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Circular Economy: A Conversation with Steffen Müter

aware_ spoke to Steffen Müter, Head of DACH and Chair of Fujitsu Services GmbH Management Directors Board, to find out about how one of the world’s largest tech companies is making changes towards a circular economy.

With Europe’s announcement of a new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), together with a sustainable products initiative (SPI) as the foundation of the new European Green Deal (Europe’s new agenda for sustainable growth), companies have been urged to implement more sustainability measures throughout their entire product lifecycles. According to the European Commission, the new plan “targets how products are designed, promotes circular economy processes, encourages sustainable consumption, and aims to ensure that waste is prevented, and the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible”. The goal is to make Europe both more competitive and cleaner in the long run.  

Circular economy is an approach that changes the way in which products are produced, used and thrown away, extending their lifecycle. Instead of extracting resources from nature indiscriminately to create “short-term” products and throwing them away once we are done with them, only to buy the next thing, the circular economy suggests ideas such as reusing, repairing, leasing, sharing, recycling or refurbishing, as alternatives to generating waste (European Parliament). 

“In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place.”Ellen Macarthur Foundation 

That means looking at the whole lifecycle of a product – from raw material to waste – and thinking about how it will be designed, the production or remanufacturing, the distribution, how it will be consumed, used, reused or repaired, what the collection will look like once the consumer is finished with the product, and how it can be recycled. The circular economy is a key player when dealing with big problems such as climate change, ocean and general pollution, biodiversity loss, waste, etc. (Ellen Macarthur Foundation). 

circular economy

Fujitsu is a Japanese technology and information company that focuses on innovation to create sustainability. At Fujitsu, they connect people, technologies and ideas in order to bring change and create new opportunities to both society and their customers. Their integrated business approach is built on key technologies such as computing, network, artificial intelligence (AI), Data & Security and converging technologies, focusing on sustainable manufacturing, consumer experience, healthy living, trusted society, digital shifts, business applications and hybrid IT. Fujitsu is increasingly trying to implement a more circular economy in its own processes, especially when it comes to plastic waste as well as sustainable product design. aware_ spoke to Steffen Müter, Head of DACH and Chair of Fujitsu Services GmbH Management Directors Board, to find out how one of the world’s largest tech companies is making changes towards a circular economy.   

aware_: How is Fujitsu incorporating Europe’s new Circular Economy Action Plan into its daily business? 

Steffen Müter: Fujitsu has been planning eco-design for a long time. We strive for the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. In doing so, we take the entire life cycle into account as early as the design phase of a product. This includes not only the usability of the products, but also the ease of recycling so that materials can be separated as easily as possible. 
In the German market, we work closely with our partner AfB – an inclusion company that works with at least 40% of people with disabilities and aims to bring as many products as possible to the local market in a second life cycle. 

aware_: How does Fujitsu approach circular design when developing new products? Further, how does it apply to the improvement of existing products and services? 

Steffen Müter: The Fujitsu Group promotes environmentally friendly design of newly developed products and strives to conduct life cycle assessments (LCA) to reduce environmental impact and increase value. Since 1993, the Fujitsu Group has used environmental assessments of original products to promote the development of environmentally conscious products that support energy efficiency and the reduction of harmful substances. In addition, in 1998 we introduced the “Green Product” evaluation system to promote the development of environmentally conscious products, and in 2004 we introduced the “Green Product Evaluation Procedure” that integrates these aspects (Fujitsu). 

Furthermore, Fujitsu received the CDP’s A-list for climate change for the sixth consecutive year and for water security for the fourth consecutive year, earning the highest rating in the CDP’s assessment of corporate activities related to climate change and water security (Fujitsu). 

aware_: How is Fujitsu dealing with the challenge of plastic use and plastic waste? 

Steffen Müter: We have chosen a 3R design based on the principles of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, and have developed our products with technologies that effectively reduce resource consumption. We also strive to improve resource efficiency and reduce our environmental impact by making products lighter and smaller, using recycled plastics, reducing the number of parts, facilitating disassembly, and improving recyclability. Our goal is to offer such products in a way that also benefits the customer, whether by making these products smaller and lighter or by designing them to take up less space. 

FY 2021 Performance 
Promoting improved resource conservation and recycling in our products and increasing resource efficiency in new products by 10,1% (compared to FY 2019). 

circular economy

aware_: Is there an integrated approach in place from the extraction of natural resources to the production of the final product and the extension of its life cycle? 

Steffen Müter: It is important for us to continuously increase the proportion of recycled material in the product, but also in the packaging, to increase energy efficiency and at the same time to make products as small as possible.  
Working with the right partners for recycling and remarketing is crucial. We have such a partner in our cooperation with AfB, which brings more than 70% of our products into a second life cycle. Only if this is not possible should recycling be considered, separating the parts as homogeneously as possible to achieve a good recycling rate of the material. 

aware_: What is the biggest challenge to a large company when implementing new circular economy approaches and moving towards higher efficiency? Are there any action steps that can help in the process?  

Steffen Müter: This is a holistic approach that includes all the teams involved in the company. The most important step in changing the way we work is to consider the end of life of a product at the outset. This means incorporating remarketing and recycling teams into product design as well as feedback and requirements from services and establishing an ongoing communication loop for continuous improvement. 

For the circular economy to be successful, we need not only the new (“circular”) design patterns of the products, but also suitable business models. The established trend of servicing will increase strongly. Bringing “as a service” business models into the physical world will require robust, durable, easy-to-maintain and reusable products. 

From the status quo – linear supply chains – we will see an explosion of complexity to a value network that includes all branches of the various R strategies/The Butterfly Diagram (Ellen Macarthur Foundation). 

The key will be how we can make this complexity manageable. In my opinion, this can only be done globally with digital tools – but for that we need the right data input. Existing data that is often not used today and new data that is not available today. We also need a new way of handling data – we need secure and sovereign data sharing in data spaces, and an advanced way of using that data to make the best decisions across the supply network. 

Fujitsu offers services such as the “IoT Operations Cockpit” and is part of the Catena X network to actively support these approaches. 
Likewise, it is important to use existing data from all parts of the business and suppliers for data-driven decision making and to set targets for a common approach with suppliers. Fujitsu offers services such as the IOT Operations Cockpit and is part of the Catena X network to support this approach.

– by Alicia Pineiro 

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