Sustainability v/s Circularity

By Inchainge | September 20, 2022

The terms circularity and sustainability are often used interchangeably and that is exactly where the confusion lies. While the two concepts are not entirely different from one another – in fact, they are somewhat related – circularity and sustainability define two distinctive concepts. And while neither are new concepts to understand, circularity is one that many commercial manufacturers are targeting to help make sustainability attainable through design.

The term ‘Sustainability’

Individual and collective human activity has a huge impact on our planet and all living organisms. Given that these activities undoubtedly lead to environmental degradation, rapid loss of biodiversity, and climate change, we need to offer ways to solve these problems. 

Sustainability is focused on the long-term period and assumes that our actions bring environmental, economic, and social benefits without polluting the environment or spending too many resources. 

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Abiding by this definition, sustainability consists of any activity that strives to meet this goal. It is the whole journey from the vision of a sustainable future to the implementation of sustainable practices.  

Striving for sustainable development, businesses need to adapt their way of operating. This includes the implementation of circular value chains and the reduction of their carbon footprint as part of a holistic sustainability strategy.  

What is Circularity?

Circularity as a term is a bit more specific than sustainability. While sustainability acts as an umbrella for every practice that strives to sustain the future, circularity is more about the practices that lead to sustainability. Like reusing raw materials, refurbishing used products, or recycling old materials and so on.  

A circular economy decouples growth from negative externalities by building on the following three key circular economy principles: 

  • Designing out waste and pollution 
  • Keeping products and materials in use 
  • Regenerating natural systems 

The figure below showcases the process of circularity. Raw material is manufactured and furbished to create an end product. However, once this product is utilized at its maximum potential, it is discarded as waste. Circularity on the other hand enhances the reuse of the product and/or even refurbishes the waste to restore its value. In this way, circularity closes the loop from waste to return to raw materials.  

Unlike a linear economy, which follows the traditional pattern of ‘Take, make, and waste’, a circular economy rethinks this whole process.  

Source: Sustainability Guide-Circular Economy

The Difference between Sustainability and Circularity

According to the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation, sustainability  “evolved from the fields of ecology and environmental science, which gave [it] the holistic, systems-based view so crucial to successful programs in this space, but is also biased towards natural systems.” 

Sustainability describes all activities which ensure that human beings can co-exist with the natural world around them. This can involve scientific and technological invention as well as careful practice to reduce the depletion of natural resources. In the Butterfly Diagram, defined by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, sustainability involves all the activities on the left side. These are focused on the biosphere which means that all practices concern and involve natural resources.

Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Circularity, on the other hand, includes the activities which are defined on the right side of the diagram. Their primary focus is on the technosphere. Circularity demands advances in technology and scientific research to discover new ways of reusing resources. Recyclable raw materials should be designed into a product right at the manufacturing stage so that they can be utilized after their use.

The relation between Circularity and Sustainability

In his paper, ‘The Circular Economy – A new sustainability paradigm?’, Martin Geissdoerfer suggests that both sustainability and circularity “emphasize intra- and intergenerational commitments motivated by environmental hazards and signal the importance of increasing agency and public deliberation upon the multiple and coexisting pathways for development.”The two concepts also share a global perception, where all problems on a global scale must be addressed through shared responsibilities and by coordinating multiple agencies such as government, businesses, and individuals. They are both involved in several multi-disciplinary approaches which not only help understand the people and the planet approach, but also the profit approach through innovation and design. Due to this reason, both the concepts also show the potential to incur costs and risks but at the same time, they open up opportunities for value creation and diversification. It can be said that while circularity is all about retaining value, sustainability is all about making the most of value. To be more precise, circularity is what comes into play when a business or a government is planning a strategy – this is where they decide which raw materials go where and how they can retain their value for the maximum period of time. On the other hand, sustainability influences how environmental, social, and economic practices are essential agencies to a real change.

A Circularity Case Study: IKEA

How can you design waste and pollution out of a business model? Some forward-thinking corporations are doing just that by focusing on how to prolong the lifecycle of their products and raw materials. For example, IKEA has set forth a plan to become a fully circular business by 2030. The proposal includes a buy-back system for customers who want to exchange their used furniture for vouchers, building products only with recycled or renewable materials, and standardizing parts.

The strategy falls within the company’s broader sustainability ambitions, which tells us IKEA’s decision to transition to a circular business model is designed to achieve a better future for themselves as a business, and for society at large.

Now you know that circularity and sustainability aren’t interchangeable terms but they are related. It can be said that while sustainability is the end goal, circularity is a step toward that end goal. Circularity is a practice that focuses on reducing waste as much as possible while keeping a product’s value intact for a longer period of time. This ensures the diminished production of goods which in turn helps reduce pollution and costs. In order to strive for a sustainable future, businesses need to adapt to a circular economy where goods and raw materials are not discarded after use but rather renewed and refurbished to add increasing value.

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Written by Anne Holden