Circular Economy buzzword

Is it Circular Economy the latest powerful buzzword?

Certainly, the circular economy has gained momentum and, as noted by Josè Luìs Cardoso, the concept has come to stay. With the environment and the climate at the verge of the risk for catastrophes, the circular economy has already earned the status of a powerful antidote for preventing the worst from happening, or at least for lessening the negative impacts.

The circular economy has not only entered the scientific debate and the jargon of politicians, entrepreneurs and civil society, but it has become an important policy priority: in fact, the circular economy is at the center of the European Green Deal and it is a crucial enabler in the achievement of two of the most important global challenges of the future and their related strategies: the United Nation 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (SDG 2030) and the United Nation Climate Change Conference (COP 25).

Reflecting over the fundamental role the transition toward a circular economy has gained for the accomplishment of the goals contained in the Sustainable Development Agenda SDG 2030, the similarities among the 2 terms sustainable development and circular economy echoed.

Both concepts are strongly connotated by their opposites: development (and sustainable development) by underdevelopment and circular economy by the linear economy.

As noted by Cardoso, “the concept of a circular economy suggests a criticism of the functioning of a linear economy” in which products are consumed to generate non-recyclable rubbish; as the circular economy refers to an “industrial economy that is restorative by intention” (Webster 2017).

It’s undoubted that the innate strengths of the term circular economy and sustainable development reside in what they oppose: by simply contrasting two of the most pressing flaws characterizing the contemporary world, namely the underdevelopment and the linear economy, these two notions bring along a-priori positive meaning.

Gilbert Rists’ famously recognized development (and “dignified” sustainable development) as a buzzword, the latter demarcated by “the absence of a real definition, and a strong belief in what the notion is supposed to bring about”; but, is circular economy a new buzzword?

Let’s analyze the characteristics that allowed Rist to describe development as such:  

  1. Lack of definition
  2. Antagonist: the presence of a strong and negatively-connotated counterword
  3. Vague meaning
  4. Convey hope and positive expectations

As sketched by Thibaut Wautelet, despite divergences in definitions and diverse focuses among the various schools of thought that prompted circular economy, all these really have in common is to combat the present unsustainable industrial economic system. The lack of a univocal explanation of circular economy is actually playing a positive and boosting role on the promotion of the concept at a larger scale. 

As for the development and sustainable development case, what really characterizes circular economy is its antagonist: the linear economic model. In fact, it’s the contrast of such negatively-perceived concept that allows the functioning of circular economy as a stand-alone notion that, having no definition, can represent whatever is on the other side of the actual way of producing and consuming that have filled our planet of endless garbage and have polluted all the elements of the Earth. 

In the same manner, sustainable development gained immediate stardom as a global slogan, being easy to endorse and sufficiently vague to allow different, often incompatible interpretations. Such ambiguity characterizes also the circular economy, but at the same time, allowed it to quickly grow in popularity, following in the same path as sustainable development.

Moreover, the 2 concepts are converging over equivalent expectations of a sustainable future in which more citizens are included and participate in the economic activities. As sustainable development brought the opportunity to enhance the conditions of millions of people born in the underdeveloped nations, the circular economy offers not only the chance to dismantle the harmful negative externalities our economy poses on the planet but also the prospect for a more inclusive society.

As recalled by Thibaut Wautelet, back in 2012 the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey Company reported at Davos World Economic Forum that the potential benefits deriving from the transition to a circular economy, calculated only for a subset of European manufacturing sectors, amounted to US$ 630 billion a year accompanied by significant environmental and social gains.

By following Rist reasoning, circular economy certainly owns the characteristics to be classified as a buzzword, but currently, there is the possibility to evolve by learning from the history that development and sustainable development brought along. The work of Rist is now highly significant to foresee a different future for the notion of circular economy and the accompanying political strategies. 

Rist down-to-Earth characterization was necessary to oppose the idea that development (and sustainable development) remained a “per se righteous beyond doubt” (G. Rist) concept even in front of its innumerable and undeniable failures, the latter has not been accepted and widely recognized, but have instead been linked as results of erroneous interpretations and wrongful implementation. 

Rist down-to-Earth definition: “the essence of ‘development’ is the general transformation and destruction of the natural environment and of social relations in order to increase the production of commodities (goods and services) geared, by means of market exchange, to effective demand.“

Such explanation ascribes the fragmentation of social relationships to the exponential transformation of virtually everything into a commodity, namely into an opportunity for the generation of profit: in fact, the natural environment is turned into resources, time become a good, as well as individuals; Rist highlights “the more developed a country is, the less free things remain”.

Building on this down-to-earth definition, the circular economy generates additional development by transforming waste into a full-fledged commodity, opening a new market for secondary raw materials and new infinite chances to trade and transform the once discarded items. In fact, the underlying assumption that policymakers and practitioners continuously praises is that circular economy represents an unparalleled opportunity for sustainable development and economic growth that they describe as inclusive because of the demand for the low-skilled workforce; thus, building on the same myth of social justice that funded the paradigm of development. 

In fact, for Walter Stahel the transition toward a circular economy generates an extension of the labour market, with job opportunities open in new sequences of the course of production, thus helping to reduce unemployment. This way, circular economy is being positioned as a possible solution to another of the most pressing social issue linked to the ongoing automatization processes: joblessness; but, keep in mind that it already represents an answer to the climate and environmental challenges and an opportunity for economic and social growth.

To conclude, circular economy embeds the notions that funded the sustainable development idea, as the need for social justice, for inclusion and for a cleaner environment, aspects that permitted the concept to powerfully stand against and criticize its antagonist model driven by the sole economic growth. Therefore, it’s now important to account for what circular economy is really about: lessen the pressure our linear economic and social model is posing on the already stressed eco-system, and to debunk the perils linked to its buzzword characterization by not identifying circular economy as the solution to all global issues and by not expecting it to unravel all the fears our society rightfully has for the future.


The circular economy: historical grounds; José Luìs Cardoso in The diverse worlds of Sustainability – chapter 4

Development as a Buzzword; Gilbert Rist in Development in Practice – volume 17

The Concept of Circular Economy: its Origins and its Evolution; Thibaut Wautelet working paper January 2018

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