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Locked in: what is linear lock-in and how can we break free?

Everything from our infrastructure to our finance systems is set up to support the current linear economy. These entrenched mechanisms make it hard to change a system as big and complex as the global economy. Momentum for a circular economy is growing but how do we break free of the linear mould?

What does lock-in look like?

Take waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) as an example, Europe’s (and America’s) fastest growing waste stream that harbours secondary raw materials estimated to be worth EUR 55 billion. Despite existing policies, technology, and business potential for a more circular system, a Finnish study has shown uptake of these solutions is still slow. But why?

How do you unlock a lock-in?

Fixed, unalterable, unmovable: by definition a lock-in can sound fairly final. But change is possible. Challenges at this scale need to be addressed at a system level to tackle the causes.

Breaking free: from linear to circular

The same principles can apply to transforming our economy. Innovation, finance, and policy are critical levers in shifting the system towards a circular economy, and they are being pulled.


Circular innovation can be sought in a number of different quarters. Start-ups have the nimbleness and creativity to test and pioneer disruptive circular business models, such as Sojo, which is making clothing repair accessible, or Ecovative, which makes compostable packaging from mushroom roots.


Once viable solutions have been found, they need investment in order to reach sufficient scale and challenge the powerful inertia of the business-as-usual. The finance industry has a critical role to play in mobilising a circular economy, which in return offers a major opportunity for the financial sector to deliver on climate commitments and ESG objectives while tapping into sources of new and better growth.


In parallel, policy can be a powerful enabler. As with electric vehicles, good policy design can break the lock and nudge a system towards positive change.

Avoiding lock-in

Policy and strategy, like everything else, are designed, so circular design principles are a useful tool for moulding effective ones. To avoid lock-in, it’s helpful to first zoom out and view the full system that the measures intend to influence. This step allows policy designers to understand the impact on stakeholders and notice feedback loops, both positive and negative, that could be set in motion.

Open to change

Changing something as big as an economy is not easy, but it is both possible and necessary. Business-as-usual does not work any more. Our linear system — which relies on extraction, waste, pollution and habitat loss — has had its day.



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.