Why is it so difficult to become truly circular?

Circularity is everywhere. A growing number of companies is integrating circular thinking in their policies and products. However, becoming truly circular is challenging. Especially when it comes to integrating higher-level circularity strategies such as refuse, rethink and reduce.

Circularity often focuses on the more traditional sustainability strategies such as repurpose, recycle and recover, while the real impact can be made by higher-level sustainability strategies such as car sharing programmes or novel business models.

Circular economy strategies

Circular economy strategies. Source: PBL (2017). Circular economy: measuring innovation in the product chain, J.Potting, M. Hekkert, E. Worrell et al.

In our work with clients, we see three main barriers for companies who want to develop products and services that fit the higher circularity strategies.

1. No course correction

Some sustainability strategies can be applied even when a product or a service is already on the market, such as eco-design or reducing the environmental impact. Higher-level circular strategies, in contrast, often require a complete rethinking of the product or service. These strategies need to be considered at the start of the design process and cannot be done on the side. This requires all departments to be on board to take a new approach on integrating sustainability in product development.

Additionally, the product or service should be developed without just thinking about the consumer; they need to take into account the waste phase and current technologies for recycling and post-processing.

2. Collaboration required

The core of circularity is phasing out waste. Waste is usually found at the end of the value chain, which is why the cooperation between all parties involved is essential. Moreover, products and services need to be developed in such a way that the materials can be reused, preferably multiple times. For this reason, it is necessary for knowledge to be shared among consumers, product developers, recyclers and other potential players who could reuse the product. At the moment, collaboration throughout the supply chain parties remains very limited. In the future, everyone should be involved, share the same perception about why a circular economy is important and trust each other’s approaches.

3. Think big or go home

Scaling up circular strategies is often a challenge, partly because circular products require a different mindset from consumers. Not all consumers enjoy the prospect of sharing instead of owning, for instance. In addition, most high-level circularity strategies require work from the consumers, e.g. repairing a product, bringing it back to the rental facility, etc. Sadly enough, for circularity to become big, consumers need to get value out of it beyond simply sustainability. Circular products also have to be cheaper, more efficient or more convenient, and to be the right product at the right time.

Circular economy is a great philosophy for integrating business value and sustainability. It offers many options to close loops and optimise the use of resources, from designing for recycling to using recycled materials to entire new business models. Still, we have a long way ahead before rethinking, redesigning, open collaboration channels and true outside-the-box thinking can help us truly embrace the circular economy.

Learn more about circular economy and LCA

If you want to learn more about the topic, read the stories of our mini-series:

Part I: Product life extension

Part II: Product-as-a-service

Part III: Reusing waste

Part IV: Sharing

Part V: Circular supplies

Anne Gaasbeek

Anne worked for PRé from 2012 to 2021. As a Senior Consultant and excellent program manager with a hands-on background in sustainability metrics, she helped a wide range of organizations, including SMEs, multinationals and policy-makers. By focusing on the user perspective, Anne helped develop better tools for both technical and non-technical users. Her areas of expertise include product social footprinting, impact measurement and valuation, measuring supply chain sustainability and sustainable business performance.

Elsa Valencia

LCA Data Expert

I believe we all have expertise that we can use to do something to improve our relationship with the world, and that we need to use scientific methods and tools that objectively guide us when making decisions. Sustainability and sustainability metrics have been the main topic of my career. I enjoy helping clients from different backgrounds and regions to understand how they can tackle today’s challenges with integrated tools that go beyond only technical solutions.

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