Step One – Understanding the Circular Economy


The circular economy’s early beginnings are deeply rooted in ecological and environmental economics and industrial ecology. For more than 20 years, scholars such as Kenneth Boulding, David W. Pearce, R. Kerry Turner, Walter Stahel, the architect William McDonough and chemist Dr Michael Braungart all significantly contributed in varying degrees to shaping the circular economy as we know it today.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain around 1760, manufacturing was often done in people’s homes, using hand tools or basic machines. Industrialization marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production. The iron and textile industries, along with the development of the steam engine, played central roles in the Industrial Revolution, which also saw improved systems of transportation, communication and banking.

While industrialization brought about an increased volume and variety of manufactured goods and an improved standard of living for some, it also resulted in often grim employment and living conditions for the poor and working classes¹.

This shift in the modes of production is now called the linear economic model (take natural resource, make products, then waste) and not only will planet earth, eventually, run out of natural raw materials to extract and manufacture into consumer products we are also being overwhelmed by waste. This is how the circular economy grew into a coherent set of guidelines for resource management.

The circular economy focused on a closed loop system or what is called Cradle-to-CradleProducts are manufactured with safe materials that can be continuously recycled, the Butterfly diagram (see Circular Economy for details) and the Circular Product Design Model (see Circular Design for more details).

Getting Started – The 9R Framework


Nine circular strategies, or the 9R’s, make up the basic activities of the circular economy. They are ranked in order of importance, starting with Rethinking and ending with Recovery. At the very bottom is ‘incineration’ or the recovery of energy already embedded in the products.

The 9R Framework begins to provide a legal structure for businesses and consumers on issues that are bound to come up in the course of consumer transactions. These legal parameters need not be fixed as businesses must remain competitive and offer a range a options according to their capability.

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For example not all repair businesses may be able to test the strength of their repairs or include a warranty. Yet the broad scope of language ‘may not’ ‘usually includes’ and ‘and includes a warranty’, specifically for repair, refurbish and remanufacture sets the legal groundwork and provides the opportunity for both business and consumer choice.

Without this legal structure circular economy practitioners run the risk of working within an undefined grey area leaving it up to businesses to make their own rules. This will have a detrimental effect on consumer uptake and may even damage the perceptions of the circular economy in the long term. Visit the 9R’s page to download a copy.

The Eight Skills for a Circular Team


Regardless of the size of the company, leadership and commitment must come from the CEO and senior management for staff to implement circular economy values and principles as they progress through the internal and external processes. Establishing a team who meet regularly to review progress and identify bottlenecks as part of an ongoing commitment towards the transition to the circular economy will result in successful outcomes.

Where we have identified important skills for those directly active in implementing circular systems in a company, what is equally important is employee engagement. Paul Polman (Unilever’s ex-CEO) and CB Bhattacharya co-authored an article titled ‘Engaging Employees to Create a Sustainable Business‘ where they included ‘Eight Ways to Engage Employees in the Company’s Sustainability Journey’. These are (italics added):

1. Define the company’s long-term purpose.

2. Spell out the economic case for sustainability (and circularity).

3. Create sustainable (and circular) knowledge and competency.

4. Make every employee a sustainability (and circular) champion.

5. Co-create sustainability (and circularity) with employees.

6. Encourage healthy competition among employees.

7. Make sustainability (and circularity) visible inside and outside the company.

8. Showcase higher purpose by creating transformational change.

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Additional Resources


There is a wealth of resources available in our Knowledge Centre, everything from reports, images, infographics, articles, movies and tools.  For information specific to Step One – Circular Systems, click on the images below.


¹ ‘Industrial Revolution

² The 9R Framework, adapted from ‘Circular Economy: Measuring Innovation in the Product Chain’, Policy Report for PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency by José Potting, Marko Hekkert, Ernst Worrell and Aldert Hanemaaijer, January 2017.

Image: Adapted from Cradle-to-Cradle from EPEA – The Cradle of Cradle-to-Cradle