Circular Economy or Degrowth?

It’s now been widely acknowledged that a transition towards the circular economy is vital to tackle the climate emergency. This thought has become so mainstream that the Scottish Government has even appointed its first Circular Economy Minister, a position first held by the Scottish Green’s Lorna Slater.

But what is the circular economy? In simple terms, it seeks to deviate from the linear economy of ‘take, make, discard’, as well as the recycling economy of ‘take, make, recycle, dispose, and instead move towards a process of ‘take, make, use, reuse, redistribute, repair, reproduce’.

In other words, while the recycling economy still ultimately requires goods to eventually be disposed of, the circular economy seeks to eliminate waste altogether through a variety of processes.

You can find some easy explainers about the circular economy on the Ellen Macarthur Foundation website.

However, if you look through their website, you’ll see that one of their top examples of the circular economy is the Renault car plant, which remanufactures certain vehicle components. This is obviously better than car plants that use new raw materials each time, but do we want a car manufacturing plant to be our pin up pioneer of the circular economy?

Moving towards the circular economy is vital, but we must be wary of who gets to benefit from it. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation won’t hesitate at giving that honour to an industry that has contributed to climate change more than many others. And as the discourse is finally starting to shift, there won’t be a shortage of corporations trying to jump on that bandwagon.

In other words, we need to be careful that we don’t let our genuine motivations for transitioning towards the circular economy and a ‘just transition’ become another opportunity for greenwashing and corporate takeover. Capitalism is a tricksy changeling and will take almost any form we ask it to take.

That’s why I favour the term degrowth. Instead of working within our current economic system, degrowth believes that to tackle the climate crisis we need to shift towards a radically different model of economic growth. In other words, degrowth is a system which prioritises social and ecological wellbeing over corporate profit.

In theory, this means a reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a redistribution of resources according to principles of social and environmental justice. In practice, this can mean some of the things I mentioned in a previous blog: sharing instead of owning, borrowing instead of buying, and using instead of consuming.

You can find out more about degrowth all over the internet, but for an easy to read example, here's a surprisingly anti-consumerist article from Glamour Magazine, calling for degrowth in the fashion industry.

For those who are more academically minded, Jason Hickel has written extensively on the subject and you can see one of his articles defining it here.

And for some really great chat about some of the dangers of corporate takeover of a 'just transition' you can catch Paul O'Connel's guest appearance on the excellent podcast Trademark Belfast.

And finally, a big shout out to our friends in the Enough! collective who are pushing for degrowth in Scotland. Their quarterly journal LESS would be a good place to start if you want to find out more.

By Lauren Pyott