Degrowth and the Circular Economy

Introducing the Spiral Economy

By John Mulrow

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When we kick-off the DegrowUS gathering in Chicago this Friday, we will do so at The Plant, a former meatpacking plant that now houses a community of small food businesses including indoor and outdoor farms and a beer brewery. Many of these businesses exchange waste products or resources with each other, modeling a small-scale circular economy. So our first workshop of the weekend will be focused on merging Degrowth and the Circular Economy — two umbrella concepts that have become popular frames for charting true sustainability.

What would the combination of the two — a Spiral Economy — look like? That’s the question we’ll aim to answer on Friday.

But why do these two concepts need each other — can’t they both live in their respective camps: CE helping manufacturers and technology designers reduce waste while Degrowth drives a revolution in consumer values and material demand?

Of course not.

We cannot separate society and the economy from its supporting technologies and products. Our host for the workshop, Plant Chicago, acknowledges this in their organizational vision for a circular economy that is “driven at the local level, generating equity and economic opportunity for all residents.”

One suggestion for framing a Spiral Economy is to focus on slowing and shrinking loops, rather than just closing them. In an article published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, US-based researchers Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer showed that many CE initiatives are designed to increase production and/or product demand. This is precisely how the CE is sold to manufacturers — as an opportunity to save money and increase sales through waste-reducing initiatives. Zink and Geyer put forth a strong criteria for CE initiatives that are truly sustainable: In order to reduce environmental impact, “it is necessary that circular economy activities either have no effect on or decrease aggregate demand for goods.”

In this sense, a circular economy worthy of the term “sustainable” is not just a set of rules for more efficient operation of the economy, but also an economy that is smaller, both financially and materially. These are the strong criteria that must define a Spiral Economy.

More on Circular Economy research and the need to shrink/slow loops is contained in this article I co-authored for Discard Studies.

John Mulrow is a PhD Candidate in Environmental Engineering at UIC. His research aims to align environmental impact assessment methods with Degrowth policy and practice.

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