with Indigenomics
Written by Alice Henry and Lucia Eyzaguirre
The coronavirus outbreak brought the world and everyone’s way of life — along with our economy — to a screeching halt. Three months later, the imminent threat of a recession lingers, even as we re-emerge from our homes and begin to reoccupy our offices and the outdoors. It’s tempting to rush back to our lives as we knew them, working hard to keep the economy humming along, but is it necessary? Moreover, would it truly be helpful, or even desirable, to go back to how things were pre-pandemic?
When I was in high school, my microeconomics teacher assigned a paper that encouraged us to examine what kinds of contributions capitalist magnates might make to society, despite the moral failings we so often associate with extreme financial success. I chose to compare Mother Theresa and Steve Jobs, noting that Jobs did increase more people’s quality of life than the charitable Mother Theresa, at least tangibly. However, the assignment did not have us investigate the cost society has paid for this quality of life. As we’ve entered late-stage capitalism, it has become increasingly clear that capitalism’s focus on growth at all costs has resulted in a hugely inequitable distribution of wealth, along with the exploitation of communities and ecosystems. Unfortunately, in Western society, capitalism has become almost synonymous with modern economics.
In 2020, this means that as we plan our COVID-19 economic recovery, we are looking for ways to return to “business as usual”. But when we think of our collective pause since March, during which skies and waterways cleared and animal populations thrived, we must consider that maybe there’s another way of doing business. Might there be other versions of economics that encourage creativity, connection, and compassion?
Enter the Circular Economy
Our existing economy largely functions linearly — we take resources, make parts and products, use those things, and then dispose of them. The circular economy, in contrast, is predicated on a more thoughtful approach to production and commerce; its goal is to minimize resource input, waste, and pollution. It proposes that we use and reuse the material that we would normally dispose of. Whether or not you consider yourself a hippie or environmentalist, it’s hard to deny that we have a human-made waste problem, as a local zero-waste grocery store and cafe owner once told me. Great Pacific Garbage Patch, anyone? Humans haven’t always been so wasteful, but our current economic system is riddled with wasteful, extractive, and exploitative practices.
A circular economy proposes rethinking our system and our design to make the most of the resources we use and to use what might have been waste as a resource. In real life, this looks like:
- Collaboration between industries so they might make use of each other’s resources and waste, modeled by Loop Mission’s impressive product line made out of food industry outcasts;
- The reclaiming of materials, like with Peau de Loup’s button-downs and ChopValue’s homeware;
- A socio-cultural emphasis on access and sharing over ownership (enabled by innovations like the Bunz platform), and on the merit of repairing items.
A circular economy would mean really valuing our resources and mimicking cycles we see in nature: nothing would go to waste, but instead would replenish the cycle and resources. It modernizes the concepts of “waste not, want not” and “reduce, reuse, recycle” and uses the result as fuel for the economy.
The circular approach to economics allows us to imagine a world that serves people’s needs and redefines our relationship with stuff. It encourages us to be creative and innovative with the byproducts of making and using our stuff, and it encourages companies to be thoughtful about their design and products’ durability and longevity. This system has great potential to address the damage the linear economy has done on the environment and its corresponding hyperconsumerist culture, but often fails to delve deep into addressing the social failings of the prevailing economic system.
Mmmm… Doughnut (Economic)s
Just when you thought we were doomed to an economy that could never address our needs as humans and that doughnuts could never, ever be as good for you as they are delicious, Kate Raworth comes in to save the day with doughnut economics. Doughnut economics looks to “meet the needs of all within the means of the planet,” addressing both the environmental and social shortcomings of our existing society. The model posits that there are 9 planetary boundaries that, if overshot, will lead to catastrophic environmental degradation and potentially irreversible tipping points. There are also 12 dimensions of social foundation that, should we fall short on, fail our collective societies and the internationally agreed-upon minimum social standards.
The bad news is that we are already overshooting 4 of 9 planetary boundaries and falling short of all 12 social standards. The good news is that, if we apply this approach to economics, we will ensure that the economy worked for the majority of people’s benefit rather than the benefit of corporations or shareholders, while also ensuring that our economic activity stayed within our earth’s bounds. But how do we get to the core of changing these overshoots and shortfalls?
An Important Side Note
Maybe some of you have looked around your (virtual) workplace and realized something is missing. I realized what it was after a paradigm-shifting conversation with fellow Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) youth delegate, Alexander Dirksen. He introduced me to the idea of decolonization; decolonization is the practice of deconstructing the impacts of colonization, such as the heteronormative, patriarchal, capitalist norms of Western society. It dawned on me then what the people involved in the circular economy discussion had in common: many of them are white men and women with similar backgrounds and worldviews that have benefitted from a system that favors their success. I wondered whether there was a more inclusive and decolonized economic model. Then, when I was attending Vancity’s All Manager’s Meeting in Spring 2019, I heard Carol-Anne Hilton talk about Indigenomics.
“Let’s Play Indigenomics”
Indigenomics challenges us to move past considering how a market or wage economy can take the environment and/or social foundations into account and instead imagine an economy that was based in a different worldview, specifically in Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
Indigenomics takes a critical look at the systems put in place by colonization, breaks them open, and introduces new perspectives and ways of being. It reconnects us to the land and water we live on, to building relationships, to our role as stewards of this planet. It reconnects us to the knowledge that has been suppressed by colonialism. It emphasizes human values and local economies, drawing on ancient principles and implementing them in a modern business context. Indigenomics aims to include groups of people that have long been marginalized and prevented from full economic participation. Recent (and many historical) events affecting Indigenous and Black communities have made it clear that it is crucial for other voices to be heard and fully included in these conversations if we are serious about creating a better future.
What does Indigenomics look like in practice? Strong leaders, transformative visions, and community-building businesses. Here’s a sampling:
- Jenn Harper, an Ojibwe woman, had a dream of young Indigenous girls wearing lipgloss shortly after giving up alcohol. She is now the founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty, a cosmetics company whose products are named after powerful Indigenous women, has a goal of going zero waste by 2023, is sourced entirely in Canada, and donates 10% of its profits towards supporting Indigenous children and families (over $5,500 to date).
- David Isaac is the founder and CEO of W Dusk Energy, a renewable energy and infrastructure firm that works with communities to design, source, build, finance, and develop their projects. They have built the largest solar farm in Manitoba with the Fisher River Cree Nation, and it is the first Indigenous-owned solar farm. They also built BC’s largest solar net-metering projects with the Skidegate Band Council at the Haida Heritage Centre. W Dusk has evolved its focus to the nexus of food-energy-water with Indigenous communities across Turtle Island (North America).
- Eighth Generation, and founder Louie Gong, make blankets, accessories and other pieces featuring Indigenous artists and their work. Eighth Generation’s slogan is “Inspired Natives, not ‘Native-Inspired,” reflecting their platform as one for amplifying Indigenous voices and art, and reclaiming the space that many non-Indigenous brands have appropriated and profited from. On top of that, they are the fastest growing Native-owned business in the US and are now Snoqualmie-owned having recently been acquired by the Snoqualmie Tribe.
Completing the Circle
As we turn back to the issue at hand and ask ourselves what our lives and the economy could look like after this pandemic, let’s remember that what we had going on before COVID-19 wasn’t particularly good for the environment or for many people. Alternative approaches to the economy exist, some of them long before Canada was even an idea.
These ideas have been talked about and modeled by cultures from around the globe. Kenyan human rights activist Musimbi Kanyoro, who I had the pleasure of hearing at the GABV 2019 Summit, often brings up the Maragoli concept of isirika: a mutual responsibility to care for one another. My hope for our society as we recover from COVID-19 is to use what we’ve learned from the pandemic — the importance of caring for the vulnerable and marginalized among us, and the importance of community — and apply it to how we do business.
I encourage each one of my readers to pause once more before rushing into action — this time, the pause will be intentional. What have you learned during the pandemic? What have you learned by reading this article? And finally, what are you going to do about it?
The authors would like to acknowledge that this article was written with the review and consent of Carol Anne Hilton, Jenn Harper, David Isaac, and the Eighth Generation team.
Alice Henry is a Senior Program Manager with the Elements Society and the Program and Communications Coordinator with the Share Reuse Repair Initiative. Lucia Eyzaguirre is a Project Manager at Raven Indigenous Capital Partners. Both Alice and Lucia acknowledge that they are settlers and uninvited guests to the territories currently known as Canada.