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 and I?

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.

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

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.

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.

History proves it works

A man called Walter Stahel coined the expression “Cradle to Cradle” in the late 1970s, and created the Product Life Institute in Geneva more than 25 years ago. It pursues four main goals: product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities, and waste prevention.

Circular approaches are nothing new. This article notes that, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and that circular business models date back to the earliest human economies. Glass was a very valuable material as early as the late Bronze Age, and was shipped for recycling during the Roman and Byzantine empires.

If we know people were using such approaches thousands of years ago, then we may do well to ask why we have forgotten such important lessons. Thankfully, some of today’s businesses are getting things right.

Today’s modern leaders

Many notable circularity examples exist. The Fairphone is the world’s first ethical phone. It not only uses conflict free minerals but is a modular product designed to be repairable.

And Designtex is a recognised innovator in the research and development of textiles, wallcoverings, and digitally imaged materials with reduced environmental impact.

It has won numerous awards and fully embraces the cradle to cradle mindset. Further, Ecover has long led the way with sustainable washing products, and its latest post consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle has a 70% lower carbon footprint compared to virgin, non recycled plastic.

“We have created a bottle that is more sustainable; 100% recyclable and made from 100% recycled plastic, but also visually pleasing and practical,” Ryan McSorley, designer at Ecover, added.

The final analysis

There’s no denying the circular economy can seem complex. But it’s fundamentally simple; design things better, make them last longer and waste less.

And it has never been more crucial. Hundreds of millions of lives are at stake, the UN’s latest report declares, should the world warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which it will do as soon as 2040 if current trends continue.

“Short of shuttering factories and halting industry we see no alternative to thinking circular,” comments Nick Rawkins, Founder, “If ever there was a time to take action, it is now.”

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