Circular economy represents an economic and political challenge, as well as a cultural one, requiring a massive transformation on all levels of society. But why is cultural change so important to understanding today’s economy and how can the circular model be considered a truly cross-cultural concept?

The idea behind the concept of circular economy is that of a more collaborative and participatory economy, which, among other things, is aimed at deeply transforming production chains and consumption habits.

Moving to circular economy entails the participation of a very diverse set of stakeholders, ranging from national governments to businesses and civil society actors. Differently from the “take, make and dispose” core model of linear economy, the circular economy essentially suggests a new cultural paradigm, shifting away from ownership patterns of consumption, into usage of function and services.

According to the core assumption of the linear model, resources are exploited and transformed into waste without considering the value that they still have after their consumption. Circular economy, on the contrary, aims at keeping this value of materials as high as possible after the initial intended use.

How Can This Be Achieved?

Primarily through the separation between biological and technical materials. Biological materials are designed to safely re-enter the biosphere, while technical materials are to be re-used, repaired, re-furbished and thus given a new function.

According to Andrew Morlet, leader of the Circular Economy 100 programme at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “circular economy is not incompatible with our consumer culture”. Undoubtedly this statement sounds hard to believe, especially considering the 2014 statistics by the European Environment Agency showing that Europeans are consuming and wasting more than ever before.

With such discouraging evidence of the modern consumption habits, it is reasonable to say that the circular economy represents not only an economic, technological and political challenge, but also a cultural one, requiring a massive cultural shift directly affecting both businesses operations and consumer choices.

From the design, to the usage of the product, circular economy calls for a transformation in our own attitude. It does not necessarily mean consuming less, but rather consuming better. Such a change in attitude, however, cannot be achieved without taking in consideration the key role that cultural mindsets play in shaping our decisions.

Cultural Change as a Primary Condition for the Success of Circular Economy

Why is culture so important for fully understanding and enabling circular economy? The explanation can be traced in the notion of what is deemed cultural embeddedness.
Individual choices are highly influenced by culture, i.e. the collective understandings and shared norms that regulate socially accepted behaviours. These shared norms and values, as highlighted by Professor Tim Jackson during the launch of the CE initiative in Copenhagen, are the key for understanding and achieving circular economy.

In today’s economic decision-making climate, consumer preferences are increasingly shaped by a set of cultural obligations (such as the sense of belonging to a specific identity or the increasing attention for eco-friendly company standards), which are then reflected in widely favoured business and organisational actions. According to Tim Jackson “human beings need each other. Cooperation is thus more important than struggle for survival. And circular economy is indeed collaborative”.

Today, we can trace examples of more collaborative business models in companies such as Airbnb, ShareDesk, GetAround, Lyft, etc. What these increasingly popular initiatives demonstrate is that cultural change is starting to emerge from bottom-up business ideas and directly affecting our own consumption habits in ways we could not have imagined until a decade ago.

The notion of cultural embeddedness is increasingly evident in the business arena as well. Both international corporations and local enterprises incorporate principles of circular economy such as cradle-to-cradle design and industrial symbiosis, into their business models and operations. It not surprising then, that in the 2014 report “The Wasteline”, presented at the second Resource Association Conference discussing a shared agenda for the circular economy identified, as one of the three main goals to be pursued by the UK’s resource policy, “a cultural and behavioural shift throughout society in favour of reusing materials”.

The same notion was echoed by Royal Philips’s CEO Frans van Houten, who stated, “we are changing our culture to focus on the long-term and to co-operate closely with our customers and suppliers”. Philips is an interesting example of a company, which since 2012 has decided to embrace a circular economy strategy, developing cradle-to-cradle designs and offering a leasing of goods and services, over selling products.

What these examples highlight is that, although a challenge, circular economy is paving its way into the mainstream and becoming culturally embedded on multiple levels of business and society. According to Ken Webster, Head of Innovation at Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “circular economy is a mindset. And right now we are on the way of abandoning our mechanistic/linear economic approach and changing how we think and learn”.

Circular Economy Beyond Borders?

What makes circular economy a potentially revolutionary concept, aside from its environmental and economic outcomes, is that it could be considered a genuinely cross-cultural notion, since it has the potential to take inspiration from, and be applied to, very different cultural contexts.

Tim Jackson has stressed that “there is another side of human nature that is often neglected when talking about capitalism. A part relying on heritage and tradition instead of mere progress and novelty. This side of human nature is fundamental for achieving a different kind of economy”.
Some indigenous peoples, or rather traditional groups and economies, hold a set of holistic and cyclical cultural heritages, where waste does not exist and everything is regenerated, in a never-ending cycle of efficiency. The importance of regenerating natural resources often still belongs to some indigenous mindsets (see the South African concept of Ubuntu or the special meaning that Pachamama has for many South American native communities).

One might consider the comparison of European industrialised to some indigenous societies extreme. However, there are many examples of indigenous knowledge used for improving waste management: e.g. Nigerian native communities have traditionally collected food and organic waste in order to reuse it on farms, while metal waste has been used to construct new desired tools.

The point here is that activities resembling circular economy models are already part of some traditional cultures mentioned above and if we are to achieve a circular economy, we could seek to embed some of their environmentally aware norms and values in our culture.
Borrowing sets of norms from traditional cultures could inspire change to our consumption habits and the way we manage natural resources. In addition, we can learn from their lifestyles, to pay attention to the cycles of nature and to the circular paths that our ecosystems are spontaneously going through all the time.

Consequently, an understanding of circular economy from a cultural point of view and by bridging cultural barriers, could prove to be perhaps more challenging, but ultimately imperative to achieving complete and effective implementation of circular economy from business and governments to communities.