A Brief History of the Circular Economy

Today the Circular Economy is a hot topic. But what is it exactly? And, where do you start with it?


Companies, governments, schools & universities and other organizations all talk about the subject and even wrestle with it. National governments (e.g. the Dutch and Scottish) and the European Commission wish to establish a circular economy in their countries and run programmes to stimulate and facilitate change. Organisations explore the opportunities for their business, acquire knowledge and join national or international platforms to exchange ideas and practices. Even universities are setting up courses for business administrators, product designers, policy makers, amongst others on the subject. Maybe now is a good point to go back to the beginning and try to understand the rising popularity of this new economy.


So, where does this Circular Economy come from? In terms of promotion and activity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has probably made the largest impact of the past few years with their report Towards the Circular Economy, in 2012. Many of the activities described above occurred after the publication of this report for example, and the foundation’s diagram on the Circular Economy is used by almost every individual talking about this subject. The central presence of the foundation at the World Economic Forum this year was underpins its importance in the circular economy landscape.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report is rooted in prior sustainability concepts and schools of thought, such as Industrial Ecology (1989), Biomimicry (1997) and Cradle to Cradle (2002). All of these concepts aim to provide a solution for environmental pollution and uncurbed exponential growth of consumption. Although different in perspective or method, they all share the idea of nature as a model. Learning from nature and understanding why it is a sustainable system from within requires thinking in systems and feedback loops. The Circular Economy builds on the principles of these concepts, such as using renewable energy, considering waste as food, and in closing loops of biological and technical materials separately.


What is really new about the Circular Economy however is the link with the economy. The principles of the concepts mentioned have been applied to economic systems and resulted in a new economic model. As a result, alternative business opportunities become more apparent and tapping into them has begun to yield real advances. More significantly, this positive frame of opportunity has encouraged individuals to take action.


The concept of the Circular Economy has found a close match in that which driver people and businesses, and it may even create greater impact and action than previous concepts.


So now we have a rough idea of what it is, the question is, what are you going to do with the opportunities from the Circular Economy? We have already started to explore the possibilities at Royal HaskoningDHV and the good news is that we can help you do the same.


Author: Bas Mentink (