The circular economy concept has deep-rooted origins and cannot be traced back to one single date or author. Its practical applications to modern economic systems and industrial processes, however, have gained momentum since the late 1970s, led by a small number of academics, thought-leaders and businesses.
German chemist and visionary Michael Braungart went on to develop, together with American architect Bill McDonough, the Cradle to Cradle™ concept and certification process. This design philosophy considers all material involved in industrial and commercial processes to be nutrients, of which there are two main categories: technical and biological. The Cradle to Cradle framework focuses on design for effectiveness in terms of products with positive impact and reducing the negative impacts of commerce through efficiency.
Cradle to Cradle design perceives the safe and productive processes of nature’s ‘biological metabolism’ as a model for developing a ‘technical metabolism’ flow of industrial materials. Product components can be designed for continuous recovery and reutilisation as biological and technical nutrients within these metabolisms.
Katja Hansen is a pioneering contributor to the scientfic basis for the Cradle to Cradle design paradigm. She is Senior Researcher at The Academic Chair Cradle to Cradle for Innovation and Quality Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. She is also a lead trainer and engineering expert working with EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung on implementing the Cradle to Cradle concept with partner companies, and manages the EU supported C2C Islands project.
Walter Stahel, architect and industrial analyst, sketched in his 1976 research report to the European Commission 'The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy', co-authored with Genevieve Reday, the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings, and waste prevention. Credited with having coined the expression “Cradle to Cradle” in the late 1970s, Stahel worked at developing a “closed loop” approach to production processes and created the Product Life Institute in Geneva more than 25 years ago. It pursues four main goals: product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities, and waste prevention. It also insists on the importance of selling services rather than products, an idea referred to as the ‘functional service economy’, now more widely subsumed into the notion of ‘performance economy’. Stahel argues that the circular economy should be considered a framework: as a generic notion, the circular economy draws on several more specific approaches that gravitate around a set of basic principles.
Watch the video below to listen to Stahel talk about the performance economy.
Walter Stahel is an alumni of ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, where he received his diploma in architecture in 1971; Founder-director of The Product-Life Institute Geneva, since 1983. Vice-secretary general and director of risk management research of the Geneva Association (International Association for the Study of Insurance Economics), since 1987. Among his publications: the Performance Economy (2006) and The Limits to Certainty, facing risks in the new Service Economy (1989/92, with Orio Giarini).
Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, defines her approach as ‘a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems’. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example. She thinks of it as ‘innovation inspired by nature’. Biomimicry relies on three key principles:
In the video below, Janine Benyus explains the concept and highlights examples of biomimetic innovation.
“Industrial ecology is the study of material and energy flows through industrial systems”. Focusing on connections between operators within the ‘industrial ecosystem’, this approach aims at creating closed-loop processes in which waste serves as an input, thus eliminating the notion of an undesirable by-product. Industrial ecology adopts a systemic point of view, designing production processes in accordance with local ecological constraints whilst looking at their global impact from the outset, and attempting to shape them so they perform as close to living systems as possible. This framework is sometimes referred to as the ‘science of sustainability’, given its interdisciplinary nature, and its principles can also be applied in the services sector. With an emphasis on natural capital restoration, industrial ecology also focuses on social wellbeing.
“Natural capital" refers to the world’s stocks of natural assets including soil, air, water and all living things. In their book “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution”, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins describe a global economy in which business and environmental interests overlap, recognising the interdependencies that exist between the production and use of human-made capital and flows of natural capital. The following four principles underpin natural capitalism:
Initiated by former Ecover CEO and Belgian businessman Gunter Pauli, the Blue Economy is an open-source movement bringing together concrete case studies, initially compiled in an eponymous report handed over to the Club of Rome. As the official manifesto states, ‘using the resources available in cascading systems, (…) the waste of one product becomes the input to create a new cash flow’. Based on 21 founding principles, the Blue Economy insists on solutions being determined by their local environment and physical/ecological characteristics, putting the emphasis on gravity as the primary source of energy. The report, which doubles up as the movement’s manifesto, describes ‘100 innovations that can create 100 million jobs within the next 10 years’, and provides many examples of winning South-South collaborative projects— another original feature of this approach intent on promoting its hands-on focus.
In the US, John T. Lyle started developing ideas on regenerative design that could be applied to all systems, i.e., beyond agriculture, for which the concept of regeneration had already been formulated earlier. Arguably, he laid the foundations of the circular economy framework, which notably developed and gained notoriety thanks to McDonough (who had studied with Lyle), Braungart and Stahel. Today, the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies offers courses on the subject.