Daniel Welch, Margit Keller, Giuliana Mandich
Talk of the “circular economy” has grown in recent years. Today it’s central to both EU policy and the design philosophy of Jaguar Land Rover. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates it could add $1 trillion to the global economy by 2025. Brad Pitt is a devotee.
The circular economy is offered as a blueprint for an alternative future to the current linear economy of “make, use, dispose.” It’s a model for an environmentally sustainable economy, resilient in the face of resource insecurity and ecological crisis. The European Commission recently reframed its commitments to sustainable production and consumption in terms of the concept and in 2015 published “An Action Plan for the Circular Economy” . A number of NGOs and think tanks, notably the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the U.K., have championed the notion.
Projects and visions of collective futures mobilize sometimes conflicting understandings of the common good. And they often embody assumptions and implicit models of everyday life—in the case of the circular economy, crucially, models of consumption. As cultural sociologist Ann Mische puts it, imagined futures play a critical role in “processes of critique, problem-solving, and social intervention” . Imagined futures can come to serve as visions guiding public or corporate policy. They channel funding (as is very much the case with the circular economy at the EU level), have the power to influence technological design, and shape assumptions about how citizens, designers, and other professionals engage with future-oriented societal projects. Analyzing visions, models, and public debate about possible futures is an important task. Imagined futures—whether political utopias, models in public policy, or expectations in business planning—pave the roads toward the actual future.
Idealized visions of the circular economy are of a new industrial revolution, with products designed for extended lifetimes and with near-infinitely recyclable materials and components forming a zero-waste “closed loop.”
As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation imagines the circular economy, the very concept of waste would be eliminated. Resources and materials would circle through the economy based on the model of a nutrient cycle in natural ecosystems—so-called industrial symbiosis. The circular economy draws on an inheritance from the fields of industrial ecology and cradle-to-cradle design . Even the principle of efficiency would be replaced in the circular economy. The concept of efficiency carries within it the industrial logic of the coal-powered steam engine; efficiency is defined as the ratio of useful output to total input. In the circular economy, this is replaced by eco-effectiveness—as social scientists Jo Mylan and colleagues put it, “highlighting the potentially infinite contribution of materials to the generation of value” . Idealized visions of the circular economy are of a new industrial revolution, with products designed for extended lifetimes and with near-infinitely recyclable materials and components forming a zero-waste “closed loop.”
So, how are everyday futures imagined in the circular economy? Here, we apply insights from sociology concerning future projections, consumption, and conventions of the common good to current thinking about the circular economy from the EU and the national contexts of Estonia, Italy, and the U.K.
The level of engagement with the project of the circular economy varies widely across the EU. In the U.K., government has been scaling back work on the circular economy, as part of a general disengagement from active sustainability policymaking. On the other hand, U.K. think tanks, often in collaboration with business and academia, have been active in promoting the concept. In Estonia, the situation is reversed. On the formal level, government policy is tightly engaged with EU developments; however, there is little civil society, academic, or media engagement with the concept. Italy is similarly politically engaged, playing a very active role at the EU level.
As an entry point, we take the observation of Jo Mylan and colleagues that current models of the circular economy fall short in how they understand consumption and consumers. As Mylan et al. put it, there is a particular “lack of attention paid to the domestic sphere, an important site and space for the practices which shape how and why consumers use particular products and services, how waste is generated, and ultimately how this might be changed” .
Some widespread definitions of the circular economy tend to elide the domain of everyday life and consumption, even as the use stage remains the pivot to the entire model, as in this definition from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:
A circular economy keeps products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value, at all times, eliminating the concept of waste, with materials ultimately re-entering the economy at end of use as defined, valuable technical or biological nutrients.
Compare here the centrality of consumer and user in a widely reproduced graphical representation of the foundation’s model, shown in Figure 1.
While user and consumer are separate in this graphic, they do not relate to distinct processes, leaving any implied distinction unclear. The centrality of use and consumption is routinely acknowledged in reports and policy statements. A press release from the Estonian government rehearses a common pattern in policy documents, welcoming changes to the EU Ecodesign Directive that will “enhance the reparability, durability, and recyclability of products” while offering little to nothing in terms of concrete visions of everyday life and forms of consumption in which products will be routinely repaired, not replaced, and recycled. Between the design stage, on the one hand, and on the other, the end-of-life (waste management and resource recovery) of “circular” products, the use stage of products in the circular economy and their users is largely absent. Yet the same press release assumes the role of the consumer in everyday life to be crucial, with the Minister of the Environment stressing that: “Fulfilling the set objectives implies everyone’s contribution [including] reasonable and conscious behaviour of individuals [which] reduces needless consumption.” As is typical for political discourse on environmental sustainability, the consumer here is portrayed almost in caricature as a rational agent—“homo economicus.” At the same time, however, the consumer’s assumed engagement with the project of the circular economy implies a strong motivational commitment toward radically changed norms and practices of consumption. And yet, any context in which those changes might be assumed to take place is entirely unexplored.
