the circular economy apprentice. would you hire, or fire?

Close, but no cigar. Is pretty much how you could describe the political prowess of the circular economy right now. Its puff is attracting the attention of government leaders, fair enough. But it isn’t really seducing them in ways we wish it would.

The one embryonic piece of legislation we have out there – the EU Circular Economy Package – is about to be aborted by the newly appointed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who may be looking to make his mark by stamping some authority where it hurts. Trouble is, this one represents a really big Ouch.

It’s an Ouch because it reminds me that policy hardly ever lives in the real world. It’s an Ouch because negotiating a change of mindset among your nearest and dearest is hard enough, let alone across international trading ports and borders.

There is no standard global definition for the circular economy. But there are plenty of language barriers woven into the fabric of the European parliamentary negotiating process. I’d imagine a lot gets lost in translation.

But ultimately, it’s an Ouch because it brings home the fact that circular economy is still widely perceived as a green-splash movement. It is associated with environmental flag-waving despite having the word ‘economy’ in its name and despite being driven by big business. The economics behind it may stack up (eventually), but the agenda hasn’t yet mainstreamed into a world that bankers, investors and financial speculators readily understand.

The circular economy talks a lot about finite resources, but has it made its way yet onto corporate balance sheets? Do capital or operational expenditures account for it? We can’t yet measure it (although models for that are coming) so it’s hard to know when to expect a return on investment for such a transitional business proposition. It is still earning its accountancy stripes.

Ultimately, politicians are tasked with bettering the economy – no matter what portfolios they keep. I have a sneaking suspicion the EU Circular Economy Package will fall from grace because its proposals are too focused on ‘soft’ indicators like recycling targets and waste prevention. Unfortunately, that’s not a priority for world governments still reeling from the after-affects of a global recession.

If the circular economy is ever going to break out of its niche hole, it needs to start shifting towards the hard world of commerce, merchandising and enterprise. A job for Sir Alan Sugar? Definitely, maybe.

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