Our current economic model, based on a linear approach and organized in a globalized and financialized manner, has reached its limits. More and more researchers, politicians and business leaders are becoming aware of this. But the Covid crisis has highlighted some important points regarding the viaibility of a circular economy that are worth returning to.
The Covid crisis and the environmental crisis: some teachings
The speed and violence with the one the pandemic of Covid 19 imposed global economic effects, invites us to reflec and gain awareness. First of all, we must realize our vulnerability. A virus caused the confinement of almost all of humanity in a few weeks. The economy stopped, forcefully demonstrating that we are not above nature nor that we are in control of it. Many ecologists point out that this health crisis is first and foremost an ecological crisis1 and that many other crises could emerge if we fail to transform the existing model. Moreover, this crisis has reminded us that our destinies are linked internationally, and that we all inhabit a global village. Goods and people move quickly, sometimes showing us our tremendous solidarity. But viruses also circulate quickly. The unbridled pace of our exchanges therefore has direct consequences, and not only positive ones.
This crisis has also made some people realize the potentially dramatic consequences of the distance between production and consumption areas. This distance, which exists for reasons of profitability and competitiveness, leads to dependence. Such conditioning proved its limits when it came down to access to masks, chemical reagents for tests or medicines. And this is without integrating the environmental aberration that it can also mean. Here we have experienced it for health reasons, but environmental reasons or energy costs could lead us to experience this kind of limitation in the future.
Indeed, this profound health crisis has some common points with the environmental crisis that is looming. Both have a vital character. The two involve reconfiguring globally for a more local approach. They underline the urgent need for profound change, with ambitious, not to say radical, sobriety objectives, both in terms of impacts on the climate and on biodiversity. And finally, they lead us to think in terms of solidarity, new forms of collaboration between actors from a diversity of territories and generations. It shows us that is the time to prepare to what many have called “The World After”.
But in order to conceive this new reality we must be careful in choosing the right answer to the right question. Some suggest that the question is one of supply (as with the example of masks) and therefore the answer is to diversify the sources of supply to reduce the question of dependence. In economics and classical strategy, this is a good option. But forgetting the environmental question would be a huge mistake. Therefore the real question seems to be how can the production come closer to demand, in a way that we can integrate a holistic view of the issues of global warning and the limited nature of resources. It is therefore a question of as Edgar Morin rightly points out.2
Towards a circular economy
From a macroeconomic point of view, Robert Boyer, economist, invites us to « return to the sources of political economy (to) forge the concepts and methods that make it possible to overcome the most fundamental problems of each society »3. This makes us think of the circular economy, which seems to be a promising model from a sustainable development perspective. This implies a redesign of our linear economic system into « a regenerative system in which the input of resources and waste, emissions and energy losses are minimized by slowing down, closing and narrowing the loops of materials and energy. This can be achieved through sustainable design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishment and recycling »4. This model involves rethinking priorities through the prism of energy and resource issues also integrating the major social and solidarity principles of sustainable development, making it a powerful source of solutions to the problems we face.
States and international organizations have a major responsibility as regulators to drive these major changes and give priority to these sectors that are vital for our future. But vital does imply thinking in terms of strong sustainability. In the long run, there will be no economic development without this reconnection to nature. This is precisely what we experienced with the COVID crisis. The economy alone cannot do everything.
It is therefore necessary to choose a development strategy based on the environmental issues that takes into consideration the question of growth. This means growth in some sectors will decline and will continue to develop in others. The question of externalities must of course be integrated into these considerations.
This also implies structuring the relocation of a certain number of activities, particularly the most strategic ones (food, healthcare in particular, but also the development of renewable energies), both in terms of independence and reducing our carbon impact. The question of territory is central. Without a territorial articulation strategy we are about us to experience the risk that we know today for sustainable development: a promising concept but one that is struggling to induce the necessary changes in the field and in our daily lives.
But we must of course accompany this transition, from an economic and social point of view, with the identification of new areas of expertise in particular and a very important role for education and training. It means walking together to talk about new business models and strategies. “It’s a business model based on longevity, renewability, reuse, repair, upgrade, refurbishment, servicing, capacity sharing, and dematerialization. »5
Each actor (individual, company, community) must therefore take ownership of the subject. But to do this we need clear incentives, tools and reading grids, of course, but also facilitators, people who give impetus and make people want to be a positive player in this change. Not everything is science, and I say that as a scientist. There is also a sociological, philosophical and political dimension, in the sense of the life of the city, to be reinvented.
To conclude, we can clearly see the limits of our model. Some authors invite us to see the COVID crisis as an early warning signal6. But not all the limitations experienced during this crisis were negative, a fertile breeding ground for change. We were also able to experiment with a refocusing on basic needs, such as food, health care and sharing things with loved ones and neighbors. This has underlined the importance of solidarity (with the caregivers and all the essential and primary jobs, but also with the most fragile) without which it is impossible to survive. We have lived in greater geographical proximity, especially with regard to our supplies, which also induces real solidarity, especially with local producers while reducing the carbon impact. We have mobilized for others and others have mobilized for us. The example of the mobilization of our industry, particularly the textile industry, is important in this context. We have experienced the fact of consuming less of products that are not basic necessities… and of realizing that it is possible. It is a form of detoxification. It can open some perspectives to question our own potential of sobriety. And above all, we have individually and collectively asked ourselves the question of meaning.
This awareness is therefore a warning signal, but above all an opportunity for businesses to take action.
About the Author
Dr Karen Delchet-Cochet is an environmentalist. She was first a consultant and auditor, accompanying and evaluating companies’ CSR strategies. Since 2010, she has been Professor in CSR and ISC Paris. She has written several academic articles on these subjects and has just edited a book published by ISTE / WILEY “circular economy from waste reduction to value creation”
- https://theconversation.com/covid – 19 – ou – la – pandemie – dune – biodiversite – maltraitee – 134712
- Morin E. (2016) Ecologiser l’homme, Lemieux éditeur
- https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/03/27/coronavirus – cette – crise – inedite – adresse – un – redoutable – avertissement-aux-economistes_6034592_3232.html – author’s translation
- https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/the-circular-eco nomy-in-detail#:~:text=A%20circular%20economy%20is%20a,the%20consumption%20of%20finite%20resources.
- Esposito M., Tse T., Soufrani K. (2018). Introducing a circular economy: new thinking with new managerial and policy implications. California Management Review, 60, 3, 5-19.
- https://theconversation.com/epidemie-de-covid-19-un-signal-precoc e – nous – alertant-de-latteinte-des-limites-planetaires-145227