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Boost circular economy to improve climate change and social cohesion

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In the face of COVID-19, people are supporting their communities. Citizens are sewing and donating masks and healthy people are shopping for their vulnerable neighbors. The pandemic reminds us that human connection and social solidarity are basic needs, especially in times of crisis. How can we incorporate this understanding into our economic policies and plans?

While our attention is rightfully focused on the immediate challenges of COVID-19 and systemic racism, another crisis continues with slow-moving force: climate change. A new generation of innovators proposes a circular economy as a key climate strategy. In contrast to our current system, which relies on wasting resources, a circular economy would be regenerative, just and resilient. 

As the European Commission defines it, “a circular economy aims to maintain the value of products, materials and resources for as long as possible by returning them into the product cycle at the end of their use, while minimizing the generation of waste.” What this and most definitions critically miss is that a circular economy can also bolster social ties, equity and our sense of community. 

Instead of driving to a grocery store and purchasing well-traveled tomatoes wrapped in plastic from a greenhouse still littered with edible, but unsaleable, produce, we can reduce food system waste by shortening supply chains. CSAs (community-supported agriculture) across the U.S. are increasing memberships. The idea is simple: members pay a small upfront fee and commit to buying produce from a farm throughout the growing season. In return, they get a weekly box of fresh, local food. 

Members get to know their farmers and fellow members, and might learn to enjoy a new variety of vegetable or receive a recipe to try. Some CSAs have sliding-scale memberships or “pay-it-forward” boxes. This provides a sustainable financial model for farmers and food access to a range of socioeconomic classes. 

Keeping food in use means reducing and composting waste, but being able to repair a machine instead of having to replace it, keeps its primary function in circulation. In 2019, 20 U.S. states considered “right to repair” legislation. In March of this year, the EU passed “right to repair” standards, which go into place in 2021. Under these standards, manufacturers must make spare parts available to repair professionals. Advocates argue that this is a good step, but individuals should also be empowered to fix their own things, perhaps through Fix-It Clinics, which we help run in Austin.

Fix-it Clinics are free community events where people help each other fix their broken stuff. The status quo is that when something breaks, like your toaster, you buy a new one. At a Fix-It Clinic, you meet someone, often from a different generation or social background, and solve the problem together. Repair skills are valued, and you leave with a functional toaster, new acquaintances and the understanding that you are part of a community.

This is the true opportunity behind circularity. The repaired-not-landfilled toaster and the not-wrapped-in-plastic tomato are just the beginning of the value the circular economy offers. The larger value comes from the experiences around them, which must be designed with intention and support structures. 

Buying local food is sometimes seen as trendy and elite. Borrowing, buying used or fixing something is stigmatized as the second-choice option to purchasing new. The circular economy, if done right, could radically shift what we consider the provinces of the rich and poor. A circular economy that considers social dimensions would shift away from short-term convenience towards long-term satisfaction. It would make small-scale agriculture economically viable and reusing and borrowing a social norm that happens within and between socioeconomic groups. 

This can happen while generating profits and household prosperity. For individuals, learning to repair an item or setting up stuff swaps with neighbors means having the things you need, without purchasing a new item. Instead of spending money, a circular approach invests your time in new relationships and skills.

Businesses who embrace circular models use items multiple times to generate profit, rather than once at the initial time of purchase. Fashion brands like Adidas and Eileen Fisher encourage customers to return or sell back their clothing, which is repaired, remanufactured and resold. This recommerce expands a brand’s clientele by offering affordable options. With circular models, brands enter into community with customers via relationships built on trust, product quality and customer service. 

In the big picture, transitioning to a circular economy is a 1.8 trillion-euro opportunity in Europe alone. In the everyday, it’s the opportunity for more dollars in your pockets and connections with your neighbors.

Anna Bruen and Natalie Messer Betts are recent alumni from the Robert Bosch Foundation’s transatlantic fellowship program. Bruen has roots working with government and grassroots organizations in rural southeast Iowa balancing local resilience with globalization. Follow her on Twitter @abruen. Betts manages the City of Austin’s Circular Economy Program. Follow her on Twitter @nataliembetts.

Tags agriculture goods circular economy Climate change Climate change mitigation COVID-19 economy repurposing

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