Civic Circularity: a better approach to a circular economy

Many companies and policy makers are currently abusing and misusing the term “Circular Economy”. We should help spread its true meaning! Thereby, we can cherish the existing projects that promote real change and transformation, instead of discrediting companies for their abusive labeling. Together we should enter a public discourse on Circular Economy and “push for a more holistic definition that can be adopted by public and private authorities”. There is a wide range of opportunities for future discussion and research in this area.

A discourse on the Circular Economy already exists with contributions such as Urban Circular Economy by Bonato and Orsini (2018),which focuses on cities, and the Social Circular Economy by Hobson (2019), which adds the aspect of how transitions can be realized in everyday practices and spaces.

Lars Zimmermann, an artist, economist, designer, and activist based in Berlin,  promotes the concept of open circularity, describing it as follows:

“When we talk about a “Circular Economy” we talk about the idea of an economy without waste! It is different from our current – linear – economy. Where we take resources make products and then throw them away as garbage! 
In the Circular Economy everything is designed and organized in a way that our products can be repaired, reused, refurbished, and fully recycled. We save resources. Because the materials in our products are the resource base for future products of the same quality. The Circular Economy works in evolving symbiosis with our bioshpere – protecting it and growing its potentials.
But when we take this idea and compare it with the world today. It quickly becomes clear that almost everything in our current economy has to change for this. And not just the designs of our products and services. But also the collaboration methods we use to make and distribute them.”

What Zimmermann demands is “transparency”, “open-source” and “open-innovation”. We need to share information, so that we can make sure, that the information necessary to repair, reuse, refurbish, and recycle an object is accessible wherever the object goes.

“Imagine the following story. You have a scooter factory in Italy and someone on the other side of the world – in China – has a repair question. Sure. The guy in China could call you. And you pick up the phone and guide him step by step through the process. Spending 20 minutes. That is not going to happen. Because the costs are too high. For both of you. Dealing with time-zones, language barriers, maybe licenses – investing the time on the phone – just to repair one scooter. No! The information must be freely available. Everywhere. Anytime. So people can bring broken or unused things back to life quickly, with little effort.”

Lars Zimmermann on transparency in the Circular Economy

According to Zimmerman information needs to be “open”, which means that is must be “available”, “in editable formats” and “under open licenses” to enable the collaboration and communication we need for a true circular economy – Open Source Circular Economy.

“When things are open it is also easier for people to get involved with circularity – to invent, use and spread circular solutions. Learn from existing stuff and built on it. Openness speeds up innovation.“

“For the Circular Economy we need simple Designs and Open Communication and Collaboration about them. That enables ecosystems. Of decentralized collaboration. With short cycles.“

Lars Zimmermann on Open Circularity

I absolutely agree with Lars Zimmermann in that almost everything in our current economy has to change, and that our current understanding of the Circular Economy needs to be expanded.

I’m totally with Narberhaus and von Mitschke-Collande, who say, “The circular economy needs to be part of a bigger effort to tackle economic growth, wasteful consumerism and undemocratic power structures in the global economy. It needs to be geared to the real needs of all people rather than the excessive consumption of a few, and to be underpinned by more cooperative mechanisms rather than controlled by a small number of powerful companies.”

A Civic Circular Economy – Civic Circularity

What I propose that we really need is a the Circular Economy model designed and driven by the civil society – a Civic Circular Economy, or Civic Circularity – as a grassroots circularity, a holistic and sustainable transition from and with all stakeholders.

As Geissdoerfer et al. (2017) highlights, “circularity has a positive influence on certain aspects of sustainability, it does not integrate other dimensions, especially the social one.”

The Civic Circularity embeds and extends the common principles of the Circular Economy and is collaborative and aligned with civic economy, social economy and social innovation as well as many ideas of Urban, Social and Open Circularity.

Currently, the discourse on the Circular Economy usually focuses exclusively on businesses and as Hobson (2019) notes in his work on “Social Circularity“: “The role of individuals as consumers/users has received less attention than other aspects of the CE (e.g. technological interventions) within mainstream debates to date”.

