Is circular economy the consumption mode of the future?

Summary

In the Western world, the principles of the circular economy are increasingly impacting consumer habits, and questioning the dominance of the hyperconsumption model that has prevailed since the end of World War II. Because they provide an answer to both the economic and the environmental crisis, these principles might become the consumption mode of the 21st century.

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What exactly is the social, economic and environmental crisis that the world – and more specifically the Western world – has been facing for several years now? Is it a simple accident – a slow-down on the road that will be sorted out when growth finally returns? Or is it a sign that our system is obsolete and needs to be replaced by another one? What is certain is that the crisis has already brought awareness and opportunities that are rapidly forcing some parts of the system to evolve. Consumption, for instance. We are gradually seeing the “traditional” model of hyperconsumption, the driver for growth in the West during and after the “Trente Glorieuses” (the three post-war decades), giving way to more responsible choices. Will these new principles take over and eventually redefine our common vision of progress and of the post-industrialised project? Time will tell. But the seeds of change, whether a simple evolution or a genuine paradigm shift, have already been planted.

 A system that works like an organism

It is hard to accurately date its emergence, but the circular economy is a concept that began to develop in the 1970s, at a time when environmental concerns were taking root in society, and is now gaining momentum. According to its Wikipedia definition, the circular economy is “a generic term for an industrial economy that is, by design or intention, restorative and in which material flows are of two types: biological nutrients, designed to reenter the biosphere safely, and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at high quality without entering the biosphere.” In other words, a system that works like an organism, “processing nutrients that can be fed back into the cycle.” This approach is diametrically opposed to the classical “Take, Make, Dispose” model that structured industrial processes throughout the 20th century.

In a recent report commissioned by ADEME (the French Agency for the Environment and the Mastering of Energy), CREDOC (the French Research Centre for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions) gives a definition that is probably easier to grasp: “The circular economy can be defined as an economical trade and production system which, at every step of the product lifecycle, aims to maximise the efficient use of resources and minimise the impact on the environment. (…) It is about making more and better with less.” The circular economy is based on six main principles:

1. Moderate, efficient use of non-renewable resources;
2. The use of renewable resources that respects the conditions for renewal;
3. Eco-design and clean production;
4. Consumption that respects the environment;
5. Waste utilised as a resource;
6. Waste treatment that causes no pollution.

The report, entitled “Evolutions of the behaviour of the French population faced with the development of the circular economy,” was published on 17 June on the occasion of the first circular economy conference, held in Paris. It explores how the French, over the past 25 years, has become more and more aware of the environmental impacts of their consumption habits – and how they have changed them.

“The economic lever remains a major one, but it does lead to more virtuous practices. We are at the end of the hyperconsumption phase: it is now « has-been », and has even become something that makes people feel guilty. What we now need to do is foster new consumer behaviour.”

 A circular approach to consumption

 The report shows that a growing number of people in France have shifted their consumption habits towards a more circular approach. Firstly, by reducing waste: according to a 2011 Eurobarometer carried out by the European Commission, 82% of people sorted their waste. Another Credoc study commissioned by ADEME found in 2010 that 52% of the population thought about the waste their purchases could generate (compared with 41% in 2003). And while the waste production per capita had doubled between the 1960s and 2002, it has since decreased.

Another way to be more “circular” is to increase the lifespan of objects, by repairing them, giving them away or selling them instead of throwing them out. In 2012, 75% bought second-hand products, versus 59% in 2004. And thanks to the development of collaborative consumption and services such as Airbnb, BlaBlaCar, Couchsurfing and Zilok, use is progressively substituting possession, and access is becoming more important than ownership. The report also highlighted the fact that French people have reduced their water and energy consumption, question the “all automobile” system and are increasing their consumption of organic products.

France is not the only country where the principles of the circular economy have gained ground over the past few years. A recent book written by a German journalist on the year she spent renouncing the consumer society highlights how Germany is favouring new models; initiatives to cut waste production are spreading everywhere, from the United States to the United Kingdom, and in France and Germany too, while international sports and music events are increasingly minimising their use of resources  and their impact on the environment, for example.

The question now is whether these new habits are driven by economic constraint or environmental awareness – in other words, whether they are here to stay after (and if) the crisis comes to an end. The answer is probably a bit of both, says the CREDOC report. Of course, the decrease of their purchasing power is leading more and more people to pay attention to how much they consume and how much they throw away. But they are also looking to “recreate new social bonds, avoid the classic market system, support the local economy and act in favour of the planet,” write the authors. Sociologist Solange Martin sums it up as follows: “The economic lever remains a major one, but it does lead to more virtuous practices. We are at the end of the hyperconsumption phase: it is now « has-been », and has even become something that makes people feel guilty. What we now need to do is foster new consumer behaviour.” Will people go back to less responsible behaviour once their purchasing power increases again? This is a fair question, but actually, it seems that their new habits are precisely what will give them more purchasing power, along with other satisfying things, such as feeling closer to the real and local economy, and supporting a development model that will benefit their children and grandchildren. The circular economy is probably the only way to ensure sustainable development in developing countries, and sustainable lifestyles in post-industrialised countries. We can’t know for sure if it will enduringly replace the hyperconsumption model in the Western world, and we can only hope that developing countries will adopt it as a growth paradigm much sooner than we have. But the system is definitely evolving, and that is the kind of change that brings hope. We can look forward to that future.

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