Scientists from two Swedish and one British institution argue that the concept of a circular economy and circular business models are flawed. They claim that the circular economy has diffused limits, unclear theoretical grounds, and that its implementation faces structural obstacles. The paper was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.
Circular economy is based on an ideological agenda dominated by technical and economic accounts. That brings uncertain contributions to sustainability and depoliticises sustainable growth.
Policy instruments are only suggested to promote circulation, rather than to obstruct the legacy of the linear economy. Furthermore linear technologies retain their market position despite their inefficiency, and circular innovations are hard to scale up.
With a management and technocentric bias driving the circular economy agenda, a growing body of research has criticised the absence of socio-cultural and political issues.
Their conclusion is that the circular economy is not even close to delivering the goals it claims to achieve. Circularity emerges instead as a theoretically, practically, and ideologically questionable notion. The paper concludes by proposing critical issues that need to be addressed if the circular economy and its business models are to open routes for more sustainable economic development.
We quote them in full:
The paper brings together the critiques addressed to the circular economy, with a focus on the European conception of the circular economy and corresponding circular business models. Researchers in various academic fields bring forth the unaddressed assumptions, blind spots, tensions, contradictions, unthought-of consequences, and taken-for-granted advantages of a circular transition.
The purpose is to make it less easy to make ungrounded claims about the circular economy to bring actual issues raised by a transition to the circular economy and to be at the core of this transition.
Basic principles ignored
Praised by policy makers and many companies who have been instrumental in its recognition as a model for material and sustainable policies, the circular economy is also subject to many critiques in academic and professional circles. The systematic presentation of these critiques shows that despite their strong imaginary appeal, pleas for the circular economy tend to ignore basic principles of biophysics, for example, the tensions between biophysical limits and progress and growth. Therefore, using the circular economy as a buzzword for sustainable development is considered problematic.
Critiques see in the circular economy a reassuring discourse for policy makers about futures made of planned circularity, circular modernism, bottom-up sufficiency, and peer-to-peer circularity. However, despite the revolutionary language, the circular future is not mapped out. In the shadow remain unanswered questions of how to disrupt orthodox social institutions attached with modernity and the connections and dependencies these create.
Equally, wider sustainability concerns such as care or gender equality are lacking, and so too are the impacts of the circular economy that can be beneficial for some but come at a cost to others.
Radical shift is essential
If the desire is for an equitable and truly sustainable economy that is circular, the critiques stress that a radical shift is essential to confront conventional neoliberal governance regimes. There is a danger to the myths surrounding the circular economy because if they become normalized the space for critical reflection will decrease.
Examples include the “risk of increased polarization between city and country and that the countryside is left out with poorer access to welfare services as a result” and the lack of a global approach encouraging neo-colonialism by either side stepping developing countries, not giving agency to people to problems outside of the Global North, or engaging with the informal sectors.
To put it briefly, the circular economy stands as a discourse that focuses on the economy, excludes social dimensions, and simplifies its environmental consequences.
These critiques are more than simply denouncing flaws in a fashionable concept. They also point at the need for questioning how the circular economy is currently conceived, consented, and implemented. The presentation of the critiques above shows there is a need for a renewed, enlarged, and transdisciplinary research agenda on the circular economy in order to support the policy process.
In need of coherence
Each area of the critiques above points at an issue in need of research, policy, and managerial attention. And as academics, let us conclude with a plea for coherence and transdisciplinarity.
Before the circular economy becomes mainstream and moves beyond sustainability and circular economy professionals, there is clearly a need for conceptual coherence about definitions, plans, implementations, and modes of evaluation, because without coherence the expansion of new knowledge could be obstructed by deadlocked debates or can collapse entirely.
Given the scope, speed, and transformation the circular economy agenda is attempting to address, research also needs to come out of disciplinary silos, otherwise solutions will engender weak circularity premised on notions of no limits, secondary resources complementing primary supplies, and governments handing over responsibility to businesses and consumers.
The researchers believe that it is time for producers and the state to reclaim the idea of circularity and to create “a closed, material loop limited in size and space, based on the principle of fair distribution of resources”.
Modest, concrete, inclusive, accountable
Drawing on the critiques listed above, a pathway toward circularity would be a circular economy that is modest, not a panacea but an actual solution to actual problems; concrete, in the sense of being clear about which kind of circularity it sets up and the goal conflicts that it entails; inclusive, in that it takes energy, people, and waste on a global scale into consideration; and transparent, in the sense of being accountable for its achievements and shortcomings, not the least when it comes to economic, social, and environmental changes.
Otherwise, the circular economy risks turning into a hypothetico-normative (but self-serving) utopia that derails actual and well-intended efforts to reorganise production, consumption, and more generally material flows in ways that are more respectful of planetary boundaries and that work in favour of sustainability.