The idea of the ‘circular economy’ has taken off rapidly in the past couple of years. New ways of thinking, designing and developing are brought to the fore, caught in oneliners such as ‘waste equals food’ or ‘access, not ownership’. But what system is to lie underneath?

Growth? Ownership? Economism?

Circularity is hot. The entrepreneur who specialises in re-usability and knows how to tell the circular story, will sell and be the next economy’s winner. Our governments are just as happy to embrace the vibe. If the idea of ‘sustainability’ has lost its inspirational oomph, the circular economy makes up for it doubly by providing a vision of future eco-friendliness and economic growth.

But the sudden leap of the circular discourse deserves certain scrutiny. Currently, the discussion emphasises the potential benefits of a circular economy, but fails to make clear how the concepts relates to current paradigms — and how it requires new ones, indeed. The circular economy could be the promise of a wholly different society, but it could also boil down to mere technical and logistical changes in the economic process. Some authors are envisioning cities that become resource saving eco-factories and host a vibrant sharing economy, challenging the primacy of commerce and consumption. But most consultancy and policy reports rather use the vocabulary of growth, new business opportunities and expanding markets (such as the works of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation). And it is the latter reading of the circular economy that most easily finds its way to the mainstream, of course.

The strongly related, widely hailed philosophy of ‘access, not ownership’ works towards a future in which stuff is no longer bought, but leased by the customer. Indeed, ‘ownership’ is a typical twentieth-century virtue. It used to be a legitimate and effective incentive when material wellbeing was scanty; but today, owning stuff is a burden, thwarting efficiency, sustainability and happiness. Corporations tap into that zeitgeist. Gradually firms change their business model from pushing stuff to sullen customers, to saving materials and selling services — as many as possible. It is, admittedly, a strong model, which can boost the environmental performance of products while the consumer is serviced and entertained around the clock.

As a citizen, however, the leasing economy makes us lose agency and autonomy. Corporations increase their foothold in our daily lives, controlling access to services and platforms that they own. Indeed, ownership is not to be a thing of the past, but a thing of the corporation. Liability, then, shifts to the consumer. Having access to doing your laundry or to a properly illuminated workplace will increasingly entail contracts, memberships and credit systems. It is a model in which intellectual property and ownership of assets will determine market power even more than it already does. In short: the urgency of switching to a less exhaustive economy is encouraging policy lines that could increase economic inequality and dependencies. And though materials might be saved, a society that is unequal and unsocial, can hardly be eco-friendly.

A real circular economy requires that we go from an economic system in which multinational corporations dominate, to a decentralised and ‘open source’ (circular) economy. The active citizen needs to be able to have a say in the economy in order to participate and enhance sustainability. What is the worth of a sharing economy without owning anything to share? And what to make of a commercial product with a nice story, when it turns out to be a fiction?

The circular economy becoming interesting from a commercial point of view, does not suffice to bring us towards a sustainable future. We have to include the inventiveness of all players in society in order to attain a cleaner, brighter economy. More circularity? Sure. More economism? No thanks.

So, what should CE be about?

A true Circular Economy differs from business as usual in a number of ways. It pursues another goal than growing profits, it takes other values as key and has a different organisational philosophy.

In a generic sense, circular economics is about improving relationships between people, firms and organisations, and the natural surroundings. It’s all about reciprocity: things taking value when co-created, shared, and managed together ([see ‘common goods’ to read further]). In addition, these four elements are key:

Ecological economics — The economy would be quite helpless without natural resources and ecological processes. Many suggest that the economy should be ‘decoupled’ from ecology, but to me, that sounds rather unwholesome. It’s wayward capitalism that should be decoupled from the real economy. And the latter should be recoupled to ecology.

Balancing innovation & maintenance — Innovation is key in the transition towards a circular economy. But the philosophy of renewal and progress should be weighed against a philosophy of maintenance and preservation. That way, we balance risk and care; at one moment it’s choosing for the untrodden path, the next it’s about sophisticating our current ways.

Agency & Intrinsic motivation — Current proposals for the circular economy tend to be exercises of engineering, design and ‘true prices’. However, that divides the world into experts and subject laymen. When it comes to sustainability, no change is achieved without broad engagement of citizens. So next to extrinsic (economic) incentives, our intrinsic motivation should be targeted. Then people will be striving to contribute value to society, instead of maximising one’s own profits.

Aesthetics — Finally, CE should have a strong aesthetic component. Things that are put together well and beautifully, are really a lot more attractive than ugly things. Take a nice and old residence versus a ‘function only’ designed lot in an industrial district — it really speaks for itself. Nice things tend to be maintained and cherished for aeons, while the life span of ugly things is short and displeasing. So ask yourself: do I add beauty to the world, and inspire others to do so, too?

Last updated: July 12, 2016 at 13:28 pm