Myths of the Circular Economy
In the proven format “3 questions to…” Alexa Böckel and Dr. Ilka Weissbrod answer our questions about their book. Alexa is doing her doctorate, teaching and researching at the Center for Sustainability Management at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, is a scholarship holder of the German Federal Environmental Foundation, and a research associate at the Technical University of Dresden. Ilka is Director Sustainable Circularity at Indeed Innovation and Strategic Research Partner at the Technical University of Dresden. Together with Jan Quaing (nachhaltig.digital) and Julia Böhm (Wirtschaftsförderung Bottrop) they have published the book Mythen der Circular Economy (Myths of the Circular Economy), which is available for download from July 1st, 2022.
Since The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth by Kenneth E. Boulding in 1966, the term circularity has been haunting various discourses. Giving the myths around the topic enough time, despite the efforts of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and others, to establish themselves and to stand in the way of a sustainable and circular future. Which ones annoyed you the most and why?
Alexa: I find it a pity that recycling is often the first people associate with the circular economy. Because the concept encompasses so much more! It’s about the fact that the part of humanity that consumes the lion share of resources must develop a different relationship with these resources and materials and must understand that every product is created with lots of effort.
I also cannot understand the justification talk of some companies that alternative materials, alternative use cases, and circular business models are impossible to implement. Of course, you need a desire for change and an innovative spirit, but that’s why entrepreneurial action exists: to change the status quo. And our book provides only a fraction of the solutions that already exist.
Ilka: What annoys me the most is the phrase ‘old wine in new skins’. Yes, the Circular Economy umbrella concept is a continuation of the dialogue and thinking around sustainable development, as this question also shows very nicely. It annoys me immensely when attempts are made to define the circular economy as a stand-alone static concept. Especially in combination with the statement ‘Nothing new here and, anyways, the concept doesn’t work for that and that reason!’. Pointing out the weaknesses doesn’t help progress. The aim should be to further develop the existing conceptual approaches as inspiration for possible solutions in order to close material, energy, information, and value loops. In the short remaining time addressing climate and resource challenges, the circular economy is the only chance to unite business and economy agents around one concept.
32 authors have their say in your anthology, some of them from very different areas such as construction or fashion. Is there a myth that plagues all industries or has each department developed its own justification for unsustainable action?
Alexa: I think the favorite myth is that circular business models are too costly and economically unprofitable. This myth can be seen in all industries. There are industry-specific differences, which can be seen in the example of the construction industry and the fashion sector. Fashion is a lot about consumer acceptance. Fighting the prejudice that sustainable fashion cannot keep up aesthetically or that consumers are too lazy to take care of their clothes. In the construction industry, it is more about resistance to cooperation. Companies, for example, want to continue gluing building materials or consider the transparency of the materials used to be irrelevant. They are neglecting the side effects for others.
Ilka: I agree with Alexa. This supposed inefficiency of operationalizing a Circular Economy underpins many smaller myths. I believe this fundamental myth is based on the mindset that somehow we can and must continue to grow in order to function and be respectable as a society. And, of course, the alternative is very complex and it is impossible to know in advance what the result of any intervention aimed at implementing a circular economy will be. This is uncomfortable and demands new ways of thinking, working, and living. It’s much easier to cultivate myths to justify our current linear status quo than to change.
What is the most important recommendation you would like to give all readers?
Alexa: Have a look at yourself and the ones around you: Who is already getting involved and joining forces. Be open to unusual collaborations that don’t appear at first glance. Do not be afraid of the complexity in which we live. Accept and challenge the complexity! And don’t stop being critical of yourself. The circular economy must not become the next green growth paradigm regardless of ecological limits and global inequalities.
Ilka: Start implementing! In particular, the collaboration with partners from circular value creation networks is the common denominator to develop solutions. These value creation networks enable some dependability in the transformation, the sharing of learnings, and appropriate encounters in our complex world.
The book Mythen der Circular Economy, Indeed Innovation supports on a pro-bono basis, will be published as a free PDF on July 1st, 2022. Thanks to the support of the Bertelsmann Foundation, the printed first edition will be available in autumn at the latest.
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