Kerli Kant Hvass holds an MSc. Degree in International Business Economics from Aalborg University and has studied Social Entrepreneurship at Roskilde University, both in Denmark. In 2016 she defended her industrial Ph.D. in Social Sciences at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), where she researched business model innovation for a circular economy in the fashion and textile industry in cooperation with the company BESTSELLER and other industry stakeholders.
Outside EBS, she is an external lecturer at CBS in the circular economy and fashion entrepreneurship and founder of independent systems-thinking advisory platform REVALUATE that facilitates circular economy development in the Nordic-Baltic region through consulting, mentoring, and hands-on projects.
Kerli has more than 15 years of experience working with sustainability in private, public, non-profit sectors and academia in Estonia, Denmark, and the US. She is a strong advocate for cross-sectoral and industry-academia collaboration. Over the last few years, she has advocated for textile circularity in Estonia and initiated several activities to keep textiles away from landfills.
In this interview, Kerli shares why she decided to join EBS, her thoughts on the circular economy, and what part business schools will play to transition to it.
- Why did you decide to join the Estonian Business School?
Knowledge-based development and cooperation across sectors are very important to me, especially in the area of sustainability. I lived in Denmark for more than 15 years, and I admire their cross-sectoral culture of cooperation towards contributing to society’s growth and solving problems while hosting partnerships between companies and universities. The circular economy is a complex topic that requires new knowledge, holistic and systemic thinking, often outside of the box, and collaboration between different parts of society. Universities bring great thinkers together and create and mediate new, high-quality knowledge. Having a connection to an academic institution is inspiring to me. Looking at my CV, you can see that for a big part of my career, I have, in some way, been tied to education. In autumn 2020, when I made the permanent move to Estonia with my family, I started looking around for an academic institution engaged with innovation and circular economy matters from a business perspective. I come from a business management background, including social entrepreneurship, and have an industrial Ph.D. in social sciences focusing on the innovation of business models and circular economy from Copenhagen Business School (CBS), where I worked closely with companies. That’s why EBS, where academic disciplines are tightly intertwined with practical knowledge, is an extremely interesting partner for me.
After my first meeting with Rector Meelis Kitsing, I sensed EBS’s strong strategic interest in developing green and circular economies, which was confirmed by the passionate follow-up conversation with the board on these topics. I felt a strong mutual wish to partner on these topics, and so I’ll do my best to help EBS build a strong position not only in Estonia but in the northern Baltic region as a whole on these topics. Another source of motivation was the interesting, international, and very competent team at EBS. The circular economy is a broad and complex field, which requires teamwork and the combination of a lot of knowledge and resources.
- What is your personal relationship to the circular economy?
My ties to sustainability and the circular economy date back to 2002, when I started my Master’s in Business Economics at Aalborg University with the help of a scholarship from the Royal House of Denmark – a country where the issues of sustainability and the environment have long been way ahead of Estonia and lots of other countries. I was interested in sustainable consumption and production and the responsible management of companies. Because I’m practically minded, I soon realised that sustainability was such a broad topic that to impact the field, a sector-based approach is important. My mother is a tailor, so clothes have always played a central part in my life. Since 2006, I’ve been focusing on sustainable fashion and the textile industry’s inner workings, especially textile waste, circular business models, and circular value chains. In Copenhagen in 2010, I was awarded the title of Female Entrepreneur of the Year for a circular business idea called Think Re5, after which I tried to get the business off the ground. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy because, at the time, funding for start-ups dealing with sustainability was almost non-existent. My idea was years ahead of its time, and with my foreign background, I was unknown in society and without the much-needed network that entrepreneurs usually need. I rewrote my business plan as an application for an industrial Ph.D. at CBS, then invited BESTSELLER which is one of the biggest fashion concerns in the Nordic countries, and other representatives of advocacy groups to work with me.
I spent the next six years researching, developing, and piloting circular business models in the context of a large company, one with 15,000 employees, and its global value chains. We were way ahead at the time, which gave us the unique experience of developing and experimenting with the circular economy’s practices. In addition to BESTSELLER I’ve also worked for the Estonian Reuse Center (Uuskasutuskeskus) and developed the circular economy in the Nordic-Baltic region by advising organisations and start-ups, developing projects, conducting applied research, giving lectures, and developing my own start-up idea. I have a systematic mind, and I’m fascinated by developing the circular economy as a system through business models, value chains, and cross-sectoral cooperation.
