What’s with all the hustle around circular economy? What do we need it for and who is participating in it? Rethinking our systems, societal structures and economic activities is far from simple – but how complex issues could even be tackled with simple solutions?

What’s your contribution in the world?

Visiting my friends once, their 94-year-old neighbor introduced himself and asked me a tricky question: “What’s your contribution in the world?”. I was surprised of this big question, since usually I answer inquiries such as whether I study or work, what I do for living or what I’m interested in. The question got me thinking and I got embarrassed for not having a straight answer to such a question. I feel like I should have had one.

There really is a lot that needs our contribution in the world. What could be my part?

Seeking for the subject to my Master’s Thesis I came across the term circular economy several times. I started digging deeper and found out that the concept combines many different aspects that I had considered for my thesis subject: sustainability, corporate responsibility, economically and environmentally sound solutions in business, new kind of value creation, business model innovation and so on.

But what actually is circular economy?

Going circular or going under?

Circular economy is seen by many scholars as a solution to global wicked problems [1, 2 ]. At the same time, the major problems we are currently facing are actually two sides of the same coin: climate change, environmental degradation, plastic pollution – and resource depletion. It seems like we are not using our resources in the best possible way.

Thus, the idea in circular economy is closing, slowing and narrowing resource loops to replace the traditional take-make-dispose model. In other words, in circular economy the key is to make the most out of the resources that we already have, and sharing everything we can and in the end producing a reasonable – or sustainable – amount of goods that last. A bit like in the old times, right? But it’s not about going back in time – it makes sense to utilize the modern technologies, too.

The leap is huge: we need to shift the current economic system to be more sustainable. There are hundreds of case companies already implementing circular economy – many of which started their business long before circular economy became cool. Sharing economy, biomimicry, industrial ecology, recycling, upcycling – this is nothing new really. But calling it circular economy and transforming the whole economic system to replace the linear one is something new.

In a circular world the linear systems can’t provide long-term solutions.

Circular economy is ambitiously seeking to solve several problems at once. It’s not simple of course, but neither are the problems. The actions are needed now that there are possible solutions available and profits to gain, too.

Get involved – the transition has begun

Circular economy is currently strongly promoted by the academia and practitioners as well as different actors such as Ellen MacArthur Foundation, European Commission and Sitra, just to name a few. There are think tanks, foundations, NGO’s, incumbent companies, governments, start ups and eco-industrial parks which believe in the concept and advance it in their way.

Why circular economy then concerns almost all aspects of our modern societies? Because the societies are built upon economic activity – and circular economy aims at shifting it to a more sustainable, more reasonable and environmentally sound direction. The most resources and capabilities are controlled by private businesses [3]. So why not put them to use when tackling the complex problems?

Repairing things is circular economy, but so is providing a platform to rent your house for guests. Providing leftover lunches to be bought through an app. Offering furniture as a service instead of selling new ones. Utilizing nutrient cycles and recycling industrial waste. There are hundreds and hundreds of examples – just take a quick look and you’ll see how widely circular economy has already been implemented.

Now is the time to shape the future, to participate in the systemic change and create value in a sustainable way. As an idea, circular economy is fairly simple. When it comes to implementation, we need to rethink. Innovate. Give up. Learn. Unlearn. Change. What could be your part in this transition?

Back to the start – where’s my place in all this?

To contribute, or not to contribute – that is the question. Or not actually. We all do contribute, whether positively or negatively. In order to tackle the pressing issues we are facing, all expertise, enthusiasm and engagement will come in handy. In fact, all actors of the society at different levels are needed in order to achieve the transition towards circular economy [1].

Circular economy is not a miracle drug to all our problems. Not all circular economy is strongly sustainable – there are weaknesses and issues to tackle such as the rebound effect and greenwashing. But we shouldn’t let these pitfalls dispirit us.

We all do have our place in the circular economy – and if it doesn’t exist yet, we will have to create it. As an entrepreneur, employee, consumer, volunteer – we can act in circular economy in many roles just as we do in our current linear economy.

So going back to where we started – what my contribution in the world might be. If I’ll ever get asked that again I feel like having an answer now. My contribution is to study, advance and participate in circular economy and therefore be part in solving the wicked problems of our time. That’s a contribution to strive for and be proud of. How about you – what could your contribution be and could you maybe find it in the circular economy?

Anni Paavilainen

Anni studies responsible business in Tampere University and is working on her Master’s Thesis about circular economy business catalysts.

References and further reading

[1] Ghisellini, P., Cialani, C., Ulgiati, S., Akademin Industri och samhälle, Högskolan Dalarna,& Nationalekonomi. (2016). A review on circular economy: The expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems. Journal of Cleaner Production, 114, 11–32. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.09.007

[2] Korhonen, J., Honkasalo, A., Seppälä, J., Skolan för industriell teknik och management, (ITM), & KTH. (2018). Circular economy: The concept and its limitations. Ecological Economics, 143, 37–46. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.06.041

[3] Geissdoerfer, M., Savaget, P., Bocken, N. M. P., & Hultink, E. J. (2017). The circular economy –A new sustainability paradigm? Journal of Cleaner Production, 143, 757–768. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.048

Ellen MacArthur Foundation https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org

Sitra – Circular Economy https://www.sitra.fi/en/topics/a-circular-economy/

Sitra – The most interesting companies in the circular economy in Finland https://www.sitra.fi/en/projects/interesting-companies-circular-economy-finland/

CircVol project https://circvol.fi

Circular Economy Catalysts joint project https://cicat2025.turkuamk.fi

European Commission: Implementation of circular economy action plan http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm

Photo by: Lucas França from Pexels

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