Circle Economy
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Circle Economy

Circular consumption in the linear economy: only a drop in the ocean?

Why consumers need business and government to further facilitate circular behaviours

Written by Lena Bäunker, with additional reporting from Laxmi Haigh and Kinge Gardien

Do you still eat avocados? Have you also stopped buying fast fashion? Many of these ‘conscious consumer’ questions will sound familiar to those of us who are aware of the impact our decisions and actions have on nature and society at large. Products like avocados and fast fashion have come under scrutiny as they are often produced under the very conditions we reject. However, many other products and services with similar impacts remain unquestioned. A case of ignorance? Rather not. Navigating sustainable and circular choices can be a minefield for consumers when the global economy remains rooted in linear traditions. For a full circular transition, businesses and governments need to create the necessary structures — from knowledge sharing to a change in business models — to both reduce the impact of consumption and support circular consumption.

Upside-down photo of legs reaching out of the ocean
Circular consumption in the linear economy: only a drop in the ocean? Photo by anouar olh from Pexels

The scapegoats of linearity

Following a recent rise in popularity in Western diets, avocado production and export from countries like Brazil has skyrocketed. But this has been to the detriment of both local communities and nature: avocados grown en masse are depleting soils, causing water stress, deforestation and contributing to a rise in social inequalities. Fast fashion tells a similar story. Some consumers in ‘shift’ countries — such as the Netherlands — , where most of the planet’s resources are consumed, most waste is generated and most carbon emissions are caused as a result of overconsumption, listen to these stories and change their behaviours accordingly. They avoid certain products, reduce their consumption or switch to circular alternatives. In fashion, more and more consumers choose second hand clothing — to the extent that resale is now expected to be bigger than fast fashion by 2029, according to a 2020 report by ThredUp.

But here’s the paradox: While products like fast fashion or avocados have turned into ‘scapegoats’ of linearity among conscious consumers in shift countries, other products and services get off almost unscathed. Coffee, cut flowers or nuts are rarely questioned, even though their production causes similar, or worse, socio-environmental impacts. Coffee, for example, emits about two times more greenhouse gases per serving than avocados. Yet how many of us waive our morning coffee?

Coffee emits about two times more greenhouse gases per serving than avocados. Yet how many of us waive our morning coffee? Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

A systemic dilemma

The avocado and coffee example shows that at one point or another, well-intentioned consumers will always run into a systemic dilemma: in an economy that remains rooted in the take-make-waste tradition, they can only do so much. Many products and services are deeply embedded in linear value chains. Circular alternatives are simply not yet available and those that are available often come at a cost or require a mindset that is not accessible or affordable for everyone. Many consumers simply lack the opportunities to further their behaviour change.

The issue at hand can only be filled through a systemic shift in how we create, provide, add and obtain value. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with businesses and government to create the conditions that can further facilitate circular consumption behaviours. If they remain stuck in linear thinking, circular consumption may only be a drop in the ocean.

To create conditions for circular behaviours, the awareness to action framework — as outlined in our Circularity Gap Report, Norway — urges changemakers in business and government to engage on four levels: awareness, understanding, action, commitment. Interventions on one, or all of these levels can facilitate behaviours that are necessary to advance and scale-up key processes of the circular economy, including slowing flows, closing flows, narrowing flows, and regenerating flows.

From Bocken’s framework of Flow strategies that guides circular design and business strategies.
From Bocken’s framework of Flow strategies that guides designers and business strategists in the move from a linear to a circular economy.

Slow flows: Use longer

Keeping products and materials in use as long as possible is one of the key premises of the circular economy. In slowing material flows, for example through repair, product life spans are extended and the creation of new goods is postponed. Consumers, or users, need to support slow loops by treating their products carefully, cleaning them regularly and repairing them if necessary. A precondition for this is the development of a strong emotional relationship with the product that guarantees attachment and care. However, product care and attachment are hindered if businesses plan for obsolescence by artificially shortening product life spans or constantly introducing new models and products that urge consumers to replace old ones for the sake of following trends. Instead, businesses could raise awareness through communications that boost the appeal of second hand goods or actively shift from quick product releases to upgrades. The design of ‘hassle-free’ upgrades, for example, could reduce high product turnover rates and encourage consumers not to always go for the brand new option. To increase consumer commitment to products, businesses could set up repair spots in their retail shops and to improve understanding, they could offer circular training. Outdoor retailer Patagonia, for example, partnered with iFixit to explain to users how they can repair their garments.

Also, governments can further facilitate the extended use of products and materials, for example by communicating their long-term usage potential and price benefits through awareness campaigns. What’s more, governments can develop legislation, such as extended product warranties, that incentivise and commit businesses to improve product durability.

