Imagine two circles – that’s cradle-to-cradle. Imagine one circle – that’s the circular economy. Imagine a circle within a circle – that’s resource efficiency. At its simplest level, understanding the difference between these three schools of thought can be sketched out along these flow lines.
Cradle-to-cradle is the highest aspiration for sustainable resource management, but also the least achievable. It takes its inspiration from nature in the form of biomimicry and consequently has two routes of re-entry for waste materials – the biological or industrial eco-system. It is geared towards material optimisation: net positive impact, rather than less or zero impact.
The circular economy is a more singular model, it has one standard route of re-entry for waste – the industrial eco-system. It means business (quite literally), hence the ‘economy’ tag. It is considered however far more holistic in its approach than resource efficiency, which is very much about impact minimisation – using less materials, or energy.
So. Three models. Three different ways of thinking. All trying to reach the same end point, you could argue. The question is how do they shoehorn into each other in a viable, understandable way? If a business, for example, wanted to step up from being simply resource-efficient to being cradle-to-cradle, what transitional paths would need to be mapped out?
These are the types of questions being asked at the highest levels now – the newly-established circular economy taskforce, led by the Green Alliance, will hopefully scope out some thinking here. It’s not just about modelling, or frameworks, but commonality of language.
Businesses pretty much get what resource efficiency means; the concept makes sense and is fairly easy to wrap your brain around. But the circular economy? Because of its complexity and overarching nature, it translates very differently at ground-level according to which stakeholder group you are talking to.
For product designers, it means challenging the design brief. For manufacturers it means product warranties and whole-life asset management. For brands, it means leasing or service-based models. For waste management firms it means material flows. And so on.
The challenge will be to foster a broad enough understanding of how all of these sector-specific issues relate to each other within the wider context of circularity. It is worth pointing out that while the potential for knowledge share is immense, it will need some powerful leadership and facilitation to unlock this.
There is much to play for, but I fear many businesses still attach risk to these opportunities. It is, after all, about disruptive innovation. And unknown outcomes. It is becoming increasingly apparent that we don’t just need thinkers and doers to make this leap, but communicators too.