- Where does Estonia stand globally in terms of the circular economy?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think Estonia has a strong position in the field yet. We’re still in the phase of learning about and mapping the situation, consulting other countries, developing strategies, and establishing our position. In Estonia, the conversation about the circular economy has mainly concentrated on waste management and resource efficiency. But the circular economy is a model that includes all aspects of society: consumption, regulations, taxation, education, the labour market, business models, technology, and design.
I feel like Estonia lacks systematic thinking when it comes to the circular economy. We’re looking for quick solutions in the form of start-ups that claim to make the circular economy work overnight. In reality, things aren’t that simple. These ideas have to be supported by the entire ecosystem for them to work and have a positive effect. There are plenty of examples of good ideas that have been hindered by legislation that favours the linear economy, and at the same time, circular value chains are underdeveloped. Often ideas don’t take off, and success quickly turns to failure, and the trust of investors is gone. Then there’s the cooperation between various stakeholder groups, which could be stronger. It’s something that is constantly talked about, and people do show interest in collaboration. Still, because cooperation in and of itself is not easy. It takes time, relies on mutual trust, and it sometimes seems that the necessary time for building collaboration is not made.
If you look at some of the pioneers in the circular economy – Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark – those countries have spent time developing their economies strategically, thoroughly, in close cooperation between the state, companies, and research community. On the other hand, Estonia is lucky because we’re a small, entrepreneurial, and dynamic country. We’re geographically close to the Nordic countries in the sense of both value chains and general cooperation.
The Nordic countries have invested huge amounts in developing circular and sustainable solutions. They’ve funded science, business transition processes, technology, and cross-sectoral cooperation projects. There are lots of fields where Estonia wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel but rather foster strategic cooperation with Nordic countries, as well as the other countries in the Baltic Sea region. The circular economy needs local, regional and global thinking and cooperation. Fortunately, the European Union has also placed a strong strategic focus on the circular economy with the Green Deal and the Circular Economic Action Plan, which serve as pressure on and motivation for Estonia.
- What part do you think business schools will play in the transition to the circular economy?
Business schools will have a very big role in it, because our lives, for the most part, are organised by different business models that guide production, consumption and the practicalities of life. While technical universities develop new technological solutions and materials and design schools create new designs for products and processes, business schools’ role is to ensure those solutions reach the market and have an economically, socially, and environmentally positive effect. The circular economy requires us to change our ways of thinking, business models, management practices, systems, and designs and learn to work together on new terms. That knowledge is necessary for both current and future business managers and specialists.
I work as a consultant as well as a lecturer, and mediating the knowledge and experience of the circular economy is different in those two formats. As a consultant, I’m expected to provide specific and practical solutions to a company’s challenges. As a lecturer, I have to understand the field, share good and bad practices, ask profound questions and teach tools on how to work with the circular economy. At the same time, creating new knowledge is a synergy between practitioners and academia, so a business school has an important role in initiating and leading the creation of knowledge and facilitating the implementation of practices of the circular economy.
- What should the next steps be for the Estonian Business School in the field of the green and circular economies?
The first step is mapping and mobilizing competence within EBS in the green and circular economies, establishing, via a strategic process, EBS’s vision, priorities, strategy, and position on these topics. It’s important to create an understanding of circular economy development and training offers outside of EBS, the needs of companies and other stakeholders of the business community, and their willingness to cooperate in the field. This is needed in the context of training programmes, applied research, and R&D projects.
It is also important to integrate the circular economy topic into current and future EBS programs, boost in-house competence through training and strengthen existing expertise by participating in international research projects and multi-stakeholder initiatives. EBS has already joined the Estonian Green Tiger initiative, which will provide excellent opportunities for synergies and collaboration. With my international network, I hope to create added value for EBS and bring international cooperation opportunities.
EBS invited me to join their team to focus on three aspects: to develop training offers on the green and circular economies aimed at companies and the business community, to help develop EBS’s strategy regarding the green and circular economies, and create a vision and concept for a future centre of excellence in the field of the circular economy. Those are ambitious tasks that I’m currently only working on part-time, but because it’s teamwork and the team at EBS is strong, I hope we’ll take the right steps as fast as we can regarding these complex topics.
A circular economy aims to redefine growth by looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model and focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. (Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation)