Towards a revised understanding of resources and economy in the circular economy

Stefan Christoffer Gottlieb, Nicolaj Frederiksen, Christian Koch, Martine Buser

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Abstract

While the circular economy (CE) is gaining political traction, with steps being taken to embrace CE principles at European and national levels, practical progress remains elusive. One reason for this is that the transition to the CE is predicated on the need to decouple economic activities from the consumption of finite resources. Yet most initiatives treat the notion of economy as a mere contextual backdrop for proposed actions, an aspirational outcome rather than a realized process of consumption and production. More critically, policymaking, research, and practical efforts to adopt CE principles often draw on dogmatic neoclassical economic assumptions that markets and the economy work as naturalized phenomena that are disembedded from other societal functions. Moreover, these approaches crucially fail to recognize that the concept of the/an ‘economy’ is not a pregiven entity, but a construct shaped by social, political, and not least, material processes in the form of the very resources that are the central focus of the CE.

This results in an underdeveloped understanding of the relationship between economic activities and processes of production and consumption. Drawing on insights from the sociology of economics, our project aims at addressing this by developing a dialectical understanding of two pivotal constructs within the circular economy namely 'economy' and 'resources'. Thus, rather than seeing CE as a question of how to decouple economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, we consider consumption and production processes as economic activities per se that contribute to shaping the boundaries of markets.

We do so by studying how ‘non-economic’ aspects of the circular economy, such as new design and production methods, recycling, and reuse, are translated into economic terms, thereby making them subject to valuation, calculations, and decision-making. This translation reveals deeper insights into how specific consumption and production practices may be realized, and how to create a new performative economics of circular consumption. We apply a similar understanding in our study of resources. Instead of seeing resources as tangible and fixed goods that are innately valuable, we advocate an approach that emphasizes the processes through which a potential resource is transformed into a ‘resource in use’. This entails a focus on the relationship between resources and the existing institutionalized rules, norms, and conventions which constitute a framework of. This perspective enables us to understand how frameworks for action can be altered to accommodate the use of certain resources instead of others.

We pursue these understandings in a study of how alternative forms of economic organization, business models, and market mechanisms can be developed to support the circulation of products and services that mobilize new resources or new types of resource use in the construction industry. In doing so, the project provides a more critical perspective on the dynamics and processes involved in the transition to the circular economy compared previous efforts in the Danish and international contexts.
Original languageDanish
Title of host publicationBuilding a Circular Future : Insights from Interdisciplinary Research
EditorsDitte Lysgaard Vind
Number of pages2
Publication date2024
Pages69-70
Publication statusPublished - 2024

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