‘It’s Gonna Be Messy, It’s Gonna Be Slow’: The Way to a Circular Economy

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“The time will come when we regret…not acting today,” predicts British professor Paul Ekins. Since 1987, when the World Commission on Environment and Development started publishing the Brundtland Report, a consensus has been reached that infinite demand on a planet with limited resources is impossible in the long run. A particularly popular concept in environmental circles about how to solve this problem is the “circular economy.”

But while most participants at October’s World Resources Forum (WRF) in Davos, Switzerland, agreed on the need for more responsible consumption, their opinions were divided on which path will lead to a circular economy. At the core of the debate is division over whether consumers can make a change or if they need to be forced into more sustainable behaviors. Some believe in bottom-up initiatives and grass-root movements resulting in an intrinsic shift; others are more skeptical and believe regulations will be needed to break current consumption patterns.

“Consumer demand can best be influenced by prices,” said Elkins, director of the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London and a professor of resources and environmental policy. A strong believer in regulations, he sees fiscal instruments as the greatest lever for effective change. For example, he would introduce a tax on virgin materials. The resulting revenues could be used to decrease other taxes connected to production, thereby making recycled materials not only relatively cheaper but also more attractive, he explained.

Anders Wijkman, senior adviser to the Stockholm Environment Institute, is likewise in favor of tax regulations. However, instead of increasing taxes on raw materials, he suggested removing taxes on secondhand materials, encouraging reuse. “They have been taxed before,” he said. “Why tax them twice?”

But when it comes to introducing these regulations, Ekins is less optimistic. “There is a perception in the governments that we have too many regulations,” he said. Business lobbies are often particularly opposed to the introduction of new legislation, as they fear reduced competitiveness in international markets.

International regulations face even greater obstacles. They require international conventions, which usually take many years to be implemented. Ekins explained that taxes are problematic not from a behavioral point of view but because they need political support. As he put it, “Why should people who don’t care about resource efficiency vote in politicians who increase the prices of the goods that they like?” From his perspective, environmental policies require a bottom-up shift in awareness among consumers about the implications of current consumption patterns.

On the other side of the debate is Ursula Tischner of Europe’s Sustainability Maker project, which aims to encourage positive action among people themselves. “I’m not frustrated, but I’m aware how slowly things are moving, and I would like to see some more radical and fast changes,” she said. A believer in “crowd intelligence,” she created a business incubator and sustainability hub in the form of an open online platform called Innonatives. The platform, developed out of a European innovation initiative, tries to match people who have an idea for a sustainable solution with those who want to solve a particular problem. Online participants can either consult the community by opening a sustainability challenge or propose their own solutions. The platform has been online since last year and counts more than a thousand users, who have a relatively young average age of 24. The submitted ideas are rated by the online community as well as by an expert committee, and promising projects receive funding from the initiative. This year’s winner is a project called Coco Pot & Soil, a gardening pot made out of coco fiber with coco soil, which is environmentally friendly and resource-efficient.

A shift in consumption patterns requires well-informed customers and comparable data. Klaus Wiesen, project coordinator at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany, introduced me to a collaborative project that is meant to encourage this. MyEcoCost is a tool that allows consumers to discover the environmental costs of a particular product, service or technology. The project is intended as a new approach for measuring resource efficiency by accounting for all environmental costs along the value chain. The idea is to provide the customer with the opportunity to compare products on their environmental impacts and eventually make a well-informed purchasing decision.

Wiesen said the site has already shown that knowledge and beliefs can be as important as price in how people consume. “Consumers are not primarily driven by price. We can already see a great willingness to pay an additional price for environmentally fair produced goods,” he said.

Many others, though, have a less generous view of consumer behavior. Roland Weippert, a sales manager at Cleantech Switzerland and a recycling specialist, said he believes “consumers are like sheep.” Observing consumer behavior in developed nations has made him lose faith in consumer power. For Weippert, what’s required is clear: “We need regulations to make a change.”

Ekins walks a path between these two points of view, convinced that what’s needed is a combination of regulations and shifts in behavior driven by society. “I’m very much up for trying anything that works,” he said.

At this year’s WRF, vegetarianism was set as the default dietary option when registering for the conference. Meat-eaters, for a change, had to make the extra effort, signing up for a meat meal in advance. While this increased the numbers of vegetarians at the conference (and might even lead to long-term changes in diet for some participants), Ekins said he doesn’t believe an idea like nudging can cause the big shifts needed.

“It’s gonna be slow, it’s gonna be messy, but we have to hope that we are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Tischner also said big changes will be needed and doubts that an initiative such as her own Innonatives can do enough. But she sees that there is nothing else to do but try. “The neoliberal idea of having infinite growth on a planet with limited resources and space is stupid, but I don’t want to wait for the system to change,” she said. Hopefully, she quoted Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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