Step One – Circular Systems Thinking

The circular economy is a new economic system to our current linear economy.  This module will introduce you to systems thinking so you can see how the circular economy works as a whole. We give you the tools, such as our ‘Glossary of Terms’ to assist you with the new language and definitions of the circular economy; provide videos and other necessary information to ensure you can begin the transition to 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 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 focuses on systems thinking, primarily what is called a closed loop system or Cradle-to-CradleProducts are manufactured with safe materials that can be continuously recycled, as can be seen in the Butterfly diagram (see Circular Economy for details). 

What You Will Learn 

The circular economy is made up of a number of functions, the Circular R’s, such as repair, repurpose, remanufacture etc. It is easy to believe these functions are enough, and that by practicing them you are now a circular company. This is incorrect. 

A company becomes circular when it participates in a circular system and while that may be difficult to begin, there are many small steps that can be taken to reach that goal over time. 

In addition many people believe the circular economy is a fancy name for recycling.  Our approach is to teach you how the circular economy is a wholistic system that covers three main elements: 
    1. Resource Management
    2. Business Models
    3. Circular Design

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