The circular economy concept, explained

The term “circular economy” is being used more and more frequently within the manufacture and construction industries as well as various other business sectors. Brendon Rowen of Cradle to Circular Design Consultancy UK explains the concept.

The modern idea of regenerative and responsible product design, typified by the concept of the circular economy, stems from a number of whole system design concepts. Influences on this concept come from renowned architect Walter R Stahl, sustainability pioneer Gunter Pauli and Natural Step founder Karl-Hendrik Robért, to name a few.

Amongst the influences on the concept are the criteria outlined in the Hannover Principles, published in 1991, compiled and written by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, the founders of Cradle to Cradle®. The principles are a set of statements about designing buildings and objects with forethought about their environmental impact, their effect on sustainable growth and their overall impact on society.

The Hannover Principles:

  • Insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition
  • Recognise interdependence
  • Respect relationships between spirit and matter
  • Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems and their right to co-exist
  • Create safe objects of long-term value
  • Eliminate the concept of waste
  • Rely on natural energy flows
  • Understand the limitations of design
  • Seek constant improvement by sharing knowledge

Over the years these principles have been expanded upon and evolved into what is now termed the Cradle to Cradle (C2C®) design protocols or standard. The C2C standard evaluates and assesses product design, processing and manufacture criteria and administers a certification of the end product. These products are specifically designed to flow effectively through the various channels of the circular economy system.

The importance of the circular economy

As a result of the 2007 McKinsey study into the next evolution in global socio-economics, the circular economy concept was born into reality and defined as a practice to adopt for global sustainable economic development. In 2009, Dame Ellen MacArthur founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), an organisation wholly focused on educating and supporting circular economy efforts worldwide. The EMF has since pioneered education and global implementation of circular economy principles.

Highly influential companies such as Google, Unilever, Phillips, Renault, Nike, ECOR, Stella McCartney and many more are part of the foundations’ CE100 initiative, which aims to encourage and support circular economy practices throughout supply chains, bringing the socio-economic, ecological and financial benefits of circular economy activity to businesses and customers worldwide.

The circular economy is a relatively new system of operation, which aims to ‘close the loop’ and design waste out of the system. This means a transition from the outdated ‘take, make, dispose’ linear operating model, which is highly wasteful and detrimental to the environment, to a more responsible all-encompassing and abundant resource management system. This current system mines resources, uses them in the manufacturing of a product and then disposes of these valuable materials at the end of use; usually to landfill or incineration, meaning a large amounts of resource value is lost. On the other hand, the circular economy closes this resource loop by providing a system of operation that designs wastage out of the system, avoiding landfills and incineration altogether and keeping resources in use for as long as possible through reuse and regeneration of new products.

This circular economy is a vital system to facilitate reduction in the depletion of resources. For example, a “circular” designed phone would be one that is designed for disassembly at the end of use, made with approved high-quality materials that can be safely re-utilised, either into another phone or other suitable products. The reuse of resources include their reclamation by the original manufacturer for use in new products, allowing manufacturers substantial financial savings. This activity retains material value and dramatically reduces undesirable ecological impacts.

As with any new idea or concept, the definition and alignment of the new idea in relation to current behaviour and activity can sometimes be misinterpreted and not grasped fully. In some cases, the circular economy concept is understood as responsible recycling or effective and efficient waste management or reduction. These activities do add to and improve circular economy outcomes, they are however by no means an adequate definition.

A simple definition: The circular economy is a regenerative system in which resource input, waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops; this can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, re-manufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and upcycling. This is in contrast to a linear economy which is a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production.

Each circular economy project will have its own parameters, requirements and criteria. Applying the basic definition to these projects ensures a definitive circular economy culture is embedded, with measurable outputs and results that can be quantified.

When learning about anything new we tend to adapt what we already know to the new information and evolve our thinking and understanding of the new concept. This is the case with the circular economy. As we pioneer and apply this new idea in business, manufacture and supply chain management, we are learning new ways to constantly improve the concept. Many UK, EU, and US stakeholders, businesses, educators and governments are now engaging and embracing this new global development with outstanding results.

The Cradle to Cradle Marketplace

Actively implementing the circular economy principles and using Cradle to Cradle Design as practical guidelines empowers your company to contribute to the 17 Sustainable Growth areas identified by the United Nations Development Programme for successful sustainable development. These are key to any healthy, effective CSR strategy.

There are five criteria under which C2C certified products are assessed; Material Health, Material Re-utilisation, Renewable Energy, Water Stewardship and Social Fairness. Circular economy stems out of the question; what is next for the materials in the material re-utilisation category? What do we do with the materials once they have been utilised this time around?

Organisations including the Circular Economy Club, Circle Lab, Circular Glasgow, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, C2C Centre, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency, Cradle to Circular Design Consultancy, Forum for the Future and many more are fully engaged with education, support and implementation of circular economy and C2C activity on a global scale.

In order to support and facilitate the shift towards a circular economy (CE) operating model, businesses and consumers can already buy and engage with C2C certified, circular economy ready products and services. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute has a registry of CE ready products already C2C certified. As C2C design takes into consideration the product’s material health and whole use-cycle at the design stage already, the circularity of the product is inherent and use within the circular economy model is assured. The C2C standard provides a raft assessment of product ingredients to ensure full circular design, to minimise waste, promote re-use and have a positive environmental impact.

Circular economy-ready goods can be bought through web portals such as Cradle to Cradle Marketplace (UK/US) or Cradelution (EU) who are in partnership with specific C2C certified product manufacturers and suppliers to bring access to the good stuff. By purchasing circular economy ready products from C2C marketplace you are furthering the advancement towards more C2C certified products into the global marketplace. The company reinvests up to 50% of their profits to support other manufacturers and businesses to certify products and create more healthy products in worldwide circulation. C2C marketplace founders, Brendon and Paul believe this will in turn create wealth and prosperity spirals in business, industry and the environment and generate a positive approach in the transition to a circular economy.

How can your product become Cradle to Cradle certified?

That is where Cradle to Circular Design Consultancy UK comes in. Together with our partners, we can advise and support you every step of the way in order to submit your application for the certification of your product. We also consult with you on the most effective Circular Economy strategy to employ for your business. As affiliates of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (USA) and partnerships with both the Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (EU), we have the ability, expertise and support to realise your sustainability goals and more.

Cradle to Cradle and C2C are registered trademarks of MBDC, LLC.

The Cradle to Cradle image mark and word marks can only be used by MBDC or under written license from MBDC in reference to Cradle to Cradle services (including business consulting, architectural and engineering consulting, and educational services).


Brendon Rowen
Co-founder & CEO
Cradle To Cradle Marketplace
+44 (0)7747411585

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