As the importance of circular economy increases on the global agenda, expectations for a definition of the concept that is accepted by everyone are also increasing. While we should consider circular economy as a systemic mindset, an umbrella concept that will completely change the way we do business, simpler definitions prevent circular economy from realising its potential.
As it is considered only as an 'innovative waste management' strategy, the goals of different stakeholders regarding circular economy are also limited within this framework. As we have mentioned in our previous articles, the transition to circular economy requires different road maps to be determined from the very beginning according to the characteristics of each stakeholder and each sector. In other words, it is critical that the circular economy concept is correctly understood and integrated into our own processes. This, in fact, explains why the circular economy should not have a single and inclusive definition, and why it should not be handled in a single framework.
For this reason, it makes much more sense to have a definition that circular economy requires a systemic transformation for the efficient use of all resources. Each stakeholder has different resources and roadmaps in their own life, way of doing business or way of thinking. This requires each stakeholder to switch to a new system that will utilise its resources in the most efficient way. So how can there be a systemic transformation to circular economy? Our discussion topic this week is shaped by what needs to be considered for systemic transformation.
This week, our discussion is accompanied by the article 'Circular Economy through a system change lens' from the book 'The Impossibilities of the Circular Economy'.
What is needed for systemic transformation?
➰ Redesigning the system, not improving it
Systemic transformation is a challenging and long process that needs to be addressed at both macro and micro levels. The sustainability efforts we are currently engaged in, especially those led by governments and the private sector, focus on improving the faulty points within the existing structures rather than redesigning them. In other words, the aim is not to renew, but to improve systems that were not designed with a focus on environmental and social welfare. Although it is possible to consider the Sustainable Development Goals here as the predetermination of environmental and social outputs, the work carried out focuses on improving the system, not a systemic transformation to achieve these SDGs.
The systemic transformation addressed in the process of transition to circular economy, on the contrary, proposes that environmental and social outputs should be defined first and all structures should be redesigned from the beginning based on these definitions. In other words, it is expected that the entire system (including global systems) will be designed in line with predetermined environmental and social welfare-oriented expectations, not only to eliminate the errors in the production and consumption structures specific to the current sector. Therefore, if we aim for a systemic transformation in the transition to circular economy, the first critical point we need to pay attention to can be summarised as the need to redesign the system from the very beginning, not to improve the system.
➰To evaluate the opinions, suggestions and expectations of all stakeholders
As our readers who have been following our articles for a long time will remember, individuals are as important as any other stakeholder in the process of transition to circular economy, but this stakeholder is not given the necessary attention. When we accept that social and economic structures are created, guided and shaped by individuals, we can understand the importance of feedback processes, which are also critical for systemic transformation.
Feedback processes, which are critical in the transition to a circular economy, aim to ensure that every step taken in the change process is actually reviewed by all stakeholders and areas that are faulty, deficient or open to improvement are shared. In this way, it may be possible for all stakeholders to examine all steps taken in the focus of environmental and social outputs that should be determined at the initial design stage for systemic transformation. In the opposite case, the main problems we face in the sustainability transformation we are in today arise.
Transformation roadmaps that emerge as a result of the decisions taken by the private sector or governments on their own are carried out without the opinions of consumers, meaning, individuals. The main reason for this is the belief that society will naturally fully adapt to the transformation process of a state or a company. It is not possible to talk about a systemic transformation as long as the states or the private sector, which aim to improve some faulty points with various regulations or new business models, are not involved in a transformation process that will meet the realistic expectations of individuals, who are the main stakeholders of society. For this reason, the opinions, suggestions and expectations of all stakeholders, not limited to individuals, should be received and evaluated at every stage of transformation.
➰ Conducting science-based, realistic processes
Perhaps the most important point to be considered while addressing the system at both macro and micro levels in the process of transition to circular economy is to carry out science-based, realistic processes. Especially when it comes to designing the transition to a circular economy, building a recycling-oriented system is an approach that is completely far from science and reality.
Recycling is the last preferred step in circular economy. When we consider the subject in detail, we can see that a system that is completely recycling-oriented cannot be built with today's technologies. The main reason for this is the laws of physics in general and the laws of thermodynamics when we get a little more specific. We will not go into the technical details of these laws, but to summarise, recycling is a process that cannot continue indefinitely and therefore at some point resources are used inefficiently. Current technologies allow many materials and materials that are described as 'recyclable' today to be recycled at a maximum rate of 10-15%. Especially the recycling rates of products produced using many different raw materials are quite low.
While this is the case, all of the recycling-oriented transformation strategies that we often hear are actually unrealistic road maps that are far from scientific facts. At this point, it becomes much more important to understand the circular economy correctly, to learn the different concepts it contains as an umbrella concept (biomimicry, cradle-to-cradle, R-strategies, etc.) and to design a systemic transformation in this context.
➰ A mindset open to change
One of the most challenging aspects of systemic transformation is the need to transform the entire system at both macro and micro levels. This requires a much more complex structure in the process. This process, in which many different factors need to be considered at the same time, will of course be too comprehensive to be compressed into a single framework. For this reason, the definitions, road maps and action plans initially determined in the systemic transformation process may have to change over time.
This indicates that the uncertainty in the process of transition to circular economy shows that we are on the right track at some point. However, this uncertainty should not cause everyone to carry out this transformation process on their own. For this reason, the road maps and the new structures to be designed should be shaped in a way that will be open to change after an indefinite period of time. Instead of trying to determine the most accurate, optimum solutions, roadmaps should be created in the light of scientific facts that are accepted as true today, which will also enable rapid action to be taken. Considering the environmental and social impacts of our current system, seeking perfection will slow us down completely and even cause us to deviate from our main purpose.
For this reason, for systemic transformation, action should be taken quickly with today's realities, but we need to be in a mindset that is open to change at any time and constantly question the 'truths'.
➰ Focus on environmental and social well-being without being influenced by political developments
Lastly, while covering all of the abovementioned, we need to carry out a transformation process in line with our purpose, independent of individuals and organisations. Today, we can see that policies are restricted by political election cycles for political purposes. Our environmental and social impacts, which should be handled independently of the functioning of political structures, actually need to be examined independently of all opinions.
In particular, a systemic transformation is required in which the fight against specific issues that concern the whole world, such as the climate crisis or hunger, is not used for specific political purposes, but is actually addressed as a higher purpose independent of all viewpoints. Here, road maps similar to the 20XX net zero targets of many countries since the Paris Agreement may come to mind. It is necessary to create these roadmaps by considering the opinions of all stakeholders in that country, and to maintain them with the co-operation of all stakeholders despite any political change. In this way, a systemic transformation focused solely on environmental and social welfare can be possible without being affected by local or global politics.
🔎 Circular Economy 101's take: To summarise, all these topics that we have opened up for discussion for systemic transformation can basically allow the real potential of the circular economy to be unlocked. Through an innovative system design that puts innovation at its centre, it may be possible to increase cooperation and bring about change for a fundamental purpose without ignoring social needs.
In the process of transition to circular economy, the expectations, goals or steps taken by other stakeholders should be questioned by all stakeholders forming social and economic structures in the light of science, deficiencies/errors should be identified and, if necessary, change should be forced in line with the common goal.