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Martin Calisto Friant (Utrecht University), Walter Vermeulen (Utrecht University) and Roberta Salomone (University of Messina) have examined the long history of circularity ideas and debates from the early 20th century to nowadays in order to develop the first 2×2 typology of circularity discourses to date.  Their paper thereby maps and classifies circularity ideas from the Global South and North alike based on their position on fundamental socio-ecological aspects.  This allows a better navigation and understanding of the diverse visions of this contested concept. You can access their open access paper in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling here.

The circular economy (CE) is now everywhere in the media, in business discussions and in policy circles alike. Many are expecting this new paradigm to enable the reconciliation of environmental and economic aspirations by transforming our industrial system in a sustainable manner. The CE is thus seen as a cure to many of the major socio-ecological challenges of the 21st century such as: resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and climate change, all while revitalizing local and regional economies.

However, the CE concept is facing crucial challenges to deliver these expectations and CE is often used as a narrative device for greenwashing.  Many governments and corporations have indeed proposed a deliberative vague, uncontroversial and depoliticized CE discourse, which fails to build a systemic and holistic understanding of the social and ecological implications of a circular future.  While the CE is often portrayed as an avenue for green growth, scientific evidence suggests that economic and environmental goals cannot be reconciled, and a sustainable circular future must thus operate beyond growth paradigms.  Moreover, the social implications of circularity must be better addressed, especially with regards to the power relations in the control, implementation and distribution of the costs and benefits of a circularity transition.  If the above issues are not resolved, their research finds that the CE runs the risk of lacking systemic validity, critical social relevance and its claims and propositions might be unachievable on a relevant scale to effectively deal with the socio-ecological challenges of the 21st century.

The authors of this new paper address those challenges by analysing the history, complexity and diversity of circularity visions in the literature. Their research finds that the many related concepts, which the CE historically builds on, can contribute to its limitations through the cross-pollination of solutions and ideas.  Indeed, the CE relates to a plurality of concepts and ideas from the Global North and South alike such as Steady State Economics, Doughnut Economics, Gandhian Economics, Degrowth, Buen Vivir, Ubuntu, Ecological Svaraj, Industrial Ecology, Permaculture etc.

The authors have found that there are two broad strains of circularity discourses: Circular Economy and Circular Society. Circular economy visions focus on sustainably circulating resources and see circularity mostly through the lens of business, industrial and technological innovations.  It includes concepts such as Industrial Ecology, Industrial Metabolism, Biomimicry, Bioeconomy, Cleaner Production and Reverse Logistics. Circular Society visions, on the other hand, do not only seek to sustainably circulate resources throughout the economy, but also to circulate wealth, knowledge, technology and power in fundamentally redistributive and democratic manners.  They thus have a holistic vision of circularity that includes social and political components (Steady State Economics, Doughnut Economics, Degrowth,Voluntary Simplicity, Regenerative Design, Permaculture and Buen Vivir fall within the Circular Society discourse type) (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Conceptual Differentiation between Circular Economy and Circular Society

To better illustrate the differences between the diversity of circularity discourse, the paper establishes 4 main circularity discourse types (see figure 2).  Circularity discourses can be differentiated based on whether they are technological optimist or sceptical and whether they holistically integrate the social, ecological and political considerations of circularity or have a segmented focus on resource and economic considerations alone.

Figure 2. Circularity discourse typology

This research reveals that the present the status quo is situated in the Technocentric Circular Economy discourse type, despite of the significant literature on other circular discourses already existing.  Their paper thus hopes to open the imaginary on the plurality of possible circular futures that exist and expand from the current focus on technocentric market-based approaches to circularity by including a diversity of other voices from the Global North and South alike. To learn more about these discourses and their implication for academics and practitioners please see the full article (available open access):