Ken Webster, the author of “The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows”, has worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since January 2010. He has a background in economics education and environmental issues. Webster calls himself a generalist and emphasises how everything is connected and thus the need for systems thinking. In a circular economy, we can no longer think of production and use as mere throughput, instead we have to realise their connections and focus on relationships rather than on stuff. We need to understand the system before we can change it.
Why we need to move away from a linear economy
Today, we live in an economy that is overwhelmingly linear with its take-make-and-dispose system powered by fossil fuels. Unlike the nature inspired circular economy, the linear economy is more like a machine:
“the bigger it is and the faster it runs, the more efficiently it runs, and the more it produces – so long as there are resources to transform and sinks for the wastes, credit for investment and enough economic growth to pay for it all. That is what has created the modern world and its comforts. That is also why we need to think it through afresh” (page 23).
According to Webster, the problem might not be that we are running out of resources per se, but that it is too narrow to only look at the materials supply issues; tweaking efficiency is only a short-term fix. The linear economy is built on the surplus provided by cheap energy from oil and gas. And oil may become unaffordable before it becomes really scarce. Consequently, we need to prepare for the day when oil is no longer available to us. And the sooner we commit to renewable energy sources, the better off we’ll be. This is an argument that is valid without even considering the carbon emissions and climate change, let alone what oil is doing to the global economy. We need to concentrate on redesigning business models and logistics to prevent price sensitivity as well as taking advantage of the possibilities provided by technology.
Webster highlights that our current consumption habits have been designed by companies after World War 2. Before this, many products lasted a long time, they were designed to be repairable and the desire for newness were not as big as it is today. Webster argues that after the war, companies had learned their lessons and thus created a desire for newness, which persuaded customers to buy more. We have since then seen an increase in objects that are designed to be obsolete. It has become cheaper to buy new than to have the old repaired. We ‘need’ the newest product although what we have is still highly useable. And when we no longer need, or want a product, we throw it away. Without realising that away is somewhere.
Changing from linear to circular
Webster argues it is time for a change; the linear economy is a wasteful model, which was made possible by a surplus of energy and materials. The need for a circular economy, which is concerned with optimising systems rather than components, is therefore acute.
In order for a shift like this to succeed, it is necessary to develop efficient and effective take-back systems; to increase the number of products and business models that create more durable products, facilitate disassembly and refurbishment; and sell services instead of products. Furthermore, retaining ownership of goods and embodied materials will provide the company with future resource security. An important aspect of any future business model, since it is expected that resource prices in the 21stcentury will constantly increase. Thus, it will become incredibly valuable to think of the goods of today as the resources of tomorrow at yesterday’s prices.
The shifts towards a new economy
According to Webster the factors, which made the linear economy so successful for so many (at a considerable cost to others and the environment), has shifted. In the book, he lists four shifts needed in a circular economy:
Shift 1: Implement resource efficiency – actual ‘radical resource efficiency’ not the few per cent kind from the picking of the low-hanging fruits around the business.
Shift 2: Move to biomimetic modes of production. Use the ‘everything is food’ notion to redesign, and design out waste.
Shift 3: Move to providing services rather than goods.
Shift 4: Reinvest in natural capital.
Webster argues that the circular economy is restorative by design and that it aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. System thinking, collaborative consumption, technological development and education are all important aspects for the necessary change to succeed.
Systems thinking for a different economy
We need to move away from the idea that the world is comparable to machines, and instead we need to think in living systems and how everything is interlinked and dynamic. According to Webster, it is essential that companies, educational institutions and governments adopt principles such as; Designing out waste, build resilience through diversity, work towards using renewable energy sources, thinking in ‘systems’ and cascades. Understanding the connectedness of the world’s economic, social and environmental issues is key when changing the wasteful production processes and consumption habits of the modern world. To change a product (this can be a physical object, food, a service, etc.) to belong in a circular economy, it is paramount to understand the system in which it exists.
Another important point made by Webster, is that collaborative consumption is a fast-developing movement, which offers tangible and positive perspectives to the circular economy. However, if the movement is to really make a difference, we must all challenge our understanding of the need to own stuff. Collaborative consumption does not mean that we shouldn’t own anything, but we need to switch the focus from owning goods to benefitting from the service they provide. This way, collaborative consumption and take-back systems can work together: The things you don’t need on a daily basis can be sourced from collaborative networks when the need arises, and what you do need every day can be owned by the manufacturer. We need to move away from a world where consumption is a form of self-expression.
Additionally, in a circular economy, it is important to realise that it is not only at the end of an objects lifecycle that waste can be found. In fact, a lot of waste is created in the production process – before it even reaches the user. Materials are cut away to achieve shape, form and function; and the energy-use can be intensive too, which is problematic since a lot of energy today is created from oil and gas and not from renewable sources. According to Webster it is in the production process that technology (e.g. 3D ptinting) can have a huge impact on the future circular economy.
Education is key
Webster argues that education is another valuable and important aspect of the change from linear to circular. The current education system does not support a circular economy thinking. Thus, in order to ensure the future of the circular economy we need to change how we educate our future leaders. We need them to become:
- System thinkers
- Proactive and independent enquirers
- Creative innovators
- Team workers, effective participators and empathetic colleagues
- Reflective practitioners committed to lifelong learning
Leaders like these are necessary as the approach to creating the change also needs to be transformed. It is about time we start thinking of the world as one. Everything is connected. Through collaborative consumption, technological development and education we can and must create the necessary change.
More information about the book: Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Author: Hella Lynggaard