Circular Economy: the route to a sustainable planet

By Richard Bousfield

The circular economy is a model of production and consumption focused upon the elimination of waste, prioritising the reusing, repairing and recycling of products rather than simply throwing them away. The model seeks to replace the dominant mode of economic activity based around linear, take-make-dispose behaviour. The concept of circularity has ancient roots and is based on the principle that human activity exists within, rather than separate from the earth’s systems. 

From producing bricks by grinding down old pottery in ancient Greece to the sorting of refuse and melting of old glass items in Byzantine society, examples of circularity can be found in vastly different societies and cultures going back thousands of years. Currently, circular economy thinking is enjoying a resurgence and is encouraging a wave of innovation and creativity in the business world. Rather than creating products to break or become obsolete after a brief period of use, companies are developing their reputation from extended warranties and product quality, incorporating upgradability options, maintenance and repair as well as disassembly and reassembly. Revendo have created a business model in which the repairing of electrical goods is central, rather than selling brand new models. With regards to clothing, teil.style encourage the reuse of clothing rather than encouraging consumers to throw away their clothes and buy a new wardrobe. This slowing down of resource loops ensures that materials remain in use for as long as possible rather than extracting more raw materials, therefore reducing pollution and harmful emissions. 

For products that cannot be reused, markets are growing for biodegradable and non-toxic products which can be safely and easily reabsorbed into surrounding environmental and biological cycles. In addition, businesses based around the loaning of expensive but seldomly used products and services are increasing in prevalence, as are those that offer cash in exchange for end of life products. Furthermore, businesses are increasingly looking to create symbiotic relationships in which the waste from one company serves as the raw material of another. Such partnerships not only reduce waste and pollution, but also enhance company resilience through resource security and the development of competitive advantages.

Businesses that think only in terms of short-term profitability, that fail to take opportunities to develop networks and fail to utilise the additional value in waste materials will increasingly lose out in a rapidly changing economy governed by circularity rather than linearity. Moreover, as governments and international bodies increasingly base laws and regulations around circular economy principles, linear behaviour will be taxed at ever growing rates. One of the primary building blocks of the EU’s Green New Deal is the New Circular economy Action Plan. At a fundamental level, circularity is the primary means of meeting ever more ambitious national and EU emissions targets. Consequently, those businesses that hinder the meeting of these targets by cutting corners must contend not just with rejection by the consumer but a loss of profitability through taxation and penalties.

Despite the pervasiveness of circularity throughout human economic activity and its recent expansion at societal, business and governance level, the transition away from the linear to the circular is far from easy and necessitates the changing of ingrained behaviour. It requires companies to think in systems rather than to look only at their own limited area of activity, and to judge success on a broader range of metrics rather than simply measuring profit. On the individual level, it requires us to consider the difference between wanting and needing, and to judge the merits of a purchase on long-term utility rather than short-term pleasure. 

Most importantly, the consumer should not wait for government or business to take the lead with circular economy thinking. Both are sensitive to the will of the majority. As growing numbers of people choose sustainable products, share ways to recycle, reuse and redesign their household waste, and emphasise minimalism over clutter, businesses will begin to reflect this world view. Sustainability Week Switzerland plays its role in this every year by bringing together communities of like-minded individuals that seek to further sustainable behaviour through their local communities. Every year, events based around circularity and recycling are held at sustainability weeks across the country. For example, in March of this year, Sustainability Week Zurich hosted their Circular Economy Workshop in which the concept was brought to life for participants, empowering them to apply the idea to their day-to-day lives (https://nachhaltigkeitswoche.ch/programm/donnerstag/circular-economy/). 

Circularity will inevitably grow in importance as the effects of human activity on the Earth’s systems becomes more apparent and serious. Sustainability Week Switzerland will continue to play an important role in empowering communities by informing, sharing and encouraging circular economy thinking. 

If you would like to learn more about the concept of a circular economy in Switzerland, keep an eye on the activities and events of the following organisations:

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