Photo: Taizo Son, CEO of Mistletoe, Inc. (right) speaking onstage with President and CEO of LIFULL Co., Ltd. Takashi Inoue at NEST 2017.

What if someone told you that they could reduce the amount of water you use in your shower by over 4000 percent? You’d probably think they were either crazy, smelly, or more likely, a combination of both. But you’d probably also be interested in hearing more. Well, this is the promise of the makers of the Hotaru Shower, who represent a new wave of businesses building products and services for what’s known as the “circular economy.”

The topic was the theme of a high profile panel at this year’s New Economy Summit Tokyo, dubbed NEST 2017.

The circular economy is not a new concept. First proposed by British environmental economists David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner in the 1970s, circular economics aims to introduce systems and models to society that replicate living systems, which are defined by efficiency and closed-loop cycles. Currently the dominant economic model sees resources proceed in one direction through the stages of take, make and then dispose, so it’s known as a “linear” or “industrial revolution system” – which makes it slightly ironic that the circular model now has the most steam!

“This is not just about recycling." Takashi Inoue is the President and CEO of LIFULL Co., Ltd.

“This is not just about recycling.” Takashi Inoue is the President and CEO of LIFULL Co., Ltd.

Leading the session were two champions from a growing group of entrepreneurs who are now championing the circular economy: Takashi Inoue, President and CEO of LIFULL Co., Ltd. and Taizo Son, CEO of Mistletoe, Inc. and brother of one of Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs, Masayoshi Son. While the pair are busy with their own businesses, they also collaborate on a side project called “Living Anywhere,” where they aim to evangelize for the circular economy.

“The linear model is no longer viable. We need to find better solutions for society that re-employ resources,” Inoue explained to the NEST 2017 audience. “For example, how can we re-employ vacant housing? This is not just about recycling, but actually changing the use-proposition of already-made resources.”

The panel’s wide-ranging conversation explored living off-the-grid, basic income vs. basic services, and an array of other concepts, but the panel members were quick to ground the conversation in practical terms. “These are all great concepts,” Son interjected, “but we are not thinkers but doers. So, we need to look at the constraints and find out how to overcome them. So, we are seeking entrepreneurs who are addressing these constraints and gathering a community of like-minded entrepreneurs. We want to support them.”

The Hotaru Shower promises to provide two weeks of daily showers to a family of three on only 20 liters of water. Source: YouTube

The Hotaru Shower promises to provide two weeks of daily showers to a family of three on only 20 liters of water. Source: YouTube

To illustrate the point, Inoue explained that one of the biggest challenges arising in the aftermath of 2016’s Kumamoto earthquake, which caused widespread regional damage to basic infrastructure in this southern regional city, was access to clean water. One product that addresses that need and could support a circular economy is the aforementioned Hotaru Shower. Its makers claim the portable device can provide two weeks of daily showers to a family of three on only 20 liters of water, as opposed to the average of 840 liters with a standard shower. If it works, that might be a strong enough argument to sway even the most die-hard aquaphile.

Living Anywhere is not alone in its push for sustainable living. Global consulting firm Accenture is doing its part to spread the circular economy gospel. Among several initiatives, it published a book, “Waste to Wealth”, which examines how society can eliminate waste. More than just referring to actual garbage, the Accenture book focuses on underutilized resources. And it boldly predicts that the circular economy could represent as much as $4.5 trillion by 2030.

While Inoue and Son admit that the Living Anywhere initiative is still in its early days, they are nonetheless ambitious. “We have short term goals, but we are talking 10-20-30 years or more into the future and doing things now to change the social systems and technology that will underpin this,” Son said.


Read more reports on NEST 2017 here.