Remaking the industrial economy

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McKinsey Quarterly

Hanh Nguyen, Martin Stuchtey, Markus Zils

A regenerative economic model—the circular economy—is starting to help companies create more value while reducing their dependence on scarce resources.

Visualize, for a moment, the industrial economy as a massive system of conveyor belts—one that directs materials and energy from resource-rich countries to manufacturing powerhouses, such as China, and then spirits the resulting products onward to the United States, Europe, and other destinations, where they are used, discarded, and replaced. While this image is an exaggeration, it does capture the essence of the linear, one-way production model that has dominated global manufacturing since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Increasingly, however, the linear approach to industrialization has come under strain. Some three billion consumers from the developing world will enter the middle class by 2030. The unprecedented size and impact of this shift is squeezing companies between rising and less predictable commodity prices, on the one hand, and blistering competition and unpredictable demand, on the other. The turn of the millennium marked the point when a rise in the real prices of natural resources began erasing a century’s worth of real-price declines. The biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression briefly dampened demand, but since 2009, resource prices have rebounded faster than global economic output. Clearly, the era of largely ignoring resource costs is over.

In light of volatile markets for resources, and even worries about their depletion, the call for a new economic model is getting louder. In response, some companies are questioning the assumptions that underpin how they make and sell products. In an effort to keep control over valuable natural resources, these companies are finding novel ways to reuse products and components. Their success provokes bolder questions. Could economic growth be decoupled from resource constraints? Could an industrial system that is regenerative by design—a “circular economy,” which restores material, energy, and labor inputs—be good for both society and business? If the experience of global automaker Renault is any indicator, the answer appears to be yes.