Narrow flows: Use less

In a circular economy, quality trumps quantity. It strives to narrow flows by using fewer components, materials and energy to create new products. To support this aim, consumers need to reduce their overall consumption and participate in sharing and rental models. To enable action and commitment, businesses need to implement sharing platforms and make them accessible to all parts of the population. Governments can further encourage consumers to use these platforms instead of their own goods by introducing tax breaks or subsidies. Think of shared goods without VAT, for example. Beyond that, businesses could digitise and virtualise materials in services to reduce the overall amount of resources. The covid-19 pandemic has recently resulted in a rise in the use of QR codes in retail environments or restaurants — a trend that not only conforms to new hygiene regulations but also minimises the need for paper and other resources. Businesses and governments could further use their reach and credibility to improve awareness and understanding among consumers by reframing the narrative on quality over quantity.

The covid-19 pandemic has recently resulted in a rise in the use of QR codes in retail environments or restaurants — a trend that not only conforms to new hygiene regulations but also minimises the need for paper and other resources. Photo by Proxyclick Visitor Management System on Unsplash

Cycle flows: Use again

Reuse and recycling are key strategies of the circular economy that strives to cycle material supply streams. They can only be impactful with the collective efforts of consumers, businesses and governments. Even though industrial recycling and reuse processes often take place out of consumers’ sight, consumers are important suppliers of the very waste products, components and materials these processes require. They need to learn to recognise the value of what is nowadays referred to as waste and to feed it back into the cycle. On a private level, consumers can enable reuse by giving used products to friends, selling them on flea markets, donating to charity or by separating their waste materials. Beyond that, they often depend on businesses and governments to provide the necessary infrastructure to further facilitate and scale up circular behaviours for reuse, remanufacture and recycling.

Businesses can promote action and commitment by implementing online marketplaces or take back schemes that make the resale of used products as effortless as possible. IDEO’s Use Me/Lose Me service, for example, uses a web-connected ship that sends messages to a gadget’s owner quoting the latest price they could get for selling it. If the user agrees to sell, they can simply reply to the message and the item will automatically be uploaded to an auction site. On the policy level, material taxes — such as higher carbon pricing — will increase the price of virgin and carbon-intensive products, making secondary material-based goods more attractive for both businesses and consumers. In terms of recycling, private or public actors need to ensure that separated waste materials are collected and processed. They can further raise awareness and understanding of correct disposal practices through education and campaigns, such as the ‘Shop with your waste’ campaign launched recently by the municipality of Panaji, Goa’s capital. The campaign invites citizens and tourists to exchange dry waste such as PET bottles or cardboard through a barter system against daily use items like groceries.

Regenerate flows: Go green

Regenerating flows pertains to the removal of all hazardous substances and the use of renewable energy and materials to regenerate natural ecosystems. For consumers, this means going green in various spheres of life: from choosing organic food and toxic-free cosmetics to participating in compensation and usage schemes. Consumers must understand the relevance of well-functioning ecological cycles and their role within ecosystems. To support this understanding, both businesses and governments can educate consumers on the necessity and positivity of becoming more circular. UNESCO, for example, works to promote local and indigenous knowledge in formal and non-formal education about the biosphere — knowledge that has long been forcefully undermined but is crucial in understanding climate change.

Commitment to circular behaviour can further be strengthened by making the urgency of environmental issues more tangible through technology. The tree project, for example, aims to educate people about the importance of rainforests by immersing users into a virtual reality; they are transformed into a rainforest tree. With their arms as branches and bodies as the trunk, users experience the tree’s growth and learn the challenges that it faces throughout life. Beyond this, businesses can encourage consumers to take action by clearly labelling their products with instructions about end-of-life processes. In an ideal circular economy, consumers no longer need to rack their brains about when, where and how to dispose of products.

A balancing act

Circularity is a playing field that requires everyone to participate.

Businesses around the world have already embarked on circular journeys because they recognise the inherent risks in the linear production model, including dependence on scarce natural resources, and the potential for value creation in the circular economy. Many governments have also decided to take a circular course to overcome the socio-environmental threats that have long been clear but widely ignored, as illustrated by the collective efforts of the European Union. We are seeing the beginnings of change, but to fully realise the promises of the circular economy, both businesses and governments also need consumers to engage in circular behaviours.

Consumers are integral to circular value chains and business models. Compared to linear value chains, where the consumer’s role is reduced to the very function of consumption, the responsibilities of consumers in a circular value chain expand to include, for example, supply, use and decision-making — opening up different avenues for engagement.

This requires us to rethink roles, and language: Many circular strategies, such as remanufacture, require consumers to be key suppliers of products and materials. Consumers further become active users of products and services, repairing and reusing them to extend product life cycles. Consumers are also key decision makers, providing incentives for and demanding their local, regional, national and international spaces to integrate circularity into their business and governance.

Clearly, our interdependence is manifold: While consumers rely on support to create the conditions that can further facilitate circular behaviour, businesses and governments in turn rely on consumers to adopt behaviours that enable and advance circular value chains. To realise the transition, we need to support each other in taking up our roles and act collectively.

Circle Economy supports businesses and governments understand their role in the circular economy transition. Circle Workshop Suite is a set of workshops designed to empower organisations to navigate their journey towards circularity, together with their teams, partners and stakeholders. Learn more here. For a Norwegian case study of how businesses and government can facilitate circular consumer behaviour, see our Circularity Gap Report, Norway.



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