May 29, 2018 / by Sarah Brooks / In Guest Blog

Circularity is Necessary but Not Sufficient

The circular economy is a hot topic these days. For its potential to address major ecological issues like marine plastics pollution and to help business accrue benefit and innovate, (check out Kalundborg Symbiosis and Mud Jeans for two very different examples), interest in a circular economy is growing. It’s touted as a unifying theory-to-practice that will enable us to achieve sustainability while creating value for society.

But let’s face it: transitioning to circularity will require some serious systems change. A few simple ideas can help ensure that we don’t create new problems while solving existing ones. Some initial ideas follow, with others to be explored in future articles.

To be strategic we need to know where we’re heading. In her seminal work on places to intervene in a system, Donella Meadows identifies the goal of the system as one of the top three leverage points to enable systems change. That means we need to be clear about what we’re trying to achieve and where we want to go with a circular economy: what is success and how do we know when we’ve arrived? These days, ‘the economy’ seems to be an end in itself, rather than a means to an end (e.g. a fulfilling and sustainable society).

When we create a vision of success that’s aligned with planetary capacity and social wellbeing, we have something to head toward. We know it is sustainable, because it’s grounded in the best of what science tells us about how the world works. A circular economy that respects these boundaries is ideal.

Material relevance. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that things naturally tend toward disorder. Practically, this means that chemicals tend to leak out into natural systems. We need to know what materials – and what amount of those materials – natural systems can process, and at what rate. Then we need to design our production and consumption processes to ensure that regional and global flows of those materials fall within sustainable limits. Some materials will need to phased out completely, because they can’t be safeguarded within society (consider the example of CFCs). To design a circular economy that operates within planetary boundaries, we need the right data to help us understand what’s currently happening and what needs to change.

Put people at the center. The potential for enabling social sustainability is often overlooked in the dialogue around circular economy. But, we don’t want to eliminate waste while inadvertently creating structural barriers to people meeting their needs. Instead, let’s use what we know about sustainability success and design our systems to create new value, in new ways, for new, additional groups of people.

Let’s ask socially relevant questions as we design for circularity. For example: How can a circular economy or circular strategy engage and help underserved and marginalized communities? Aid gender equality? Improve health care across the country? Provide opportunities for Generation Squeeze? The possibilities (and questions!) are nearly endless. Using social sustainability principles as design constraints can bring vibrancy and heart to a circular economy.

Circularity is critical if we are ever to achieve sustainability, but alone, it’s likely not sufficient. A few simple parameters can help guide the circularity transition to help ensure that we really are solving problems – not creating new ones.

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author_chris_lindberg Sarah is a Senior Associate with The Natural Step Canada and Special Advisor, Systems Transitions, to the Circular Economy Lab.