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Circular-ish: embracing the messy reality of circular economy innovation

The circular economy idea is out there. In the past ten years, it’s gone from being a niche idea to an undeniable trend. Many are captivated by the potential for change in the way they live, work, or innovate. And many more are feeling the urgent need for a circular economy, as the ‘burning platform’ moves from metaphor to real life. So whether through passion or necessity, the idea isn’t going away — it’s the end of the beginning.

What happened to the big, beautiful vision of a circular economy? The vision of a future in which we have redesigned everything so waste has been eliminated in the first place rather than cleaned up.

Where we make convenient, useful products that improve people’s lives, valuing and circulating them, at their best, for as long as possible. And, where we regenerate our natural systems so they are thriving and abundant.

Some efforts are more circular than others

If you zoom out across time and space, it’s pretty safe to assume that most of the innovation we need to create a circular economy has not been realised. The economy is still linear, after all. So there’s a lot of work to be done. I think it’s important that we distinguish between different mindsets and stages on the journey to a circular economy.

Circular design requires a systemic approach, stepping back to take a wider view before putting strategies in place.

There’s another collection of businesses that are full of good intentions, but short on such commitment. They might have tried something out, such as an isolated product or line, or a short-term pilot. It felt good, it looked good, but they haven’t much intention of scaling or replicating it, changing the wider business, or shifting their industry.

The journey to a circular economy

Taking this notion a step further, we should acknowledge different starting points and collectively support each other to change the way we think about the circular economy transition, from ‘get it done’ to ‘get started and keep going’.

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman,



Features and thought-leadership on the circular economy

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Ellen MacArthur Foundation

We work to build a framework for a circular economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.