As individuals, in the role of consumers, customer, users and entrepreneurs “we” citizens are major stakeholders in every economical model and play a key role in the system. 
Through our behavior as consumers, the way that we select, buy, use, and dispose ideas, goods, and services, we individuals can actively shape an economy. We choose what we buy and with our decision to purchase or not, we vote for the future we want. Thereby, there is no way to be passive, because inaction (not buying) or action (buying) is active and a message to the businesses. As Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle and Loop, says it: “Vote for the future you want with the products you buy” or “What you buy is the future you are voting for”.
As individuals we have direct individual control over companies and governments, who make decisions based on our desire and we should be aware of this power.
Campaigns like “Fridays for Future” are a great example for the growing awareness of (young) citizens for the current environmental crisis and their demand for action and change.
Companies and policy makers should react to and comply with these requests, while greenwashing is no longer enough these days.
We need businesses to provide (actual) environmentally friendly alternatives for conventional products to competitive prices and we need governments to provide infrastructure and set up laws to foster such trends.
As customers, we need to not only demand and push for deployment, but also need to be willing to financially support it during the time of transition, wherever it is possible. If we demand that businesses use alternatives for single-use plastic products, then we need entrepreneurs to explore alternatives and customers to facilitate thus developments. 
For businesses, it is only attractive to switch to more resource-saving alternative products if they are affordable or the switch is incentivized. As customers, we should demand and support such developments and favor businesses that develop and implement sustainability. Especially small, local businesses, which are the the pillars of a local economy, but are underrepresented in the current Circular Economy, need stimulation from the government and the civil society.
We have the unique chance to collectively design a new economy as conscious consumers, customers, users, and innovative entrepreneurs with green, open-source, and open-innovation solutions.

A local, open and sustainable Civic Circularity

I share the same vision as Narberhaus and von Mitschke-Collande and love to “think of a world with widespread networks of community gardens, repair cafes and time banks – where individuals can provide services, track and bank their hours and then spend those hours to get their own needs met – and where the introduction of a universal basic income has made participation in such activities realistic for ordinary people. 
In such a vision, global corporations might still exist, but would play a much less dominant role than today. Peer-to-peer economic co-operation or local and regional community-led production and consumption models would thrive, helping to support a less growth-dependent and more sustainable economic system.” 

There are actually already alternative concepts of unconditional sharing and true circulation, such as locally organised car and bike sharing organizations, food sharing initiatives, second hand and free markets, community gardens, time banks, and housing projects. I encourage everybody to take a look at such initiatives as I find them very inspiring and they might make you rethink as well.

We need local solutions for global problems, as Holemans explains: “The drive should be to generate more value locally, using locally available resources (natural and human) and allowing the local circulation of money. This is a fundamental shift from the current status quo of global trade and competition.”

We need an active and progressive society with grassroots movements, independent from big businesses and monopolies. We need an open economic model, driven and owned by citizens and an enlightened civil society. We need to be aware of our power as entrepreneurs, consumers, customers, and users to promote change for a better world. 

The Circular Economy model contains many important concepts and strategies for a great transition, but we need to be clear that what we really need is a much deeper change in our current economic system geared towards the real needs of all people rather than the excessive consumption of a few, and to be underpinned by more cooperative mechanisms rather than a small number of powerful companies.

We indeed need to employ the principles of circular systems, such as reuse, sharing, repair, repurpose, refurbishment, remanufacturing, recycling, and even upcycling to create closed, looped, and sustainable systems, minimising the use of resource input and the creation of waste, pollution and emissions. 
Our common vision is an economy without waste!

We need to clearly highlight the issue of finite natural resources and limited economical growth! As Holemans says it: “The definition of circularity would lose its coherence if it didn’t include the notion of absolute decoupling. To be circular, one should integrate the finitude of the planet and, therefore, the limits to growth. This bring us to the “simple living” lifestyle characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they have or genuinely need, rather than what they want.”

Joséphine von Mitschke-Collande and Micha Narberhaus agree, that “a future economic system has to find solutions to the problem of economic growth and wasteful consumerism, as well as to the undemocratic power structures in the global economy. The Circular Economy can only become a positive contribution to a new economic system if it is embedded in a vision and narrative of a post-growth and post-neoliberal economy.”

We need local, self-sufficient, open, holistic, post-growth, post-neoliberal, truly circular, sustainable and civic solutions from and with everybody!

Join the discourse and help to spread the true meaning of a circular economy

The Circular Economy is an emerging topic that has attracted increasing research interest. While the roots of the topic are European, the concept has gained momentum from policy makers, businesses, and NGOs all over the world. 
We need more research and more public discourse on the topic and recognize the demand for a much more comprehensive transformation of our political, economic, and social systems.

Under the cloak of the current Circular Economy hype, companies declare, that they are committed to tackle the environmental crisis they helped create, but they keep investing in the wrong solutions. We need a holistic transition and a great change, not greener versions of business as usual!

This requires real innovations and shifts in consumer behavior; global active citizenship and the awareness of entrepreneurs, consumers, customers, and users to collectively shape and design a more inclusive and sustainable economy; and further social fermentation through grassroots initiatives such as the transition movement or Ferment the City.

A Civic Circularity employs the principals of a “true” circular economy, embedded into a broad, collective and holistic transition. An inclusive and sustainable circular economy model, benefiting the environment, the economy, and society at large; where responsibilities are shared by everybody and transformation is driven by an enlightened civil society.

There’s no time to waste in making real change, not offering false hope. We have a long way to go and we need everyone to help!

This was Part IV, the final part of the Rethink Circular Economy series.

By Stefan Simon for Collective Green