Robin McAlpine – Circular Economy Subverted?

Scotland’s Think and Do Tank “Common Weal” is probably unique in the world with its practical programmes in all fields of life, but also its willingness and courage to critically engage with establishment political parties.

Robin McAlpine is the director of the Scottish think and do tank Common Weal.

Cross-posted from Common Weal


You know that an environmental concept has reached the mainstream when the Scottish Tories are trying to outflank the Scottish Government on it (even if the Scottish Government are making that rather easy). That’s where we are with the ‘circular economy’.

But it also means that we should start to be vigilant because it is also a sign there is a serious risk of subversion. Every time a major reforming concept has got into mainstream debate in recent times it has been captured, distorted and emasculated.

We have seen everything from ‘wellbeing economics’ to ‘green hydrogen’ subtly transformed from being radical, transformative ideas to being ‘business as usual with some presentational trickery’.

To stop it being captured and subverted, it needs more than for you to understand and fight for the concept, but to be clear about and fight for the implications – because this is truly a radical and transformative concept and not by any means more of the same.

Common Weal has written so much on circular economics and how to get there that it is best to go and look at some of this work, but a brief summary:

Think of it as a waste-free economy. Think of ‘waste’ of any sort as the economic circle breaking. If a material that comes out of the system doesn’t go back into the system to be used once again as a material then whatever you are looking at isn’t a circular economy.

So first you borrow or share where you can. When you can’t borrow or share you make sure that you buy things that can be reused. Where something can’t be reused anymore it should be repaired. Where something can’t be repaired it should remanufactured (taken apart and its component parts reused).

Then when that isn’t possible you should compost, because you’ve manufactured things largely from organic materials that you have grown (that compost then goes back to feed the next thing you grow).

What is left behind should mostly be fundamental minerals – metal, glass and so on. That should be recycled and returned to a state that goes right back into the beginning of the manufacturing process.

Why is this so radical? There are three big reasons. The first is what possibilities it opens up. If we have a society dominated by high-quality, long-lasting products (rather than the shoddy, short-life consumer goods that dominate now) and we’re changing the way we get access to those products, the average person gets access to more and better things.

Far from being sacrifice it is much more like ‘universal luxury’. This article explains the idea in more detail.

The second is that by making access to things easy we start to break the chain of need-cost-overwork which defines Britain. Because our lives are so dominated by disposability, we are perpetually running up a down escalator. Sooner rather than later, everything we have breaks and falls apart and we are back at the shops, buying the same things over and over.

And this leads to the third and biggest factor – it undermines the entire principle of the modern retail economy. We live in an economy where you can only be a success if you are able to compete in the low price, low quality, low margin, high volume market. If you can’t produce low-quality goods at extremely cheap prices, survive on small profits on each but sell warehouse-loads of them, you’re ‘niche’.

That means you can only sell to high-income, low-volume customers – supermarkets and high street clothing are closed off to you and instead you must sell in farmers markets and small boutique shops in affluent suburbs. It’s almost impossible to grow.

Yet Scotland is by nature a high-quality, high-skill country. Our raw ingredients and materials are first rate, our workforce is highly educated. The linear economy (take, make, sell, throw away, repeat) forces us to play to our weaknesses, not our strengths.

A circular economy starts to bias the economy away from megacorporations and back to smaller producers producing goods which last because they are properly made. The method of accessing those goods (leasing, borrowing, repairing) means that costs are spread and so crushing the supply and manufacturing chain to win tiny reductions in sale price isn’t necessary.

This is a chance to transform Scotland in exactly the ways many, many people say they want to see it change – high wages, quality food and consumer goods, lower poverty, immensely better environmental performance.

And that is why subversion is such a risk. The Scottish Government risks being outflanked by the Scottish Tories because yet again its commitment so far is paper-thin. The vanishing Circular Economy Bill was little more than rhetoric and a deposit scheme on coffee cups, approximating the definition of the very least it was possible to put in legislation and call it ‘circular’.

Meanwhile Zero Waste Scotland (the public agency tasked with moving to a circular economy) seems to believe that all this stuff is really ‘big business, for the big boys’. They seem deeply committed to the same powerful players having the same power in a future circular economy.

The way Scottish public agencies which are supposed to transform Scotland get so awestruck by its existing big money players that they rush into a kind of voluntary Stockholm Syndrome is an absolute plague on our society (see for example Scottish Enterprise, the oil industry and ‘green’ hydrogen).

A circular economy is not ‘this but with reusable coffee cups and an extra year on product guarantees’, it is a fundamental reorientation of our economy. In fact it would be the biggest economic reorientation for 100 years if we did it for real.

Circular economics shifts power away from the big towards the small because the economics of bigness so central to the linear economy no longer applies. The biggest corporations (and sadly Scotland’s public agencies) seem resistant to that happening.

On this as so much else, Scotland is at a crossroads. We have two options. We can take control of Scotland’s future and design policies and approaches which create the future we need. Or we can set out adjectives describing the future we need and then hand it over to big businesses to deliver as they see fit.

It is almost impossible to identify a single instance of Scotland taking the former path. If circular economics goes down the latter path it will eventually reach a terminus.

In that terminus it will find, in ragged clothing and head bowed, ‘Thatcherite trickle down’, ‘Blairite Public Private Partnerships’, ‘Scottish Government Wellbeing Economics’ and every other fake and failed free-market-dogma-disguised-as-progress to be inflicted on Scotland over the last 40 years.

Let’s all try and save circular economics from that fate.

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