By special guest Michiel Doorn
The Circular Economy is the latest framework that has emerged in the area of “sustainability.” The framework took off about ten years ago, buoyed by the efforts of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and others and builds on Cradle to Cradle, Industrial ecology, Biomimicry and a few other concepts. Several European countries have adopted circular economy goals, as has the European Union, and even some American cities. Recently, it was embraced by the US Chamber of Commerce. This means it is either a true revolutionary breakthrough or yet another greenish bandwagon that organizations can jump on. The quick answer is, of course, both, depending on the perspective one is coming from. So let’s dig a little deeper and see if we can analyze it from a value systems perspective.
What is the Circular Economy? As one might expect, there are now numerous definitions, but sticking with aforementioned Foundation, The Circular Economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits (Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model). 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: 1) Design out waste and pollution, 2) Keep products and materials in use, 3) Regenerate natural systems.
This is a mouthful and a lot to unpack. What is key is that the Circular Economy is based on ecological principles. In nature there is no waste as all waste becomes food for other organisms. The only source of energy for this process is sunlight. Hence, the inclusion of renewable energy in the definition. Nature is a self-regulating system and the Circular Economy tries to be like nature. This is an excellent concept; first, because we know from observation that nature has been doing really well for eons, as long as stray asteroids or humans don’t mess with it too much. And secondly, many of today’s social, economical, ecological, and other, problems are now so complex that solutions will haveto be craftedÂ from a systems perspective, as Donella Meadows, Peter Senge and others have been saying for years.
So, what is the opposite of and the precursor to systems thinking? Of course, linear thinking, as well as analytical thinking. the original meaning of the word analysis is to cut problems up into categories that can be dealt with separately.Â At this point it is helpful to take a look at how our thinking has evolved when it comes to “sustainability,” indicated in Figure 1.
Figure 1 shows that sustainability thinking has evolved over time, and can be correlated to the evolution of our ability to take more complex perspectives as shown on the left.
The figure does not show how outside drivers have also grown in complexity, starting withÂ sewage running down the streets in large cities, all the way up to today’s climate crisis and ecosystem collapse.Â What the figure does include is a description of potentially matching leadership styles on the right. It is important to note that we can make strategic choices (the double-sided arrow), where we may choose to apply more linear or simple solutions to particular problems, as long as we do so consciously.
Spiral Dynamics buffs will have no problem recognizing hints of the common value systems in the diagram. However, the leap in thinking from linear/categories to systems should not be mistaken for the notorious Leap to Second Tier or Yellow. The Circular Economy is not there yet and seems to be firmly embedded in Orange-Green. This explains why the Chamber of Commerce and many large companies are excited by it. There are several reasons why the Circular Economy, while being complicated to implement, is not as advanced and potent as it may seem.
First, the Circular Economy does not remotely change the eternal economical and financialgrowth model, and we can basically continue what we’ve been doing all along. Second, for large companies that make their money with extractive models that take from nature and return unusable waste to our air, water or soil, there is too much at stake to change. When we look through an ecological lens they are not so hard to spot. Third, on top of the challenges from the current economical-financial-politcal steam roller, less advanced leaders will see the Circular Economy as something that may simply help them save costs or bring new revenue. After all we make meaning from where we are at. However, as Bill McDonough says “less bad is not the same as good,” let alone regenerative.
This is probably why there are still few truly circular success stories. Using our rational minds to design out waste, close the material loops and switch to solar is not enough. We will need to develop new business models that value sharing and leasing as opposed to owning. As the butterfly diagram shows, repair, reuse, refurbish and recycle are all business models that are quite different from what manufacturers are used to today. Advanced leaders (right side of Figure 1) know this but they will still need help. A significant switch to a Circular Economy begs for multistakeholder efforts and a strong support from regulators that get it and are not beholden to the existing powers. Especially important are innovative, tailored financial models for operations and investments.
On a final note, the Circular Economy offers no methods or models to handle our massive environmental problems that already exist (plastic in oceans, fish and our drinking water, omnipresent persistent pollutants, loss of biodiversity, etc.). Yet, the Circular Economy might be the stepping stone toward a value system where context, ie. environment, is becoming fully integrated into our reality and associated leadership. The upper layers in Figure 1 offer some thoughts. There is that one little phrase tagged on at the end, of the definition: “regenerate our natural systems.” I believe we can figure out most of what’s circular, if we really decide to commit and collaborate. But for a regenerative, mutually enhancing relationship with our planet we will have to go further, and deeper. We will have to learn what it means to work withÂ nature, listen to her, and enter into relationship with her. When we are in a relationship, we care. If we don’t care, we risk losing everything.
Michiel Doorn is a sustainability thinker who lives alternately in North Carolina and the Netherlands. He is a founding partner of Circularity Edge (www.circularityedge.com) and has worked with Spiral Dynamics for many years. He is passionate about evolving awareness and associated action through coaching and experiential learning in support of all Life. He can be reached by email:Â firstname.lastname@example.orgÂ
For a visual, look up Butterfly diagram: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/infographic