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Circular Economy

How does circularity relate to sustainability?

Circularity contributes to a more sustainable world, but not all sustainability initiatives contribute to circularity. Circularity focuses on the cycles of resources, while sustainability encompasses people, the planet, and the economy more broadly. Circularity and sustainability are part of a long tradition of related visions, models, and theories. Below are some examples, along with a brief explanation of how circularity aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Regenerative Design

The concept of regenerative design, developed by American professor John T. Lyle in the 1970s, proposes that processes within all systems can reuse their own energy and materials, fulfilling society’s needs entirely within the limits of nature.

More information on the Regenerative Design website.

Performance Economy

Walter Stahel developed the vision of a closed-loop economy, including principles of extending product lifespans, repairing products, and preventing waste. Selling services instead of products is a key aspect of his thinking: everyone pays for the performance a product delivers. This leads to the concept of a performance economy.

More information in the article of Stahel (2010)


The cradle-to-cradle model, developed by Michael Braungart, views materials in industrial and commercial processes as resources for technological and biological reuse. The model literally looks at designs from cradle to cradle—examining the entire life cycle of the product and the raw materials used.

More information on the Cradle-to-Cradle website.

Industrial Ecology

Industrial ecology is the science of material and energy flows, where waste within industrial cycles serves as raw material for a subsequent process. Production processes are organized to mimic ecological processes.

More information on the Journal of Industrial Ecology website.


Biomimicry, developed by Janine Benyus, draws inspiration from nature. It imitates designs from nature and applies them to solutions in human society.

More information on the Biomimicry-website.

Green Economy

The Green Economy, defined by the United Nations Environmental Platform (UNEP), is an economy that results in increasing well-being and social equality while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcity.

More information on the UNEP Green Economy website

Blue Economy

The Blue Economy, developed by Günter Pauli, is an economic philosophy that derives knowledge and design principles from the way natural systems form, produce, and consume. The perspective of the Blue Economy is applicable to various challenges in local environments with specific physical and ecological characteristics, with 112 cases outlined on the Blue Economy website.

Biobased Economy

A biobased economy is one that does not rely on fossil fuels but instead utilizes biomass as a raw material. In a biobased economy, the focus is on using biomass for non-food applications.

More information on the Biobased Economy-website.

The doughnut Economy

The doughnut economics model, developed by Oxford economist Kate Raworth, is a model for measuring the well-being of the Earth based on the Sustainable Development Goals and planetary boundaries. Many planetary boundaries directly relate to ‘unclosed’ cycles, such as greenhouse gases, toxic substances, eutrophication, freshwater, aerosols, and reactive oxygen.

More information on the Doughnut Economy website.

The circular economy and the Sustainable Development Goals

Circular economy is also a way to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is a particularly strong relationship with SDG 6 (clean water), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), and SDG 15 (life on land). Aspects of the circular economy, such as recycling household waste, e-waste, and wastewater, provide a toolbox to meet the SDGs (Schroeder, Anggraeni, and Weber, 2018).