Rapid growth of the world’s population and an intensifying pursuit of material wealth are taking place in parallel. The world population has already exceeded 7 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion in 2050. Economies are growing at a rapid pace in many emerging countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, and the people in these countries are pursuing a higher standard of living, following the model of industrialized nations in the past.
Natural resources are a limited source of wealth, however; Mother Nature cannot simply keep fulfilling ever-expanding needs. The more mass production and mass consumption increase, the more this will lead to a shortage of natural resources and energy, and price increases for goods. The result is likely to be a widening gap between rich and poor.
What is certain is that the world’s population will continue to grow, with an accompanying pursuit of material wealth, especially in emerging countries. So what can we do now to create a world in which more people can enjoy a decent quality of life for generations to come?
In the past, in advanced nations, there was a strong tendency to keep turning out goods as long as there was demand, as if resources would never run out. Sold goods soon become old and obsolete and were discarded as soon as newer and better products came along. Sooner or later, this type of linear production and consumption cycle must come to an end.
Our global society has come to a crossroads between the pursuit of affluence in material possession and the scarcity of natural resources. It is time for us to redefine the meaning of affluence in material wealth and come up with a new value and social system.
My company, Ricoh, which makes printers and provides services, established the Comet CircleTM concept in 1994 to encourage the creation of a more sustainable society. To this end, we have developed a life cycle and recyclable product design system that means our products have fewer materials and parts, as well as started to build an infrastructure to promote reuse and recycling globally. Today, Ricoh collects more than 400,000 machines per year around the world; almost all of them are being reused or recycled.
Putting the Comet Circle into practice brought benefits such as lower cost manufacturing and creating a reuse product market. However, the imaging solution business model we are engaged in – selling and servicing printers – is now facing a turning point. One of the major trends we see developing is that our customers are placing more value on intangible assets (the use of services) in addition to tangible goods (the ownership of products).
This value shift needs to be further promoted, spread and shared among society in order to strike a balance between the pursuit of material wealth and our limited natural resources. Continuing with current trends in mass production and consumption ultimately will not secure the quality of life we are seeking.
Read the World Economic Forum’s new report on the Circular Economy
Author: Kenichi Kanemaru is Corporate Executive Vice-President of Ricoh Company Limited and is participating at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2014.