Public wants circular economy to be more than just technical, global survey shows

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“So what exactly is the circular economy?” ask journalists, policy-makers, academics and the public when they first hear about the topic. It depends on who you ask: a new report by researchers from Utrecht University indicates that the public envisions a circular future to be more socially and environmentally oriented than the technology-focused approach common in our ministries, universities, and multinational corporations.

Different views on circularity

Different stakeholders portray, characterize and describe this alternative economic model in different ways. In earlier research, Utrecht University's Martin Calisto Friant, Walter Vermeulen and Roberta Salomone from University of Messina identified four main circularity discourse types.

Some discourses focus on technological progress and new business models to generate economic growth without environmental harm, a view the researchers call ‘Technocentric Circular Economy’. This discourse is dominant among many public and private institutions. Others such as the ‘Transformational Circular Society’ also consider social justice elements and aim to radically transform the current socio-economic system by fairly, sustainably and democratically redistributing the biophysical resources of the earth to ensure well-being for all, while respecting the limits and boundaries of the biosphere.  

Audiences prefer holistic views

 “Imagine Circularity” was a global survey aimed at understanding how people around the world perceive the notion of a circular economy, and what kind of circular economy they would prefer to see in the future. The results suggest that while there is support for the ‘Technocentric Circular Economy’, many have a more diverse outlook. More than half of survey participants preferred discourses that painted a more holistic picture of circularity. “It is clear that people value a circular economy that is also socially inclusive, has a fair distribution of resource use between rich and poor, and is nature-positive,” says Calisto Friant.

It is clear that people value a circular economy that is also socially inclusive, has a fair distribution of resource use between rich and poor, and is nature-positive

The importance of outreach and participation

Respondent understanding of the circular economy also played an important role. People with more knowledge of the circular economy and higher levels of education tended to opt for more radical and holistic discourses. This suggests that a more progressive vision of the concept could grow over time as people learn about the concept. “These results are in line with academics who speak of the need to increase circular literacy to ensure that a circular transition brings about tangible reductions in humanity’s socio-ecological footprint in a socially fair and equitable manner,” says Calisto Friant.

“We also found that increased participation of citizens and scientists in the construction of a circular economy could make this process more transformative”. The researchers argue that diversity in the debate is lacking, and that this is holding back democratic and free discussion on the shape the transition should take. “This could lead to a future dominated by a vision of a ‘Technocentric Circular Economy’ which, as the survey shows, people do not actually prefer when informed about different visions on the circular economy”. 

A global survey

To create ‘Imagine Circularity’, the researchers got together with REVOLVE Circular, a non-profit association based in Austria, in early 2021. Together, they developed the first global survey investigating how people imagine and perceive a circular economy. The survey ran from April 2021 to June 2022 and was made available in over twelve languages including English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. In total, the survey received 1150 answers from people in 77 different countries.

The findings of the ‘Imagine Circularity’ survey are now available in a detailed report.