Human consumption habits and the linear model of production have significantly altered the Earth’s landscape. Measurable by-products including rising CO2 emissions, sea temperatures and swelling ocean waste all present problems for our future. A topic industry contributors will be sharing actionable insights into at the upcoming innovation experience: e’ffect.

Thankfully, individuals, governments, business and non-profit organisations are rising to these challenges, uniting and co-ordinating efforts to not only meet stakeholder expectations for climate leadership, but to maintain long-term global competitiveness. Indeed, conservative estimates suggest smart climate choices could unlock an economic gain of $26 trillion over the next decade.

It’s a good job too. Without action, research suggests we might have fewer than 20 years of fresh drinking water to meet demand.

The work done by our oceans and seas is vital – it makes our Earth habitable. From rainwater to drinking water, climate, coastlines, much of our food and oxygen, all are impacted, whether directly or indirectly, by a healthy ocean.

And yet, each year we dump more than eight million tons of plastic into our ocean.

According to the United Nations, more than three billion of us depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for our livelihoods, and worldwide the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at about 5% of global GDP.

But knowing what measures, strategies and innovations to adopt to disrupt the habits that led to the plastic problem in the first place isn’t as simple as it at first may seem.

“There’s no silver bullet solution to the ocean plastic crisis,” says Emily Penn, ocean advocate and co-founder and director of eXXpedition.

“The ball is in industry’s court. It’s where we can see the biggest change the fastest.”

For the past 12 years, Penn has been working, mostly at sea, trying to solve the plastic pollution crisis. She leads a diverse crew of 300 women from various specialisms and industries through some of the densest plastic accumulation zones on the planet on a research mission to study plastic and toxic pollution in our ocean.

“The good news is, there’s hundreds of things we can do. We need each of us, with different expertise from different sectors of society, working together,” says Penn.

Her breakthrough moment came when swimming in the remote, human-uninhabited waves of the Pacific, and a toothbrush floated by.

“We were 800 miles [1287km] from land so the closest person to me was actually an astronaut aboard the space station in orbit,” speculates Penn.

The far-travelling toothbrush clarified for Penn the impact of each individual decision in a product or system’s life cycle.

“For me it’s empowering, because it is in our control, it’s a micro-action – a tiny moment – that’s meant that toothbrush has escaped and found its way out, but all it needs is a micro-action to stop that happening.”

From the initial decision to fabricate the toothbrush out of indestructible plastic to its disposal and systems – or lack thereof – to enable it to traverse the ocean, each action built on another.

Uncovering the sheer number of plastics, microplastics and dangerous types of toxins in our waters became Penn’s agenda after she tested her own blood for persistent organic pollutants and found 29 chemicals banned by the UN.

To Penn, the real solution isn’t a band-aid approach – the key to a sustainable future is targeting the source, by first ascertaining the state of plastic out there. It’s a genuine voyage of discovery.

“Is it tyre dust that’s coming from our cars when we drive on the road? Is it microfibres from our clothes when we put them in the washing machine? Is it PET fragments that are coming from packaging that are finding their way to the ocean? We’re doing a lot of scientific work to understand where all this is coming from and therefore how to solve it.”

For those willing change, it’s tough to know where to start. To combat choice fatigue Penn is embarking on a quest to empower consumers and businesses by creating a new tool which is powered by SAP called SHiFT. The online platform allows users to filter through hundreds of solutions to the problem of plastic in the ocean and suggest things individuals can do to make the biggest impact.

“The ball is in industry’s court. It’s where we can see the biggest change the fastest,” says Penn.

Awareness of the scale of the problem is growing and industry leaders are beginning to appreciate the value in a green, circular architecture as a promising framework for a better world. Getting there will take collaboration, unification and perhaps a complete redesign.

Research suggests that the effective use of technology can help reduce roughly 20% of projected greenhouse gases.

“The circular model is fundamentally a different model,” says Joe Iles, circular design programme lead at the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a UK-based charity which promotes a transition to a circular economy. From reusable packaging models to repair and maintenance movements to the sharing economy, there are various practices driving the circular but to Iles, design is at the heart of the transition.

“The economy is still fundamentally linear,” says Iles. “There’s still a lot of work left to do. [Consumers] need the options there to choose, solutions in the market that are better, more convenient, that are the norm, that they can support. We really believe this needs to be industry-led.”

Iles isn’t wrong. Despite moonshot ambitions, plastic production continues to skyrocket, with net increases in plastics floating into the ocean. To find solutions at system level, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation believes a tremendous upscaling of ambition is needed.

To meet the challenge, the foundation has designed the first circular economy measurement tool fuelled by Qualtrics called Circulytics, which enables businesses to evaluate their circularity – a vital metric to the transition to a circular economy.

“We deliberately made that a company-level tool rather than a product-level evaluation. With our focus on systems level change and interconnectedness of different products of different business models and strategies, we wanted to create a metric that aligned to company level ambitions and vision setting,” says Iles.

In partnership with SAP, the foundation is also launching the Circular Design project at the London Design Festival, hoping to inspire leaders to seize the opportunity to design a sustainable future.

This ambition can also be seen in SAP’s Climate 21 program, which aims to make an organisation’s ‘green line’, measuring sustainability, as important as the top and bottom line.

SAP’s new Product Carbon Footprint Analytics application is the first step in the program that is focused on creating sustainable behavioural shifts by unlocking data.

Research suggests that the effective use of technology can help reduce roughly 20% of projected greenhouse gases. But to truly accelerate the pace of sustainability, businesses must partner on all levels and across organisations, industries and regions.

The Carbon Footprint Analytics technology does this by delivering transparency on the carbon emissions of a product across the entire value and supply chain, including production, raw materials, energy use and transport. Producers can also integrate data from product databases and third-party solutions to analyse and understand emissions breakdowns.

The ultimate aim of the technology is to enable businesses and consumers to make choices on what they buy based on the level of emissions produced.

Universally adopting one system that grants complete oversight of operations, where companies work together is a paradigm encouraged by pioneers such as Penn, who believes, “To work in circles as society we all have to adopt the same systems otherwise it’s not going to work at scale.”

Join ocean advocate Emily Penn in conversation on circular economies at e’ffect at 11am AEST on Thursday, September 24 2020.

This article was produced for SAP by BBC StoryWorks, the commercial content division of BBC Global News.