An introduction to the circular economy
The concept of a ‘circular economy’ is a response to the challenges and issues relating to our take-make-dispose approach to production and consumption. There is only one planet Earth, yet by 2050, the world will be consuming as if there were three[i]. As the World Economic Forum report, in 2019, over “92 billion tonnes of materials were extracted and processed, contributing to about half of global CO2 emissions. The resulting waste – including plastics, textiles, food, electronics and more – is taking its toll on the environment and human health”[ii]. Research by the European Commission finds that 90% of biodiversity loss is caused by resource extraction and processing, whilst up to 80% of products’ environmental impacts are determined at the design phase[iii]. The circular economy seeks to eliminate waste, instead focusing on reusing and recirculating materials to preserve both the environment and natural resources, as well as foster the regeneration of natural environments that would otherwise be damaged by resource extraction. WRAP summarise:
“In the circular economy, instead of taking resources from the earth, using them once, and disposing of them in landfill, we keep them in use for as long as possible. We make sure that we gain the maximum benefit from them while reducing negative environmental impacts.”[iv]
The Ellen MacArthur foundation further explains: “The circular economy is based on three principles, driven by design:
- Eliminate waste and pollution
- Circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
- Regenerate nature
It is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials. A circular economy decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. It is a resilient system that is good for business, people and the environment.”[v]
How are attitudes changing?
Today the concept of a circular economy is certainly more widely understood and is growing in its adoption. Examples range across the value chain, from governments, organisations, businesses, and individuals. At the top level, for example, the EU launched its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) back in 2015; this was a comprehensive body of legislative and non-legislative actions which aimed to transition the European economy from a linear to a circular model[vi]. Subsequently, the EU has since adopted its new ‘circular economy action plan’ (CEAP) as of March 2020; a study seen by the EU that estimates that by applying circular economy principles across the EU economy, there is the potential to increase EU GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030, creating around 700 000 new jobs. They also find benefits for individual companies too. For example, since manufacturing firms in the EU spend, on average, about 40% on materials, closed-loop models can increase their profitability while sheltering them from resource price fluctuations[vii]. To date, the EU has implemented numerous measures to move towards a circular model. Recent steps include the revision of EU rules on packaging and its waste, as well as a policy framework for biobased, biodegradable, and compostable plastics[viii].
There are big changes at the consumer level too. Whilst not everyone is drastically changing their behaviour to live an entirely circular lifestyle, many day-to-day changes can positively influence the circular economy, and these are becoming far more prevalent in our society today. Examples include recycling, sharing of services (for example, ride-sharing services, rental platforms, and shared workspaces), reusing goods, and the reduction of waste. WRAP’s annual progress report into textiles, which tracks progress on the Textiles 2030 scheme- the aim of which is to accelerate the UK fashion and textiles industry towards a circular economy, reveals a notable trend towards garment repair and re-use. They find that:
- 54% of consumers are happy to purchase second-hand.
- 57% of people would repair damaged items, which on average would give clothes an extra 1.3 years of life.
- 51% of people who have used a repair service before say they purchased fewer brand-new clothes as a result[ix].
More recent data from Deloitte, which explores consumer attitudes and behaviours around sustainability using a survey of UK adults, revealed a sharp increase in the number of people who have adopted a more sustainable lifestyle in the last 12 months. “Compared with 2021, consumers have significantly increased their focus on buying just what they need (+20 points), on reducing their meat consumption (+9 points) and on opting for low carbon emission modes of transport (+11 points).[x]”
Actions consumers are taking to lead a more sustainable lifestyle (% UK adults)
Introducing circularity into daily life
As alluded to above, smaller actions and behaviour changes taken en masse can help move us towards a circular economy. If we look at the following areas of circularity, then we can understand some of the changes that can be made:
Sharing- the idea of sharing resources as part of a circular model opens the door to ‘the sharing economy’; so-called as consumption is not based on ownership but on sharing. The core idea of the sharing economy is the more efficient use of goods, spaces and services by moving from ownership to user rights, renting, borrowing and shared use. Examples of services include ride-sharing, such as UberPool, the rental of electric scooters (companies include Voi, Lime, and Tier), and shared space rental offered by businesses like WeWork.
Reusing- purchasing goods that have a longer lifespan rather than single-use, for example, reusable coffee mugs rather than disposable takeaway mugs. When Deloitte asked consumers what they value when purchasing a product in terms of sustainability, 52% said that they value durability, compared with 23% who said recyclability.
Repairing & refurbishing- a growing trend is that of repairing or refurbishing goods. In Deloitte’s survey, 53% of respondents said that in the last 12 months, they had repaired an item rather than replaced it, and 40% said they had bought second-hand or refurbished goods.
Source: Molly Maid
Recycling- Looking at the top actions taken by consumers to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, most relate to recycling or reducing waste. Single-use plastic, in particular, has seen a backlash in recent years, with new legislation aimed at reducing its usage. This has led to the introduction of more biodegradable or recyclable packaging solutions being on offer, with it helping encourage consumers to recycle.
[i] Circular economy (europa.eu)
[ii] Circular Economy | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)
[iii] Circular economy (europa.eu)
[iv] WRAP and the circular economy | WRAP
[v] What is a circular economy? | Ellen MacArthur Foundation
[vi] The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)
[vii] EUR-Lex - 52020DC0098 - EN - EUR-Lex (europa.eu)
[viii] Circular economy action plan (europa.eu)
[ix] Textiles_Annual Progress Report_2022 (wrap.org.uk)
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