Making the Circular Economy work for Human Development (Elsevier Academic Journal, May 2020)

Elsevier Resource, Conservation & Recycling publication (sample)

Authors: Patrick Schröder, AlexandreLemille & PeterDesmond


This paper aims to re-conceptualise and advance the existing frameworks and practical applications of the circular economy (CE) towards a broader approach to development in general and, more particularly, to combine it with the approach for Human Development (HD). The CE is an alternative to the current “take, make, waste” extractive industrial model and offers a practical solution to address global and local environmental challenges, such as resource depletion, marine plastic pollution, and for staying within planetary system boundaries. Although the CE and related concepts such as cradle to cradle provide a most promising alternative to the traditional linear economy model and its impacts on the planets eco-systems, some of the CE key elements have raised debate both in the academic community and among policy makers. One of the debates concerns the missing social or human dimensions of the CE. Likewise, the HD approach lacks considerations of environmental sustainability. Drawing on both academic and grey literature and the authorsö research observations and professional experiences in the fields of promoting the CE and international development cooperation for HD, we attempt to develop an integrative conceptual framework of the CE and HD. This framework includes social-economic elements of the transformation from linear to circular economic models, combined with HD from the social sciences and development studies. We thereby complement the technological-material focused CE model that is primarily based on principles of industrial ecology and engineering. We utilize the existing ‘circular humansphereö concept to articulate the incorporation of HD into the discussion of CE. By bringing in explicit links with HD, we pursue a double aim: First, to raise awareness and understanding among the CE research community of the missing human dimension in current CE discourse, and second, to familiarise the international development community with the approaches of CE. This will advance the options for adopting CE practices in international development programmes and for the process of implementing the social SDGs concerning HD such as SDG 1, 3, 4, 5, and 10. Finally, we hope that this CE and HD framework can contribute to the resolution of environmental and developmental issues.

1. Introduction

What is the reasoning behind this attempt of putting two very different concepts and approaches like the Circular Economy (CE) and Human Development (HD) together into one framework?

First of all, traditional approaches to reduce poverty and improve human well-being through economic growth and industrialisation with high levels of resource consumption, pollution and waste generation are pushing against critical planetary boundaries (Rockström et al., 2009). Furthermore, current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards many HD objectives. The Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019) highlights important positive synergies between preserving nature and achieving HD goals related to education, gender equality, reducing inequalities and promoting peace and justice. Therefore, new approaches that combine poverty reduction and HD with measures to increase the provision of nature’s contributions and the conservation and sustainable use of nature are needed.

Secondly, there are similarities in the origins of the CE and the HD approach. The CE emerged as a consequence of defects in linear approaches to sustainable economic systems. The HD approach emerged in part as a result of fundamental dissatisfactions with the consequence of neo-liberal economic policy, especially as applied in developing countries over the 1980s and before. The first CE concept emerged in the 1970s and 1980s when increasing waste generation became an issue and new ideas emerged such as the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle). The next phase of the CE was from 1990 to 2010 and focused on strategies for eco-efficiency. Since then, the focus shifted again to maximising value from resources and reuse of waste Reike et al. (2018).

HD started with Amartya Sen’s capability approach conceptualised in the 1970s and 1980s as an alternative to orthodox welfare economics. In 1990 the Human Development Report (HDR) was created by Mahbub ul Haq and was published by the United Nations Development Programme. The HDR also pioneered the Human Development Index (HDI), directly combining three fundamental measures of human well-being: life expectancy (as a measure of length of life), education (as a measure of access to knowledge) and a tapering measure of income per capita (as a measure of people having sufficient income for basic consumer choices). The three were chosen in part because they were available for most countries of the world. The combination of the three into the HDI was explicitly intended to shift attention from the dominant pre-occupation with economic growth measured by Gross National Product (GNP) increases.

Issues of unsustainable resource consumption and production are not new topics for HD. Already in 1998 the HDR discussed and issued a “critique of consumption patterns that are inimical to human development, and an agenda for action to create an enabling environment for sustainable consumption

for human development” (UNDP, 1998, iii). From around 2010 Human Development and sustainability concepts have become more closely connected (e.g. Neumayer, 2010). Both paradigms have built on the concerns generated by the 1972 Stockholm conference on the Environment, which first endorsed commitments to an ecologically intact planet without waste and emphasised that sustainability and human well-being are both matters too important to be treated as bi-products of simple-minded economic growth, however rapid. The HD approach still has its shortcomings. The critical importance of environmental sustainability and human carrying capacity (Rees, 2013) for HD have not been widely recognised. They were insufficiently considered in the initial HD approach and when the HDI was developed. There is increasing realisation that the HD approach also requires taking into account well-being of future generations and long-term environmental sustainability (Stewart et al., 2018). Bringing the HD approach and the CE together could address this shortcoming of the current HD approach. Likewise, it would also address the shortcomings of the current CE approaches, as discussed in the following sections.

This paper is a conceptual contribution to advance the CE concept, not an empirical analysis of existing CE models or testing of how current conceptualisations of the CE are practised. The methods used to inform this conceptual contribution to the HD and CE discussions include a narrative literature review covering a wide range of academic sources and grey literature. The academic literature and online sources were found and accessed through searches in academic databases Scopus and ScienceDirect and through Google. In addition to the literature review, the development of this conceptual framework has been informed by the combined professional experiences of the authors in international development, environmental protection and sustainable business development. The main author has worked extensively in international development programmes with governments on CE policies and promoting the uptake of CE practices in industry and communities in Asian developing countries. The two other co-authors are founders of the African Circular Economy Network and actively involved in promoting and testing CE business models on local and national levels in Europe and Africa.

2. Overview of current circular economy definitions, narratives and frameworks: where are the social gaps?

The CE is a visionary and practical alternative to the current “take, make and dispose” extractive industrial model. It is restorative and regenerative by design (EMF, 2015a) and offers the promise of an alternative sustainability paradigm (Geissdoerfer et al., 2017). Over the last decade…

To be continued on Elsevier Academic Journal:

Free access (during 50 days from publication date):

Paper available on demand.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store