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Bridging Degrowth and Circular Systems for Strong Sustainability & Resilience

Posted November 30, 2022 | Sustainability |
Bridge divide

In a recent Amplify article, we drew attention to infimals such as dematerialization, de-obsolescence, and product-service systems (PSS). Patterns, structures, and mental models associated with these systems require us to consider their implications on humanity’s well-being and other broad measures of social progress.

Production- and consumption-related infimals help change organizational and individual behavior around circular economy and degrowth systems. Eco-efficiency strategies for organizations include initiatives related to goods and services provisioning. Sustainable supply chain management includes eco-efficiency activities that can function within a circular system, ranging from end-of-pipe capture solutions to cleaner production activities. Designing for the environment is another opportunity to “green” products at early stages. 

The consumption side also has links to the circular economy and degrowth. These activities could be defined as sufficiency strategies; they include expenditure mix and realization of quality of life. These activities shift consumption from material to immaterial (dematerialized or PSS infimals) without causing undue societal disruption or unjust social results.

The final element of a sufficiency strategy is to try to improve well-being with the same or lessened per unit expenditure. For example, the advent of streamed movies means we can see the latest films without traveling to a theater; although the social experience may be lost, other gains can occur.

Bundling services can also change behavior and enhance well-being without conventional economic growth. For example, in Switzerland, travelers can buy the mobility option that best suits their needs. Mobility services are integrated into a digital platform and a user app, providing door-to-door transport and offering individualized trip-planning and payment options. Users can buy a single ticket or a monthly subscrip­tion. Note that the underlying regional partnership requires support from consumers, platform developers, service providers, communities, and regulators and that these types of innovations require new technologies, enhanced integration, and behavior change.

The roster of infimals is changing and growing, giv­ing rise to significant challenges for managers and organi­za­tions. But there is an argument for potentially positive consequences in the long run, one of which is resilience.

Circular Economy + Degrowth = Strong Sustainability -> Resilience

The pandemic showed us the need to build sustain­ability and resilience into our systems. Stories about electronic equipment such as ventilators needing local parts were widely circulated at the height of the pan­demic. Indeed, we saw that circular economy practices resulted in greater resilience by strengthening locali­zation of sourcing and building agility. However, we must realize that resilience may also depend on redundancy and having reliable and multiple circular sources.

For a time, economic growth was less of a concern as resilience assumed greater importance. Shifting away from growthism and focusing on sufficiency was elemental to building an enhanced capacity for resilience.

Resilience is, of course, a critical feature of strong sus­tainability. As we became less arrogant and insistent about economic growth, the pandemic experience showed us how resilience can be built into our responses to sustainability crises like climate change.

[For more from the authors on this topic, see:  “Coordinating Circular & Degrowth Systems for Strong Sustainability.”]

About The Author
Joseph Sarkis
Joseph Sarkis is Professor of Management in Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Business School, where he teaches and researches in the areas of environmental sustainability and business, green supply chain management, circular economy, and technology management. He has published more than 500 articles across a variety of outlets. Dr. Sarkis is an international program coordinator for the Greening of Industry Network and cochairs Future Earth's… Read More
Paul Dewick
Paul Dewick is Professor of Sustainability and Innovation at Keele University’s Keele Business School, UK. His research explores the role of innovation in systems of sustainable consumption and production. Previously, Dr. Dewick’s work examined eco-innovation in the food and “built environment” sectors; more recently, he has explored the factors facilitating and hindering the circular economy and the sustainability implications of innovations… Read More
Maurie Cohen
Maurie J. Cohen is Professor of Sustainability Studies; Program Director of Science, Technology, and Society; and Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is Associate Faculty member with the Rutgers/NJIT Urban Systems Program and Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute. Dr. Cohen serves as Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy; Associate Editor of Environmental… Read More
Joerg Hofstetter
Joerg S. Hofstetter is Associate Professor in Supply Chain Management at KEDGE Business School, France, and head of KEDGE’s Sustainable Supply Chain Lab. With more than 20 years’ experience, he is an academic expert in circular economy, corporate sustainability, global value chains, and multinational multi-tier supply chains. Dr. Hofstetter is President of the International Forum on Sustainable Value Chains; lecturer at the University of St.… Read More
Patrick Schröder
Patrick Schröder is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, an independent policy institute. He focuses on the intersection of research, international development cooperation, and policy in the circular economy. Previously, Dr. Schröder was Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, UK, where he conducted research and taught on the circular economy in developing country contexts and the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. He… Read More