Consumption does feature within the EU Action Plan . However, here again we note the restrictive, individualized model through which consumption is framed. The action plan on “Consumption” begins:
The choices made by millions of consumers can support or hamper the circular economy. These choices are shaped by the information to which consumers have access, the range and prices of existing products, and the regulatory framework .
It proceeds to largely rehearse the conventional tools through which sustainable consumption policy has been framed by the EU from the outset: eco-labeling, price incentives, household waste reduction, and recycling. Social-scientific scholarship on consumption has come to reject this overly individualized model (see ). Instead, consumption has come to be understood as individual performances of everyday social practices, such as driving, cooking, parenting, playing sports, and so on.
This social-practice-oriented understanding of consumption alters the position and nature of the consumer. First, against mainstream understandings of consumption—reflected in the examples above—in which the consumer is characterized as rational, utility-maximising homo economicus, the contemporary practice approach to consumption stresses the habitual, embodied, and unreflective aspects of consumption. Second, the figure of the consumer is decentered from accounts of consumption, which foreground rather dynamic relations between practices—such as, for example, how eating practices are conditioned by the temporal rhythms and spatial locations of work practices.
In other words, current models of the circular economy tend to naively construe the changes in patterns of consumption necessary for achieving the large-scale social and technological change they presuppose as shifts in individual consumption choices, understood as conscious behavior. They import the figure of the consumer—with all its baggage—into the use phase of the model. A social-scientifically informed account, by contrast, underscores the need to attend to transformations in dynamically related social practices and the technologies with which they are intertwined (see ). Consumption in social practice theory is expanded beyond acquisition to refer to a “moment” in almost all social practices in which goods or services are involved . From a sustainability point of view, we can understand this moment as the consumption of energy and resources.
The EU Action Plan does note “innovative forms of consumption”  as supporting the development of the circular economy and thus gestures toward imagined novel practices of consumption. Here the Action Plan rehearses a common collection of elements: “sharing products or infrastructure (collaborative economy), consuming services rather than products, or using IT or digital platforms” . It recognizes that moving to a circular economy will require changes in how people consume products and services. Business and think-tank discourse on the circular economy tends to frame the future of everyday life in terms of radical change—“profound transformational opportunity,” as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation puts it —conceived largely through the disruptive effects of digital technologies, ubiquitous computing, big data, and social media, and the reconfiguration of consumption and work practices that these trends produce. Note that this places a major responsibility on the HCI research and design community. “Collaborative consumption” and models of “product-service systems” are routinely invoked here, suggesting a profound shift away from private ownership of products to a new service model of provision. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes this as:
A new model of collaborative consumerism—in which consumers embrace services that enable them to access products on demand rather than owning them—and collaborative consumption models that provide more interaction between consumers, retailers, and manufacturers .
This imagined “collaborative consumerism” is also a more community-based and localized economy, in some of its circuits, at least. What is imagined here is a future of consumption that embraces not only novel business models and consumption practices, but also novel norms of consumption and emotional and motivational engagements in consumption. We note here how circular economy discourse overlaps with the problematic framing of the “sharing economy.” Both draw on quite distinct existing elements projected into an imagined future of consumption transformed—grassroots projects like novel digital platforms to share goods and services, such as Freecycle and Streetbank, on the one hand, and so-called disruptive capitalist enterprises, such as Uber and Airbnb, on the other.
In so doing, such models of the circular or sharing economy obscure the deeply conflicting orientations that these different elements manifest. Imagined futures such as collaborative consumerism tend to be projected from deeply contradictory trends—intensifications of commercialization (e.g., Airbnb), for instance, versus trends of de-commercialization, such as digital platforms enabling sharing (e.g., Streetbank). As such, they downplay conflict between these orientations and ignore the very different forms of moral justification they draw upon.
Cultural analysis alerts us to different “orders of worth” , or different conventional values that are drawn upon to justify courses of action, such as organizational change, or, as in the circular economy, the future orientation of society as a whole. Such orders of worth draw upon distinctive understandings. Thus, the market order of worth seeks justification through understandings of profit maximization and competition. The industrial order draws upon notions of productivity, efficiency, and instrumentality. The ecological order of worth, by contrast, draws upon notions of sustainability, conservation, and natural limits. Such orders may complement one another relatively unproblematically—but they may also conflict.
