What is circular economy?

The circular economy currently dominates the industry discourse on sustainable development and is characterized by three goals related to waste: reduce, reuse and recycle. Companies’ declarations of adherence to these objectives within their processes are linked. Brands like Ikea, Carrefour or even L’Oréal participate more or less ambitiously and follow legitimate developments. From the 1st yearer In January 2022, new measures of the “anti-waste law for a circular economy” (Agec law) came into force, specifically banning the destruction of unsold non-food goods.

On the website of the Ministry of Ecological Transition, this law is presented as “turning our linear economy, production, consumption, throw away, into a circular economy” and “accelerating changes in the production and consumption model to limit it.” protection of natural resources, biodiversity and climate waste”. Thus, the circular economy is presented as a “solution” to environmental problems, renewing sustainability perspectives and proposing to change the relationship between our economic activities and ecological systems.

A vague and socially constructed concept

If this concept is ubiquitous, mobilized by different actors, it is above all because its flexible and uncertain nature allows it to be adapted and offer “win-win” solutions combining economy and ecology. Thus, the circular economy occupies an important part of the wider discussion about sustainability. Nevertheless, responses to environmental problems are linked to their interpretation by enabling our relationship with ‘nature’.

Indeed, a number of studies in the social sciences have shown that “nature” and the relationship that binds us to it are contingent and socially constructed. “Nature” certainly exists materially, but our relationship to it is cultural, thus affecting discourse.

For example, responding to the loss of biodiversity in terms of concepts such as “ecosystem services” would testify to market life and thus to a neoliberal conception of nature. In this regard, the term circular economy should also be considered as a historically existing concept.

Green growth and separation

Although it originated mainly from academic work, such as Kenneth E. Boulding’s 1966 opposition to the “cowboy economy” and the economy of “Space Shuttle Earth,” dealing with resource scarcity, the circular economy would largely be established thereafter. its practical employees (companies, institutions, NGOs).

The meanings are certainly varied, but researchers nevertheless think that a “hegemonic” definition exists, in the sense that the latter will dominate and discredit other potential views.

In this relatively consensual sense, the goal would be to “decouple” natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth, creating the possibility of infinite growth in a finite world. Waste becomes an additional resource necessary to reduce costs and create value in production processes.

The circular economy would then become a means of preserving and standardizing current production and consumption methods that fail to respond to environmental challenges, the idea of ​​decoupling growth and environmental impacts has been criticized by numerous studies showing its impossibility.

Nevertheless, many questions have arisen in the face of this conceptualization and the very limited ability of such a circular economy to respond to environmental and social issues. For example, the rebound effect or the energy consumption of the recycling sector is put forward as an obstacle to true circularity.

A question of growth

Many researchers have really emphasized the need to develop a systemic approach to growth and the idea of ​​separation. For many, GDP growth is incompatible with meeting our environmental challenges. Because a system like ours cannot escape the generation of waste, they have sought to develop new concepts of the circular economy, particularly to integrate issues of social justice.

For example, researchers have shown that there are four approaches to circularity today. Among these, the fossil economy is incompatible with sustainability, and technological responses are not necessarily sufficient for decoupling. Such an approach would especially favor new forms of governance.

A new concept of circular economy

Such a view can already be supported by certain so-called “alternative” organizations. In France, they would be part of the social and solidarity economy. By promoting solidarity and responsibility, such initiatives can build new representations of the circular economy through their goals.

Because they will have more opportunities to innovate and do so in ways that challenge the existing paradigm, they will have greater opportunities and will be able to pre-determine a new vision of sustainability, especially by responding to social and environmental challenges. justice. For example, by promoting democratic governance and non-profit or limited profit-making, SSE will provide a framework for action for local socio-ecological transition.

It is in such a context that a large European research project called “BLUEPRINT for circular economy” is being registered. One of its objectives will be to understand the relationship between social and solidarity enterprises and the development of the circular economy in order to provide tools and models adapted to the transition.

About the authors:
Lucie Wiart.
Doctor of Management, Neoma Business School.
Nicholas Beaufort. Economies of Ecological Transition, Neoma Business School.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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