By Will Jamieson
June 15 2020
The advent of multiple ecological crises has spurred the proliferation of alternative economic visions, with previously ridiculed ideas now commanding mainstream attention. With its origin rooted in the marginal discipline of ecological economics (most notably Walter Stahel’s concept of the ‘performance economy’), the circular economy has emerged as a contagious if ambiguous concept for reconceiving how we produce and consume far less. Materials and nutrients drift from ‘cradle to cradle’ in biomimetic harmony. As opposed to the linear economy, the circular economy is premised on ‘circularising’ production networks and value chains so that they consume fewer resources and emit fewer greenhouse gases. Often presented as a suite of design tweaks and next-generation waste recycling solutions, by unpacking the direction of travel of these initiatives we can tease out the difficult questions usually avoided in considerations of the circular economy.
The concept has received a conspicuous amount of buy-in from multi-national corporations and management consultancies, as is evident from countless reports, frameworks, and case studies – the 2013 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report Towards the Circular Economy was co-written by McKinsey. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been one of the most influential independent proponents of the circular economy, so much so that the Foundation’s conceptual framing and vocabulary pops up in circular economy policies, both public and private. One could be forgiven for thinking that it was a media-friendly corporate social responsibility psy-op (and perhaps in the case of Tata Steel it is). Circularity is visualised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation through the Butterfly Diagram, consisting of a biological loop and a technical loop through which all economic processes can be ‘circularised’. Waste is recycled, leftover parts are remanufactured. Agriculture is ‘regenerative’ and aligned with natural metabolisms. Products are modular and designed for longevity. There are no more consumers, only ‘users’. In practice, this seems to entail dramatic shifts in commodities, incentives, and industrial dynamics that, while the patchwork implementation of circular economy principles is feasible and even palatable to the likes of Renault and Michelin (exemplary cases for the Foundation), a fully circular economy seems incompatible with how a market-oriented economy functions at its core. A great many commodities today are produced and traded with the presupposition of short-term, perhaps even one-time use. In some cases this even entails planned obsolescence (consider firms such as Apple refusing to maintain software updates for older models of their phones).
Circularity against capital?
For proponents of the circular economy, this incompatibility between its principles and the traditional model of trade isn’t apparent – value propositions are merely shifted and not dispensed with entirely: an ‘opportunity worth billions’. However, ‘shifting value propositions’, or recapturing profits, is more difficult than it initially appears. Extended product longevity means less products sold; repair and reuse services are traditionally low-value and labour intensive; consumption is interceded by production throughout the closed biological and technical loops as the consumer gets more involved with maintaining and refurbishing their commodities. The irony of the circular economy’s forecasted profitability is that the roots of the circular economy, in ecological and steady-state economics, envision circular strategies at the core of the post-growth economy, one in which resource productivity is prioritised over labour productivity, and where, unless dramatically reconceived, profitability is levelled out.
The premise of the circular economy yielding greater efficiency and productivity as well as miraculously resolving the ecological crises of capitalism has attracted justifiable scepticism – under present conditions, these gains would simply be reinvested in the market, creating a ‘rebound effect’ which would simply stimulate more growth. Most iterations of the concept attempt to ‘design out’ the rebound effect by shifting business models away from products towards ‘service as product’ models, and ‘virtualise’ as much physical economy as possible, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the so-called ‘sharing economy’. Given the evident profligacy and reprehensible labour practices of the biggest platforms that claim the ‘sharing’ moniker, this is perhaps no reassurance. Wework or Airbnb pump up property bubbles and thus the construction market that supplements them, while large employers like Uber offload risk onto workers. Local and community sharing economies can and do operate along circular principles, but require substantial support to enable and scale what were previously regarded as informal economic activities.
However, throughout these varying corporate, municipal, and developmentalist visions of the circular economy, the labour of the circular is often elided – as Zink and Geyer note ‘proponents of the circular economy have tended to look at the world purely as an engineering system and have overlooked the economic part of the circular economy’ (2017: 593). Production is too readily conflated with product design, consumption too easily collapses into consumerism, whereas the advent of a truly circular economy premises an approach to work which blurs the line between (re)production and consumption. However, by foregrounding the labour of circularity, and disaggregating the work behind the closing of the loop, the wider implications of a truly circular economy reveal themselves.
At first glance, the labour of the circular seems to be the logical end-point of the productivity slump that has beset advanced economies for the past few decades; the labour of repair, reuse, and material recapture exemplify the labour-intensive and low-productivity work Tim Jackson centres in his work on post-growth economics.
A global question: the implications of a truly circular economy
The archetypal commodity of the 21st century, the mobile phone, has its coltan sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, its parts manufactured in Taiwan before being assembled in China, and finally materialised on the distant doorstep of the consumer by Amazon, unblemished by its long and grisly journey down the supply chain, used for a few months or years before being discarded. In the circular economy, by contrast, the labour of the supply chain is shifted towards the manufacturers, retailers and consumers, who take on more risk and responsibility. The same coltan and other rare earth minerals would need to be recycled and kept in play for multiple lifecycles, while the repair and maintenance of the phone would become the main responsibility for retailers and manufacturers. The necessity of siting production at points in the globe to maximize profit, zipping containers of parts, metals, or goods between them, would need to be overcome. What emerges in foregrounding the labour of the circular is that the labour so often concealed in transnational supply chains would need to be manifested in greater maintenance, repair, and custodial work downstream – consumption and social reproduction become more tightly integrated. In essence, this would mean dismantling the necessity for these labyrinthine global supply chains that involve siting production at the geographic point of maximum profit and minimal risk (usually this means the Global South). The tactical deglobalization of supply chains is a necessary but intimidating feature of the circular economy. Given that the Covid pandemic has produced a massive shock to these supply chains, these kinds of questions might become more necessary ones. However, defining the labour of the circular for the better, and devising the shape of organisations and business models to support it is going to be necessary going forward if the circular economy is going to be a just and equitable one.
Jackson, Tim. Prosperity without Growth. London ; Washington, DC: Routledge, 2011.
Zink, Trevor, and Roland Geyer. ‘Circular Economy Rebound’. Journal of Industrial Ecology 21, no. 3 (2017): 593–602. https://doi.org/10.1111/jiec.12545.
William Jamieson is a doctoral researcher in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His work explores the political-economic and cultural dimensions of Singapore’s land reclamation project and the intense sand extraction across Southeast Asia that resources it. As part of his partnership with Autonomy, William will be researching the socially and ecologically just possibilities of post-growth economics.