Notable in the EU Action Plan’s Consumption section  is the absence of general statements of value or morally framed calls to action, the effect of which is to frame the domain of consumption within default market and industrial orders of worth. Notable, then, is not only the absence of an ecological order of worth but also any gesture beyond the model of industrial efficiency toward “eco-effectiveness” through which the circular economy claims to distinguish itself .
Justification processes in official government texts are generally not very elaborate, drawing upon taken-for-granted, naturalized keywords such as sustainable and competitive. In our Estonian example, the ecological, industrial, and market orders of worth are all invoked; adjectives signaling different orders are placed side by side, eliminating conflict between them and normalizing an imagined future that sets competition, efficiency, and ecological sustainability in harmony:
Estonia supports most of the measures in the Circular Economy Package of the European Commission, which aim to promote the growth of competitive and sustainable economy in the European Union by increasing more effective and sustainable implementation of resources within the entire product value chain.
We note here that while such collisions of the market and ecological orders may signal contradiction and conflict, some management theorists argue such dissonance could instead act as a form of strategic ambiguity that enables very different constituencies, say, corporations and green NGOs, to work together without having to resolve fundamental differences. This noted, it is unclear what the relationship is between the kinds of circularity in the circular economy that maximize profits and the kinds of circularity that maximize environmental benefits. Whether this is a fundamental contradiction or a productive strategic ambiguity, only time will tell.
Ann Mische  suggests that narrative and even grammar in documents suggests how different groups understand social and technological change. In our final example, an Italian Environment Ministry document, we note how there is almost no rhetorical extension toward the future. In other words, the necessary long-term future orientation of an ecological order of worth is missing. The word future very rarely appears, the present tense is prevalent, and future-characterizing nouns (such as aspirations, challenge, progress, vision, etc.) are noticeable by their absence. What seems to be at stake is more the short-term destiny of the Italian economy than the long-term environmental future. The transition to a circular economy is presented as a resource for improving the competitiveness of the Italian economic system:
Here is an entrepreneurship that believes in Italy and in Europe, which knows to bet on an innovation environment, now a decisive element for competitiveness in the global market. [And which] serves to project ourselves in the only possible future, the circular economy and sustainable development as the cornerstone of doing business.
In our Italian example, we see the market order of worth as the primary frame, with the ecological frame little more than a new marketing strategy for Italian economic competitiveness.
In this article we show how resources from social science and cultural analysis can help us analyze imagined futures. Imagined futures do not lie over the temporal horizon; they are very much in the here and now. They condition our imaginative relationship to the future and how we understand social and technological change—the future projections of our societies. In doing so, they have very real effects—for example, in terms of the allocation of resources, political attention, and professional expertise, and of individuals’ capacity to imaginatively project themselves into wider social programs. And imagined futures contribute to path dependencies—roads left untrodden and possibilities unimagined, on the one hand, and avenues opened up and novel routes taken, on the other.
We’ve seen how the imagined futures of the circular economy often elide everyday life, even while acknowledging the centrality of consumption to the model. More expansive imaginaries of everyday futures posit radically changed forms of consumption, such as collaborative consumerism. But these imagined everyday futures assume norms and patterns of consumption transformed, while offering little by way of projected context that might show how such changes will come about. On top of this, they draw on potentially fundamentally incompatible justifications, or orders of worth.
We live in times of a widely acknowledged crisis of political imagination, a crisis in the imagined futures of social democracy and capitalism, often characterized as a collective failure to imaginatively project progressive social and technological change. In that context, engaging critically with imagined futures of everyday life is crucial work, not least for those working to materialize them into new technologies. Here, we illustrate how theoretical tools from cultural and social theory might be of help in this pursuit.
1. European Commission. Closing the Loop—An EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy. European Commission (COM614), 2015; http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm
5. Warde, A. and Southerton, D. eds. The Habits of Consumption. COLLeGIUM: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences vol 12. 2012; https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/34215
7. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Towards the Circular Economy: Opportunities for the Consumer Goods Sector Report 2. 2013; www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/TCE_Report-2013.pdf
Daniel Welch is a research associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester, where he lectures in sociology. His research interests include the sociology of future projections, particularly how the future of consumption and transformations toward sustainability are imagined and mobilized in professional practice and political discourse. firstname.lastname@example.org
Margit Keller is a senior researcher of social communication and head of the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia. She coordinates the Research Network of Sociology of Consumption of the European Sociological Association. She studies interventions into everyday practices and social change. email@example.com
Giuliana Mandich is a professor of sociology at the University of Cagliari, Italy. She coordinates the Research Network of Sociology of Everyday Life of the Italian Sociological Association. Her research is on space, time, and practice in everyday life and the future as a cultural dimension. firstname.lastname@example.org
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