A pocket-sized circular economy – in search of an easy and efficient circular economy

The circular economy discussion often revolves around physical resources and material flows. However, the importance of the social and environmental perspectives must be understood, even if the economy and material flows naturally lie at the heart of the circular economy concept.

For the AARRE project, we drew up three complementary views of emerging circular economy in Finland. The focus was on stressing the importance of social sustainability as well as circular economy business models. What does an effortless, responsible, easy and efficient circular economy look like?[1]

The circular economy in Finland in 2030 – three scenarios

The efficient service experience scenario gives us a circular economy in which consumption habits favour access over ownership. Ease and sustainability are key themes in the everyday lives of both consumers and businesses. Together with the Internet of Things (IoT), digital platforms enable the provision, management and use of comprehensive service packages. New kinds of integrated service platforms serve as multi-purpose service maps, bringing services and needs together. ”The drop off and take away” service concept combines resource flows (services and materials) in and out of homes. ”A pocket-sized circular economy” concept, consumers can purchase most everyday services via a single online platform. One of these could be an Optimisation service, using a single application to monitor well-being and health (food-vending machine, safety bracelet), household energy consumption and air quality.

In the Factory of the future scenario, production processes are resource-efficient and symbiotic within or between different sectors. Processes are designed to ensure that the resulting material flows are used efficiently and very little or no waste occurs. New kinds of logistics services could be the key to a resource-efficient circular economy. Products are designed on the terms of the smart circular economy from the outset and the product lifecycle has markedly lengthened. To function sustainably in the global economy, private-sector strategic management must commit to the principles of a responsible circular economy. A strong focus has been placed on the social sustainability of business. However, more-sustainable consumption has become commonplace, led by major consumer product brands. Shifting to the circular economy has been made easy for consumers, with manufacturers ensuring the easy recycling, re-use, refurbishment and repair of products. The consumer can continue consuming with a clear conscience – circular economy certificates guarantee that products are produced, recycled and renewed sustainably, and increasingly contain renewable and recyclable materials.

In the new tribes scenario, the cooperative economy has become a supportive element of the circular economy. The key issues in this scenario are respect for social capital and neo-communality belonging to peer, sharing and consumer-producer communities. Communities can be physical or virtual tribes which bring people together to interact, while promoting the sharing and exchange of various types of ownership, resources, skills and knowledge. The basis of such activity is trust between citizens. The economy is being spurred on by renewed cooperative activities, so-called platform cooperatives, the sharing economy between consumers, and the firms and small businesses that provide such services. Business is agile, experimental, visual and audible, being based on the re-use, recycling, sharing and exchange of materials and products, in particular, and the supporting services. Business could generated by Cooperative home-based factories, which incentivise social activities and focus on small-scale, fair peer production (such as urban farming), services (care, transportation and repair services) and use.

How to promote transition to the circular economy?

What needs to change in consumers’ daily lives, so that purchasing services becomes more attractive than buying products? Services should generate more value for the customer than that provided by buying a product. Value can emerge around issues such as flexibility, better quality, ease and the experiential aspect. What if, in the future, the janitors and house managers of condominiums were the catalysts of residential circular economy services, bringing together consumer needs and service providers? Let’s turn digital janitors into a new circular economy concept.

Certification of circular economy products could be used to communicate the sustainability of services, and the repairability and recyclability of products. This would help consumers in their everyday choices. However, certification would not in itself guarantee a product’s or service’s compliance with sustainable development. Further reflection is needed on the compliance of the circular economy with sustainable development and on the role of certification.

On a small scale, many of the themes described within the scenarios already exit in modern Finland. What needs to change so that, for example, the cooperative circular economy becomes mainstream? Many current obstacles to change are related to expertise (lack of strategic leadership, product design, innovative public procurements, understanding of how to disengage the economy from resource use), attitudes (forced communality, the desire to ownship), legislation (taxation), profitability (producer responsibility) and sustainability (a fair cooperative economy).

Sustainable change is often based on everyday insights

Even small insights could make the circular economy smoother and more efficient on an everyday level and put change into motion. The scenarios describe such changes. The circular economy should not be viewed solely from the economic perspective. It is a multi-faceted diamond, which combines economic, social and environmental aspects. After a qualitative review of the scenarios, a more detailed review of the circular economy’s macroeconomic impact on employment, regional policy and taxation would be required, alongside a deeper understanding of its social impacts.

Henna Sundqvist-Andberg VTT

Henna Sundqvist-Andberg, Senior Scientist

Johanna Kohl VTT

Johanna Kohl, Principal Scientist
Twitter: @KohlJohanna1

Follow the AARRE project on Twitter: @AarreResearch

[1] See also Terhi-Anna Wilska’s recent column on responsible consumption.

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