Sustainability

Is the circular economy all it’s cracked up to be?

Some believe a circular economy offers rich opportunities to rethink and redesign the way we create goods and services. But others aren’t so sure. Might a truly circular economy ever exist, and what would it mean for you & I?


The idea is at the core of RECONO.me. It’s nothing less than a fundamental rethinking of how we build and create the goods and services that keep our society ticking over.

Many of us have heard of the circular economy. Such an economy is regenerative; resource use, waste and emissions are minimised with better, longer-lasting design, combined with maintenance and reuse, plus refurbishing, recycling and upcycling.

If done right, a circular economy doesn’t demand changes in our quality of life, nor does it require loss of revenues or extra costs for manufacturers. In fact it should deliver more sustainable societies and more sustainable businesses too.

“If done right, a circular economy doesn’t demand changes in our quality of life, nor does it require loss of revenues or extra costs for manufacturers.”

What do the naysayers think?


Some commentators believe that the science behind a UK circular economy is woolly. This Guardian article argues the circular economy can suffer from a similar rebound effect to energy-efficiency strategies.

Just as more efficient coal plants lead to lower coal prices and therefore higher demand for coal, more efficient use of materials can make products cheaper and therefore more appealing.

So in this scenario, while technical changes succeed in lowering the per-unit environmental impact, overall the environmental benefit is largely offset by economic growth caused by the lower price of sustainably designed products. We just end up buying more.

This argument misses a key trick. It focuses on the point of purchase, arguing we might buy more because our better designed goods are cheaper.

There’s a clue in the word ‘circular’. This concept isn’t about the point of purchase alone, it’s about cradle to cradle sustainability. If we buy more products, but they last longer, are more sustainably created in the first place and we then maintain, reuse and upcycle them, the net impact is anything but negative.

What in fact happens is that a more sustainable product, with lower impacts across its lifespan, becomes available to more people through lower pricing. The result; a net societal and environmental gain. Happier people, who can afford better, greener stuff.

“If we buy more products, but they last longer, are more sustainably created in the first place and we then maintain, reuse and upcycle them, the net impact is anything but negative.”