The Circular Economy (CE) is experiencing a ground swell of interest from large companies, institutions and governments (e.g., Google, Nike, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, EU and China), making this a ripe time to evaluate this promising approach to address the severe problem of waste that plagues most of the world’s cities. Much of this work has been discussed as a materials management concept, and rests on the premise that if we can smartly manage the ways in which we produce, consume and utilize goods we will have little to no waste created. These discussions make little fanfare around the idea that implementing CE will require a fundamental transformation of our traditional product-driven economies. The transition to CE will urge us to reconcile the extractive, and often abusive ways we have treated the planet and some cultural and economic groups, with the creation of regenerative economic systems.

WHAT IS CIRCULAR ECONOMY?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a major proponent of CE, defines it in this way:

Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles:

 

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems.

 

It is important to note that CE is not a fanciful idea from do-gooders.  It is a necessary transition that we must undertake as we approach the end of a limited set of natural resources. The World Resources Institute (2017) asserts that for us to meet the demand for consumer goods in developing markets and to demonstrate business growth we will need to consume three times our planets’ already overused natural resources. A case in point is that many businesses are now grappling with the fact that the demand for water is rapidly outpacing its availability

A handful of cities have begun the work to transition to CE models and pilot studies in specific industries and at a city-wide level. Amsterdam has established itself as a global leader in the transition to the circular economy and has demonstrated that it is both a doable as well as profitable concept, in the use of repurposed materials.

JUST TRANSITION AND CIRCULAR ECONOMY

Elsewhere, pillars of CE have been delineated that highlight social aspects of CE including supporting the health and wellbeing of humans and other species, and preserving human culture (Gladek, 2017).  This highlights a gap in most CE discussions in addressing the primary issue of how traditional, free market economies privilege some at the detriment of others, particularly lower income, communities of color. When we examine these impacts in the environmental realm, it’s clear that lower income, communities of color are often the hardest hit by environmental degradation and climate change. Exacerbating this issue is the “Green Ceiling”, a term that has brought attention to the fact that people of color are not adequately represented in the staffing and leadership of environmental organizations (Green 2.0, 2014).  These accounts suggest that environmental priorities and policies are leaving out the vision and perspectives of these communities.

Now as we stand at the brink of exhausting our natural resources, the relationship between the health of the planet to our own health and the whole of humanity is plausible, but do we also see the importance of our relationships with each other as an important component of sustainability?  Many of us may not readily see this connection and yet, we might consider that systems that seek to dominate the natural environment, might also be indifferent to the health and well-being of others. In the creation of truly sustainable economies, policy makers and businesses will need to be intentional about recreating systems that benefit and regenerate the planet as well as the beings that reside on it.

Thankfully, a framework exists that can guide our actions towards regenerative systems- Just Transition. The Climate Justice Alliance defines Just Transition as “a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy”.

Their principles of Just Transition are outlined as such:

 

  • Buen Vivir- We can live well without living better at the expense of others. We all have a right to clean, healthy and adequate air, water, land, food, education and shelter.  
  • Meaningful Work- Opportunities for people to learn, grow and develop to their full capacities and interests.  We are all born leaders.
  • Self Determination- Al peoples have the right to participate in decisions that impact their lives. This requires democratic governance in our communities, including our workplaces.
  • Equitable Redistribution of Resources and Power- We must work to build new systems that are good for all people, and not just a few. Just Transition must actively work against and transform current and historic inequities based on race, class, gender, immigration status and other forms of oppression.
  • Regenerative Ecological Economics- Just Transition must advance ecological resilience, reduce resource consumption, restore biodiversity and traditional ways of life, and undermine extractive economies that erode the ecological basis of our collective well-being.
  • Culture and Tradition- Just Transition must create inclusionary spaces for all traditions and cultures.
  • Solidarity- The impacts of the extractive economy knows no borders. Therefore, solutions call for local, regional, national and global solidarity.
  • Build What We Need Now- We must build the world we need now. This may begin at a local small scale and must expand to begin to displace extractive practices.

 

Just Transition has its roots in environmental justice and labor unions movements, that recognized the disproportionate effects of polluting industries and policies on low-income, people of color. The framework has been adapted to address how to transition communities into thriving and sustainable economies and is referenced in the Paris Agreement as “the imperative of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs”.  The approach often involves centering the voices of those who have been marginalized by adverse policies or practices, as well as shared community leadership.

In the context of CE, Just Transition can be a guiding star, if policy makers can agree that true sustainability is not about simple conversions (from fossil fuels to electric grids) or materials management (from excessive waste to no waste) but should also ensure equity and invite opportunities for everyone to participate. This means that not only do we look at the policies and financial incentives that will be needed to transition to CE, but also how it is that we ensure that low-income communities and displaced workers have access to opportunities that are afforded by the transition.

DOING JUST CIRCULAR ECONOMY

There are myriad of what might be considered Just Transition projects and movements underway, including worker owned-cooperative businesses, community gardens, and countless training and job creation programs that strengthen the fabric of ecological, social and economic communities.  Many of them are learning on the job and attempting to do this work within the confines of an existing economic paradigm that favors large businesses. However, expected trends and investments may provide support for some types of ventures. For example, employee-owned cooperatives are expected to grow as baby boomer small-business owners (12 million in the US) sell their companies to individuals or groups other than their own children (Fast Company, 2018).  

What might we expect if we were to overlay both a CE and Just Transition framework onto one another, so that organizations are provided tools to balance both social and environmental concerns at the heart of their work?  What would it mean to create businesses and entire economies that see the natural world and living beings not as resources to be used but as interconnected pieces, each providing its own talent or gift? In a Just Circular Economy, organizations may be connected in a way that the success of one supports the success of another as material and biological materials are transferred. Net growth in good paying jobs at all skill levels can be introduced for everyone, not just the privileged.  A deluge of training and sharing of expertise could take place as profit is more often tied to services rather than products. Communities can be more resilient as more goods and services are localized.

It remains unknown what the full impact of integrating a just circular economy will be, but it is unlikely that we can simply transition to adopting even a portion of these changes without direct and intentional interventions.  If we are to do this work it must set in motion by a collaboration across individuals, policies and businesses. Urging us towards these changes, however, is the knowing that we cannot continue to extract, mindlessly consume and dump waste to live in right relationship with each other and the planet.  We need instead, strong intentions, solid frameworks and tools to provide a true path towards sustainability.