What’s the difference between Circular Economy and Sustainability?

Circularity and sustainability – these terms are very often used together and somewhat interchangeably, but are they really the same? Is Circular Economy always sustainable?

Based on key literature analysed in “The Circular Economy – a new sustainability paradigm?” by Geissdoerfer et al. (2017), the authors define the Circular Economy as “a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling.”

The study defines sustainability “as the balanced integration of economic performance, social inclusiveness, and environmental resilience, to the benefit of current and future generations.”

The Brundtland Report highlights that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Any activity or process that is in accordance to this vision can be considered as sustainable.

At the same time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation remarks that “the practice of circularity is grounded in and focused on the technosphere – a human construct designed to support the conversion of raw materials for human consumption beyond simple survival needs of food and water”.
In contrast, “the practice of sustainability is grounded in and focused on the biosphere, it evolved from the fields of ecology and environmental science, which gave sustainability the holistic, systems-based view so crucial to successful programs in this space”.

“The intentional design of a system is what separates circularity from sustainability.”

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

In their study, Geissdoerfer et al. (2017) highlight several other differences:

“In fact, sustainability aims at benefiting the environment, the economy, and society at large … while the main beneficiaries of the Circular Economy appear to be the economic actors that implement the system.”

“There is also a difference in agency, influencing the understanding of the agents that should influence system changes. While agency is diffused in the case of sustainability…as the priorities should be defined by all stakeholders, the Circular Economy has a clear emphasis on governments and companies…”

“the perception of responsibilities is also clearly distinct between both concepts. In the sustainability debate, responsibilities are shared, but not clearly defined, while the literature considers that the responsibility for the transition to a circular system lies primarily with private business, regulators, and policymakers. Moreover, the commitments, goals, and interests behind the use of the terms differ greatly. The focus seems to be on interest alignment between stakeholders for sustainability, whereas the Circular Economy prioritises financial advantages for companies, and less resource consumption and pollution for the environment.”

“Circular Economy focuses on environmental performance improvements rather than taking a holistic view on all three dimensions of sustainability.”

“The Circular Economy … refers mostly to individual economic benefits through input reduction, efficiency gains, and waste avoidance with relatively immediate results compared to sustainability.”

To sum it up, the current Circular Economy model is an intentionally designed human construct, grounded in the technosphere with a clear emphasis on governments and companies.
Sustainability, on the other hand, aims at benefiting the environment, the economy, and society at large; responsibilities are shared by everybody, but are not clearly defined.

Circular vs. Sustainable vs. Green vs. Eco-friendly

Many marketers use these terms lightly and synonymously, while there are actually small differences in the meaning.

“Green” is more than a color. We are talking about green products, green jobs, green economy, green technologies… but what do we actually mean by that?
In this context, the attribute “green” has nothing to do with green meadows and forests, but is used as a synonym for the contribution of a specific product or activity to the protection of the environment and the climate.
As ecocult.com says it “The meaning of the word “green” has long outgrown the color. It’s now frequently used in a colloquial speech to apply to almost everything related to benefiting the environment, from the movement to architecture and fashion.”

The terms “eco-friendly” or “environmentally friendly” have a pretty similar, while not so broad, meaning and describe something that benefits the environment and is not harmful for the environment, respectively.

Circular Economy does not necessarily has anything to do with sustainability. The concept features some ideas that can help sustainability, but one always has to evaluate, if they can be applied in terms of sustainability.
Two ubiquitous examples for “circular” business models which are not sustainable are Uber and Airbnb. Both companies are largely built on precarious working conditions, evading regulations, and breaking laws. In their greed for growth, profit and dominance they have often acted ruthless, causing harm to many other people and businesses. A truly circular economy must also be a sustainable economy.

Another example are products made from renewable resources, such as bio-plastics or bio-fuels. They are often considered “green” and “eco-friendly”, yet they are not necessary sustainable or kinder to the environment. If a life-cycle analysis shows that it required a lot of resources to produce them, energy to manufacture and ship them to you, and if there isn’t a proper way to dispose of the product, then it’s not considered sustainable.
The production of crops for bio fuels might include intensive farming, and subsequent fertilizer use, would degrade terrestrial habitat and freshwater ecosystems, the composting of bio-plastics often requires industrial heating to a high enough temperature that allows microbes to break it down.

Companies love to use terms like “circular”, “sustainable”, “green” or “eco-friendly” for “greenwashing” and in most cases, they are just “broad claims without any support to back them up”. There is no such thing as a green product and for the time being, the best solution is to be an environmentally conscious consumer, to explore ideas of sustainable living and to realize transitions in everyday practices and spaces.

This was Part II of the Rethink Circular Economy series , read on Part III: The risks of the current Circular Economy conceptions.

By Stefan Simon for Collective Green

3 thoughts on “What’s the difference between Circular Economy and Sustainability?”

  1. Dear Stefan,
    Having just discovering your summary of the contrasts between sustainability and circular economy, this reminds me of a conversation that I had with a colleague. Very well stated, indeed the key to sustainability is often the people. Often the ecological impact is not the most circular one and does not factor in the human condition or think of needs similar to Maslow’s hierarchy. I would like to connect with you to further discuss this .

    Kind Regards,

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