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Cooperation is key to circular economy

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By Asia Guerreschi

· 4 min read

The recognition of the potential for environmental and social sustainability is evident. In order to achieve tangible sustainability on all fronts, it is imperative that we collaborate to overcome the challenges at hand, and thereby pave the way for a healthier present and future for our planet and all its living beings. Although the terms "cooperation" and "co-creation" may seem like buzzwords, they hold significant value and are centered around the concept of collaboration, which is vital for creating something new, be it within the public or private sector. The question remains, how does the concept of circular economy (CE) fit into this picture?

Circular economy strategies

The adoption of circular economy strategies (CES) necessitates a reevaluation of how we produce and consume goods. While this serves as a succinct definition, CES is a multifaceted concept that encompasses much more. It involves a shift in perspective on how we view waste - as a potential resource rather than a loss. It requires a consideration of both the internal and external impacts of a company's actions, but most importantly, it necessitates cooperation among stakeholders. Successful implementation of CES requires acknowledging a firm's impact on all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

Popularity of CES

Despite being a longstanding concept, there has recently been a surge of interest in CES as it aligns with a business and social mindset that aims to minimize waste and optimize resource utilization. This allows for the preservation of raw materials and nature's ability to regenerate, creating a circular process rather than a linear one where waste is produced and discarded.

In this case, not only do our resources increase in practical value, but they also have an emotional worth. Adopting a closed-loop mindset prompts consumers to reconsider their relationship with products by asking pertinent questions, such as: Am I provided with enough information to make a responsible decision about the products I purchase? Does the government offer adequate recycling facilities? Do I possess enough knowledge about circular standards to make informed decisions about product purchases?

These questions share a common theme - they require cooperation among stakeholders. For instance, to provide consumers with information about a product's materials, businesses must obtain this information from their suppliers, which can be a difficult or impossible task. The European Union (EU)’s Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) addresses these specific barriers by introducing standards that promote accountability and requirements in areas such as product reporting, data acquisition, environmental reporting toward correct ethical communication and product labelling. It is worth noting that the following initiatives promote a sustainable circular economy, which is not always the case. The application of circular strategies requires careful attention to ensure that they are sustainable.

Another example is the product-as-a-service concept, where a user can rent an item for the duration, they require it and then return it to the producer when it reaches the end of its life or is no longer needed. Therefore, cooperation between the user and the company is crucial in this matter.

Future of cooperation

Cooperation should not be limited to the relationship between producer and consumer, nor should it be taken for granted. It should involve everyone. Firms must engage with their suppliers, stakeholders, and be mindful of their environmental and social impact. Similarly, consumers should trust not only the company they buy from but also other players in the network, such as the government responsible for the local recycling process.

In the academic literature, cooperation, particularly inter-organizational collaboration, is considered essential in developing environmental innovations (eco-innovations). These innovations, which promote sustainability throughout a product's entire life cycle, serve as a catalyst for CES. Cooperation, in turn, increases the efficiency of applied strategies, as well as provides opportunities to achieve social sustainability. For instance, in poorer countries, waste pickers can benefit from the cooperation between a local business, such as a cooperative, and the government, which can provide them with fair and adequate employment. 

As demonstrated by the variety of sub-themes reflected in this article, a cooperative circular economy requires the efforts of many stakeholders and the consideration of numerous factors. However, it is thought the same cooperation that we can innovate by investing in social capital and efficient environmental practices that can lead to a transformation of the mindset behind production and consumption. A mindset the academic project Climate Circular Coop aims to promote by highlighting the barriers and drivers to eco-innovation by cooperatives in the world.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Asia Guerreschi is a circular economy consultant and Ph.D Candidate at the University Of Ferrara on Sustainability & Wellbeing studying production cooperatives towards innovative circular economy strategies and decarbonization measuring their environmental, economic, and social impact. With a background in communication, she then completed a Master of Science at King’s College London on Physical Geography. In 2020, she founded a youth-led organization called Rethinking Climate with a mission to revolutionize environmental communication towards effective climate action.

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