It's time to include developing nations more holistically in circular economy discussions

We've all heard of the "circular economy," but too often the narrative has been dominated by talk of high-tech innovations and redesigning business models to prevent excessive consumption.

Those are the priorities in industrialized nations, but how should developing countries go about implementing a circular economy?

That's the question posed by a new research paper released last week by Chatham House, which warns that without more consideration of how the "circular economy" can be applied to developing nations, countries around the world risk missing out on a critical pathway for sustainable growth. 

Investment in recycling, reusing and repairing used raw materials and products will create more jobs, save billions of dollars' worth of imports and help to mitigate climate change, the paper argues, echoing points Chatham House made in a research paper in 2017

That makes it a win-win for developing countries looking to develop their economies and pull more people out of poverty. The trouble is, however, little work is being done to work out how a circular economy could work for developing countries, said report co-author Laura Wellesley, a research fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Department at Chatham House.

"The global conversation and interest in the circular economy has really been driven by the [European Union], China and also multinational companies," she tells BusinessGreen. "And with those governments and companies based in developed countries leading on the development of this new narrative, the focus has been on high-tech innovations and on strategies for steering away from current patterns of excessive consumption of resources that we see in developed countries. And so much of the excitement is around solutions that have grown out of this context, and the applicability of those solutions in developing countries hasn't been well explored, nor has the wealth of activity that's already ongoing in developing countries."

She also points out that many challenges to scaling circular economy projects in developing countries also have not been fully assessed, such as the problems with handling large informal sectors that engage in circular economy activities such as resource collection and processing — but without the kind of regulatory oversight one might expect in developed nations.

"These are new challenges, and they're difficult challenges, and we just haven't seen the momentum to address them to date," she says.

The paper today declares there is an "urgent need" to widen the circular economy conversation to include developing countries and to help nations align their policy goals with a circular approach.

As well as international cooperation between governments, this will require multinational companies engaging their suppliers in developing countries to develop circular economy strategies that can be scaled up without displacing vulnerable workers.

Such efforts could be organized as circular economy "accelerator networks," the paper suggests, which could pilot policy innovations and help build business capacity to scale initiatives in developing nations.

There is ample opportunity for such work to get underway in 2019, Wellesley argued. "We've got the G20 in Japan, which has already been quite forward-thinking in terms of resource-efficient growth. There are also key moments in the Sustainable Development Goals process and the UNFCCC [the United Nations Secretariat for climate action]," she said. "I think what we want to see is some really ambitious commitment, at a multilateral level, to ramp up investment and piloting in all the solutions."

The phrase "circular economy" might be a buzzword in sustainability circles, but if it is to be useful as a framework for economic growth it has to have relevance beyond the confines of developed-nation enclaves. It is time, it seems, for the circular economy movement to go global. 

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