Again to fundamentals: A techniques thinker’s view on circularity



We all know GreenBiz readers have a powerful understanding of the round financial system; the chance, the hurdles and what it should take for us to collectively shift the system. However as a techniques thinker, I wish to return continuously to the larger image.

Since becoming a member of the GreenBiz Circularity workforce late final yr, I’ve been requested some model of the next three questions by colleagues, family and friends members many occasions. I hope the replay of that dialogue resonates with you and offers new nuance or meals for thought.

Query 1: How is circularity totally different from sustainability?

If you happen to’ve ever taken a sustainability course, you probably have come throughout the next definition, from the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Fee: Sustainability is “assembly the wants of the current with out compromising the flexibility of future generations to fulfill their very own wants.”

Sustainability usually strives to cut back impacts on individuals and the planet as in comparison with the established order — say a baseline of earlier operations or the trade commonplace. The ambition for sustainability has grown since 1987, however in too many instances, sustainability continues to be seen as “doing much less dangerous.” As Joel Makower places it, “There’s little honor in ravaging the planet incrementally much less.” 

The round financial system is a techniques method that solutions one “how” in our quest for sustainability. For simplicity, the round financial system is commonly described by way of a juxtaposition with the standard “take-make-waste” system we’re all conversant in, the linear financial system. In contrast to a linear system by which uncooked supplies are extracted, reworked into merchandise after which was waste with little regard to environmental, social and even financial externalities, a round mannequin goals to maintain supplies within the system at their highest worth for so long as doable.

The success of the round financial system at a systemic degree will depend on different world shifts: specifically, the transition to renewable vitality and a gradual provide of responsibly sourced renewable materials.


Sustainability is commonly thought of an addition to an entity’s collective practices to enhance the entire. Circularity, in distinction, should sit on the core of operations, aiming for profitability whereas concurrently addressing world points akin to air pollution, nature and biodiversity loss and local weather change. Given the pervasiveness of linear financial fashions, circularity usually requires a rebuilding of techniques, enterprise fashions and operations from the bottom up. As a outstanding thought chief in circularity, the Ellen MacArthur Basis organizes the round financial system below three design-driven ideas:

  1. Get rid of waste and air pollution
  2. Flow into merchandise and supplies (at their highest worth)
  3. Regenerate nature

The success of the round financial system at a systemic degree will depend on different world shifts: specifically, the transition to renewable vitality and a gradual provide of responsibly sourced renewable materials. 

In abstract: Circularity has a selected deal with the biking of assets, lessening each our materials use and waste to help a wholesome planet. Sustainability offers in broader and extra normal efforts to cut back social, environmental and financial affect throughout an entity’s operations.

Query 2: Is circularity simply recycling?

On condition that circularity is all about maintaining supplies in use, at their highest worth, for so long as doable, it is pure to surprise if this simply means recycling. And whereas this isn’t essentially the improper method to consider it, there’s some nuance right here to be parsed out. 

Circularity is, in actual fact, all about biking supplies repeatedly — so on this sense, recycling. That is in distinction to the best way by which this time period is extra usually used: to explain the economic means of turning waste into new merchandise. The latter kind of recycling — for instance, accumulating plastic packaging and mechanically sorting, shredding, washing and reprocessing this plastic into new packaging — is definitely one of many lower-priority methods within the round financial system mannequin.

Let’s again up a bit.

Integral to the round financial system are suggestions loops, whereby merchandise and supplies are recirculated by way of the system. In nature, suggestions loops nourish and add worth to ecosystems. Take a tree that drops its leaves within the fall. These leaves decompose, feeding microbes and returning vitamins to the soil the place they’ll be reabsorbed by one other plant in quest of vitamins.

Within the organic cycle, renewable supplies akin to agricultural waste are recycled by way of the system by way of processes akin to composting or anaerobic digestion. Within the technical cycle, reuse, restore and recycling permit non-biodegradable supplies to recirculate by way of the financial system. That is demonstrated by way of the so-called “Butterfly Diagram,” seen under. 


Designing our financial system with sturdy suggestions loops to imitate nature is revolutionary; because the industrial revolution, we’ve got constructed a system that forces nature to suit our financial system reasonably than becoming our financial system into nature.

Methods akin to growing the sturdiness of merchandise, new enterprise fashions that supply sharing, reusing, refurbishing and remanufacturing must be higher-priority methods than recycling for a lot of industries — from trend to packaging to electronics.

There’s a false impression that the round financial system is only a type of waste administration or supplies restoration. In actuality, it’s a mannequin for a flourishing financial system that minimizes waste as a pure byproduct of its inherent design of suggestions loops that restore technical supplies and regenerate organic supplies.

Query 3: Degrowth and diminished consumption are tenets of the round financial system. How will we measure success?

As that is the toughest query to reply, I’ll reply with but extra questions. Is development at all times good? Is development one of the best factor to measure?

The success of worldwide and regional economies have traditionally been measured by one single indicator, gross home product (GDP). But when present and future generations are to thrive inside planetary boundaries, we should reimagine how we outline progress and alternative. That is the underlying rationale for the event of “doughnut economics,” a visible mannequin for sustainable development. 

By DoughnutEconomics - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By DoughnutEconomics – Personal work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The mannequin resembles a doughnut the place the doughnut ring itself represents a secure and simply area for people to exist inside. Contained in the ring (the doughnut gap) represents a scenario by which individuals lack important social requirements akin to healthcare, schooling and political voice. In the meantime, the surface of the doughnut (the crust) represents ecological boundaries past which earth’s pure techniques are below menace. This mannequin offers a revolutionary approach to perceive prosperity and set objectives for humanity. In response to this mannequin, prosperity might be achieved once we are located within the center ring, neither overshooting planetary boundaries nor missing the mandatory social foundations for all individuals. As Kate Raworth, founding father of Doughnut Economics, has stated, “A wholesome financial system must be designed to thrive, not develop.”

I hope this essay helps you pause and bear in mind the larger image. As you orient your self in your position in the direction of the bigger, systemic objectives we’re collectively making an attempt to attain, take coronary heart that you simply’re a part of an thrilling, rising neighborhood working to do the identical. Over the approaching months and years, I look ahead to studying extra about every of you and your contributions to the round financial system.

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