It’s Decision time: Reimagine or Kill the Circular Economy

These are not regular times. The multiple crises we face require us to challenge almost every assumption, idea, and practice we have. The circular economy is no different. Can a non-inclusive, growth-based strategy be a viable sustainability strategy for business in 2020?

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1) The circular economy is not socially inclusive

The protests over police brutality and racial injustice in the last couple of months have led to a greater understanding of the strong connections between the fights over environmental and social injustice and the acknowledgment that this is actually the same fight. As marine biologist, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote: “..our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.”

2) The circular economy is optimized for economic growth, not societal well-being

“A circular economy aims to decouple economic growth from the consumption of finite resources and build economic, natural, and social capital”. As this quote from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2019 report “Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change” suggests both growth and decoupling are at the heart of the circular economy. The implied logic here is that growth is a sign for a thriving society (or business) and circular models/practices can ensure we have continuous growth without excessive resource use that will lead to increasing environmental impacts, including rising emissions. This is exactly the win-win idea I mentioned earlier — more economic value, less negative environmental impact.

3) The circular economy doesn’t have a holistic, human-based core needed for meaningful change in business

The problems with being neither inclusive (point 1) nor optimized for well-being (or thriveability) seem to be more evident in companies, where circular economy finds itself been adjusted in many cases to meet profitability and growth expectations. In the absence of holistic, human-based overarching frameworks for businesses like the ones we can find on state or city levels, the circular economy may prove to support business-as-usual (or sustainability-as-usual) rather than challenging it.

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. Working on new book: Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach

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