Circular economy, filling the (empty) shell?

Door Ilse Hoenderdos,
op 19 januari 2014

I can’t open my Twitter feed without reading the latest news about the circular economy. While my right brain rejoices, my left brain is somewhat disappointed. A battle in my head, with one side so pleased that attention is being paid to sustainability that goes beyond the incremental energy savings and the other side critical about the ease with which sustainable projects are labeled as “circular”. Is “circular” the new green buzzword, destined to become an empty concept?The term “circular” is not exactly new. In 1972, Donella Meadows wrote about the limitations of economic growth in the context of resource scarcity, among other factors. And the design philosophy of Braungart and McDonough that was described in their Cradle to Cradle is more than ten years old. And yet it seems the subject is only really getting traction now.

This is logical, since the climatic thinking about sustainability is also a bit passé. CO2 is a still somewhat limp, approximate way to think about sustainability, which is obviously linked to the sustainability paradigm in which “reduction” is central. In recent years (thankfully) an integrated approach to the introduction of sustainability has developed – an exciting paradigm in which design, manufacture and assembly and use revolve mainly around “renewal”.

And yet there is that slight disappointment at something at every turn being labeled “circular”; take for example Snappcar. It’s a great idea, and it really contributes to reducing the sustainability impact of cars, as they are shared, and so theoretically fewer cars need to be made. But is this concept really “circular”?

In my humble opinion, I don’t think so. Aren’t these cars still made the same way? What if there was a Hummer on Snappcar, would that also be sustainable?

In my left brain, a three-dimensional model emerges, which, for the convenience of this blog, I will pull apart in three separate axes (forgive the linear thinking). Three axes on which all so-called “circular” projects can be measured. In no particular order:Pijlen model EN

The technical content axis: “reduction” to the left and “renewal” to the right to. To the left of the axis, fewer raw materials and less energy are used in the production process or in the use phase; towards the right are the exciting products that are taken into account in the design, (biological) degradability, responsible resource use and longevity. Here the Cradle to Cradle thinking comes in helpful.

The financial-economic axis: the left represents a consumption-driven society with (high) profit margins and eternal growth objectives. In this linear thinking, a product is no longer the responsibility of the producer once it is sold. To the right of the axis we see the thinking in terms of “use”. It is not that making a profit isn’t an option on the right side of the axis, but it requires a different kind of business model. I’m thinking of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth, in which he argues that the current model of financial success has fundamental flaws.

Last but not least, the process axis: the thinking on the left is all about “me, me, me”, and on the right it’s about “we.” Like many circular projects demonstrate, collaboration with partners is a requirement for the success of the project. This idea is by no means new; in 1776 Adam Smith wrote about the benefits of the division of labor. Yet it is true that in our profit-driven society we have a tendency to want it all to ourselves, putting businesses in a competitive stance in relation to their supply chain partners, with a “me versus you” attitude. But at the crux of circular projects lie system optimization and innovation – so businesses should look to their supply chain partners for the best solution.

In my moral impulse to renew the notion of “circular”, here is my proposal: shall we agree that we only call something circular when there is innovation in all three axes? And with that, I don’t want to discourage all other sustainability initiatives – on the contrary, I want to encourage them – but we also need something to strive for.

Take the Interface initiative Net-Works: technological innovation in which old fishing nets are used as raw material for carpets; financial innovation because profits are given to the local communities that collect the nets; and process innovation because the initiative focuses on strengthening partnerships (including Interface, ZSL, Aquafil). For me, this initiative is a prime example of the “circular economy”, which can be proudly labeled “circular” in my opinion.

My call is to focus on the real notion of “circular” – it would be such a shame if this concept became just the next sustainability word that is a casualty of the traditional thinkers.

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