Academic journal article Geography

The Circular Economy - a Reappraisal of the 'Stuff' We Love

Academic journal article Geography

The Circular Economy - a Reappraisal of the 'Stuff' We Love

Article excerpt


Exploring the relationship between humans, the 'stuff' we buy and the economy in which it circulates is neither new, nor particularly fashionable in these straitened economic times. Nevertheless, a radical reappraisal is underway. In The Waste Makers, Vance Packard (a prominent 1960s social commentator and communicator) described, with much irony, some of the undesirable characteristics of unchecked mass production in his exploration of the 1950s automotive industry (Packard, 1960). Since painting his satirical 'Cornucopia City', a pastiche metropolis where material goods are produced in over-abundance beyond demand (Packard, 1960), other commentators have espoused a nagging concern about the business and environmental sustainability of globalisation. Reflecting on the challenges of resource efficiency and the industrial economy, geographers have become used to asking: how should businesses continue to create value for citizens, through the goods and services they provide, in a resource-constrained world? In the new 'circular economy' (for overviews, see Webster et al., 2013 and Webster, 2015) we discuss below, we might rephrase this question as: how can citizens access long-lasting service and performance from the stuff they value, and how might businesses function in response?

Here, we summarise the context and purpose of a circular economy and introduce readers to the practical consequences of a transition for industry and society. Our discussion raises many themes familiar to the subject of environmental governance.

Notions of cutting consumption, or innovating our way out of the economic corner we find ourselves in have fallen, largely, on deaf ears. These might be caricatures, but environmentalists seem too preachy, business leaders hold fervently to the bottom line, activists appear distant from commercial reality and corporate environmental goals are fine as long as the product portfolio grows. Thankfully, the unhelpful dichotomy of 'environment versus business' is now being put aside. Moving beyond the 'triple bottom line' objective of economic, social and environmental value (Elkington, 1997), serious efforts are now being directed at teasing out the practicalities of how business and environmental agendas might coexist to forge a 'no regrets' future (Martin and Kemper, 2012) within a 21st-century economy - i.e. one that creates value for society and opportunity for business within environmental limits (Aldersgate Group, 2010, 2014; European Commission (EC), 2012; Webster et al., 2013).

Business leaders, industrial designers, systems engineers and environmental technologists are all working together to explore what an alternative economy might look like and the practical conditions necessary for it to work. There is a central role for geography here: systems thinkingthe trans-disci pi inary analysis of trends and flows - temporal-spatial factors and the human condition are all on display in this reappraisal. Moreover, an examination of the risks, values and our behavioural responses to the 'stuff' we have grown to love will be a key part of this reappraisal. The debate turns the spotlight on a rather visible dilemma, however: we recognise the central place of systems yet hang on to linear throughput models for our economic, industrial and food chain analyses. What is missing are narratives on, and exemplars of, the concepts of feedback (the modification of a system based on its performance), synergy, complexity and system metabolism (input-output models) - all of which are Earth system principles (Graedel and Crutzen, 1993), and, some argue, are central to the new approach which geographers have a head start on.

New resource futures

Our changing relationship with the natural resources humans need both for sustenance and to maintain our global economy is entering a new phase. Price volatility and growing concerns about secure access to resources in the future (Figure 1) are forcing a reappraisal of resource economics and industrial strategy that has far-reaching geopolitical implications (Lee et al. …

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