Circular Economy = Sustainability?

Published on by Nika Zobec

“An attitude to life which seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth - in short, materialism - does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.”

(E F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful)

Article Overview

Circular Economy - the most recent buzz word.

Relationship between Circular Economy & Sustainability

What is “being fully sustainable” like

How can we know where we are on the journey to ‘full sustainability’?

What is Circular Economy?

A circular economy aims to maximize value and eliminate waste by improving the design of materials, products, systems and business models. 

Circular economy strategies encourage:

  • The design of long lasting, reusable and easily recyclable products
  • Decreasing the use of virgin (raw) materials and non-renewable resources and increasing the use of renewable resources and recycled materials
  • Shifting from “waste management” to “resource recovery” where everything has a value and zero waste goes to landfill
  • Shifting from linear supply chains that produce disposable products to circular supply chains that produce ongoing services (Product-as-service)
  • Dramatically reducing the negative environmental aspects of economic development (such as waste and pollution) through carbon-neutrality, using non-toxic-materials and other strategies

From Linear to Circular

In the conventional economy, materials move through a linear process of extraction, production, consumption and eventual disposal (“take-make-waste”).

This model is limiting and problematic as it is inherently inefficient, wastes valuable resources and poses significant risks to both human and environmental health. More importantly, as Schumacher puts it, it implies that we have unlimited access to earth’s resources while we know that is not true.


In contrast, circular economies aim to eliminateminimize (?) waste through the redesign, reuse and recycling of products and materials in interconnected systems, biological cycles and markets (“make-use-return”). Further, it requires that products are designed with the ‘end in mind’. Well-known circular economy approaches include the Cradle-to-Cradle® design philosophy and the Zero Waste movement.

Is it Enough to be Circular to be Sustainable?

Circular economy is fast becoming a unifying model for industry and society responding to today’s linear production and consumption patterns. Yet, there are many different schools of thought underpinning the circular economy and varying levels of ambition in the solutions being adopted within industry.

Is it enough to achieve circularity for just the existing types of products and services we know today? What will we need in the future and what will the future demand of businesses?

While the Circular Economy concept is clearly necessary for business and society to use to become sustainable, it alone is not sufficient to arrive at a sustainable future. That is because the current definition and implementations of Circular Economy does not take into account that not all aspects of the economy can be expressed in “circular flows’ nor the fact that not all materials should flow in circles but rather be phased out. For example, they may be toxic and continuously leak into natural environment. It also does not explain how much of a certain material may be extracted or cycled without posing danger to natural systems.

With mounting pressures on the planet and global society from increasing population, rising affluence hence consumption and declining trust in governments and corporations, it is clear the entire economy needs to be reimagined and remodeled. Its about connecting the trend toward circularity with holistic sustainability objectives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and aiming for a ‘safe operating space for humanity’, allowing all to meet their needs within planetary boundaries.


As Gandhiji stated decades ago,

“The Earth has enough for man’s need but not enough for man’s greed.”

It is critical we create common understanding on how these different goals are related and learn to work and think together to make the shift as quickly as possible.

It is high time we step into the future with purpose, to break free of our current exploitative thinking and self-imposed constraints of what is possible. To do this requires creativity, leadership and a paradigm shift in thinking.

A Proven Technique

Called ‘backcasting’, this technique was designed to create bold visions that help leaders to bend the trends from what is likely to what is desired and needed in the future. Beginning with the end in mind alters the way we plan today, and how we make the transition from current reality to desired futures in the quickest possible time.

Backcasting from Sustainability Principles, or System conditions of sustainability is a key concept of the 'Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development' pioneered by Karl-Henrik Robèrt, founder of The Natural Step, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to applied research for sustainability.

It has been refined and tested by peer-review and application within businesses. Widely known examples are: IKEA, Interface, Nike, Philips, Dow Chemical, VinylPlus, Geox, Whistler etc.

Sustainability Leadership Certificate Training in Shanghai with The Natural Step

For the first time, this technique / course will be offered in Shanghai on 21-23 October 2019.

Sustainability for Leaders is designed to equip you with the necessary knowledge and tools to be "Future-Fit". It helps you to understand how to transform your organization towards sustainable future by using world-known The Natural Step's Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) and achieve strategic advantage and long-term leadership in your industry and/or community.

The training welcomes any professional intending to leverage sustainability for business growth, the goal to shape a sustainable future and the will to lead sustainability-related change, whether in a designated sustainability role or not. The course is hands-on, with participatory experience that will allow you to learn quickly, apply sustainability concepts and strategic approach to real situations and transfer what you learn to your business, organization or community.


For more information send an email to or scan the QR code below.

This article was written by Lin Zhang and Patrik Sandin of The Natural Step, Shanghai, with support from Green Initiatives. The Natural Step is a leading partner for organisations ready to address humanities grand challenges to create a better future. TNS enables decision makers to manage complexity, define their future position and seize opportunities for short and long term success.