Triodos Research winter e-zine

The circular path to a sustainable future

Case Study

Did you know you can become a circular innovator, a circular project leader or a lecturer in circular economy? All these new job types demonstrate that sustainability is going circular. But what is a circular economy exactly? Is it something new? And how does it relate to the broadly embraced direction for a sustainable future as laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals?

Re-emergence of life as it was

Many of the things we do these days might seem rather stupid if you look at it through the eyes of a pre-industrial human. Why do we keep buying things if our houses are already stuffed with goods? Why do we throw away things that are not broken? Why do we waste so much food? When we step back in time, the economy was circular, and everything was used for as long as possible. In the pre-industrial era, resources were generally renewable, and production inputs were mainly sourced locally. People then were experiencing a circular economy. They grew their own food, harvested it and ate it, and then the cycle started all over again. Those living in scarcity and poverty, as most people in history have done, made use of their possessions for as long as they could.

But in the economy of abundance, our thinking has become linear – take-make-use-waste. It is the way the industrial economic system is set up, and where all economic incentives lie. We want to produce as much as possible, and we measure our economic success by tracking only the market value of transactions. The more production, the better, no matter if we even use it.

This industrial process and linear concept has resulted in significant progress, but we’re starting to reach certain boundaries. Absolute boundaries as to what the earth can bear, not just in terms of resource scarcity, but more importantly, from the negative consequences of our production. From greenhouse gas emissions, to waste, biodiversity loss, and depletion of land and fresh water. This is where the re-emergence of the circular economy comes in. It’s a way to bend the linear economy so that it fits Earth’s boundaries. Essentially, the circular economy is about using all non-renewable resources for as long as possible, replacing non-renewable resources with renewable ones, and trying to reduce the leakage out of the resource loop in a way that maximises the value we get from the products we make. We can design products to be easily repaired instead of breaking in a few years, and can save tonnes of material. We can use renewables, such as bioplastics and renewable energy instead of fossil based resources. We can prioritise the use of products over ownership, and reduce the number of underutilised products.

A circular economy is not new, it’s only new for the current economic system. Circular principles can help drive an economy so that economic activity is no longer unnecessarily overstretched. The biggest challenge will be reorganising our linear economy in a way that allows us to keep our engine of prosperity running without damaging the earth any further.

Contributing to the SDGs

The circular economy is an integral part of the sustainability agenda and can contribute to several different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is obvious that SDG 12 Responsible consumption and production, is at the heart of the circular economy. But other goals that a circular economy can contribute to include SDG 2 End hunger (via sustainable food production), SDG 6 Clean water, SDG 7 Affordable and clean energy, SDG 13 Climate action, and SDG 15 Life on land. At sub-target level, it becomes even clearer. Some sub-targets explicitly address goals where circular principles play a role, such as efficient use of resources, redesign, and longer use of materials.

By 2030, the year by which we hope the SDGs have been achieved, we may all have circular jobs. And still that might be nothing new. If every job is circular, we can then leave the word circular out, and we go back to being innovators, project leaders and lecturers who simply do their job, but then in a circular way.

View our funds

Fund overview

Related interviews, articles and insights