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In 2015, with the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community recognized that a transformation in the way we use natural resources is a precondition for achieving prosperous, secure and resilient societies. Resource-intensive growth has come at huge environmental cost. Delivering the infrastructure and services needed to support growing economies and populations – above all in developing countries – while addressing climate change and maintaining ecosystem stability will require a revolution in models of resource use.
Excitement is growing around the potential for more ‘circular’ – and sustainable – models of development to deliver this revolution and to unlock economic, social and environmental benefits. Visions for what is known as the ‘circular economy’ (CE) rest on a systemic approach to resource efficiency in which ‘end-of-life’ products and materials – that is, those at the end of their original service lifespan – are not discarded but are instead recycled, repaired or reused through circular value chains. The CE also implies changes to business models, with an emphasis on shared use and rental in preference to independent or single use; as well as changes to consumer preferences, with buyers valuing ‘second-life’ products (i.e. those recycled or adapted for new uses) and asset sharing over individual ownership.
More often than not, even in rich countries, discussion of sustainability has tended to emphasize reform of specific supply chains rather than full-economy transformation. Over the past decade, advocacy of the CE has come primarily from high-profile transnational corporations in consumer industries, such as Philips and Unilever, and from waste management groups such as Veolia. In part due to the CE’s focus on new business models for supply chain management, as well as on industrial regeneration and jobs, the focus of attention around the CE has been on developed countries (above all in the European Union) and China, where CE strategies are most advanced. Less well explored is the role that developing countries other than China can play in a global CE, and the importance of fostering international collaboration and the development of global governance frameworks to support circular value chains at scale.