By Felipe Alexandre de Lima and Azar Z. Mahmoum Gonbadi. Illustrations by Felipe Alexandre de Lima
In this critical vignette, we want to engage readers with a normative attitude to empower the circular economy transition: a stewardship ethos of citizenship, compassion, and sufficiency.
The circular economy is a popular concept amongst scholarly, policy, and business circles, but it is often vague and requires critical scrutiny . Indeed, the circular economy evokes multiple approaches, principles, and activities, varying according to the definitions and contexts considered . The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is one of the most influential circular economy advocates that emphasizes three principles of a circular economy: (i) design out waste and pollution, (ii) keep products and materials in use, (iii) and regenerate natural systems . In this regard, technical materials are designed to last and should not be discarded at the end of use. Instead, they are returned to the production system for materials recovery and value retention. Biological materials that lose their original integrity and quality can be cascaded to other activities and used to create additional value and foster a regenerative system. For instance, textile garments provide fibers or material for other commercial uses; paper can be cascaded several times before the lengths of the fibers become too short, but even then, it can be composted, assuming free from contamination or hazardous properties, and returned safely to the biosphere .
In the circular economy, there is a valuable opportunity for firms to extend their scope beyond their processes and products and broaden their focus from profits maximization to environmental and social sustainability objectives . Firms assume new responsibilities ranging from responsible waste management to resource conservation . In this respect, we highlight the concept of stewardship. Essentially, stewardship is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care” . It problematizes the concept of individual ownership and property rights over things or land, and with it, the rights and responsibilities .
As Kalfagianni and colleagues  proclaimed, we also believe that a stewardship ethos of citizenship, compassion, and sufficiency can reconcile environmental and social sustainability and foster a comprehensive and transformative sustainability agenda. In sum, citizenship refers to a person’s membership in a collective and its associated duties and responsibilities. It is not necessarily limited to a territorial space, but it has a globalizing character, mainly concerning sustainability issues. The central idea of compassion regards the need to recognize and empathize with others (human beings and non-human entities) and their suffering, thereby requiring effort and sacrifice. The central idea of sufficiency concerns setting upper limits to consumption levels to foster sustainability and a lower bound for those in need.
We elucidate the abovementioned principles of stewardship vis-à-vis three critical vignettes in the circular economy. A vignette is a short, carefully written representation of a person, account, or situation designed to simulate crucial characters of a real-world scenario . Therefore, we draw upon Kalfagianni and colleagues’ work  to provoke reflections regarding stewardship in the circular economy.
Vignette 1 – Citizenship in the circular economy
The multitude of circular initiatives worldwide illustrates the globalizing character of the circular economy yet follows different patterns. In Europe, the transition to the circular economy follows a bottom-up approach, e.g., from the initiatives of environmental organizations, civil society, and non-governmental organizations . Genovese and Pansera  argue that bottom-up initiatives at a supply chain level might need to be incentivized through top-down governmental support, such as rewarding positive externalities. But they contend that European Union’s interventions have been, at best, a form of “nudging,” without any planning effort. In contrast, in China, the circular economy is promoted as a top-down national policy based on environmentally responsible development strategies [10, 12]. This approach can be of great importance for the transition toward the circular economy.
Nevertheless, the circular economy requires a global initiative, which should be led by “the United Nations and involve G20 countries, the World Economic Forum, industry, and citizen-oriented organizations” . Most importantly, policymakers should identify and tackle the inequalities between different stakeholder groups to ensure that the circular economy benefits are equally distributed. They should also secure the participation of different stakeholders in the circular economy by clearly outlining “to whose benefit” . Policymakers might ask themselves: How can different stakeholders benefit from the transition to the circular economy? How can existing regulatory mechanisms protect these stakeholders? What conditions need to be improved? Consequently, the political space of the circular economy needs to acknowledge the plurality of voices to ensure citizenship to its full potential.
Vignette 2 – Compassion in the circular economy
The circular economy is not only supposed to serve the interests of economic actors. Instead, it should care for people and nature. Nonetheless, Murray and colleagues  claim that the circular economy focuses on redesigning manufacturing and service systems to benefit the biosphere but fails to address the social dimension of sustainability. They say that while ecological renewal/survival and reduction of finite resource use benefit humankind, there is no explicit recognition of the social aspects inherent in other conceptualizations of sustainable development. It remains unclear how the circular economy will lead to social equality, in terms of inter- and intra-generational equity, gender, racial and religious equality and other diversity, financial equality, or in terms of equality of social opportunity . So, it is imperative to develop a sense of caring for people and nature and their suffering from social and environmental imbalances. Effort and sacrifice are thus crucial to strengthening the circular economy’s potential. An exemplar case of effort is that of Circular Blu: entrepreneurs who repurpose high-quality polypropylene material into tote bags and create environmental and social benefits by hiring people with disabilities to make the bags through a partnership with a charity. Circular Blu sells the bags to the healthcare industry and helps to close the loop for the material . Sacrifice requires that one gives up an individualistic behavior with limited or no benefit for the collective. Yet, sacrifice is challenging to be accomplished, particularly for those who do not empathize with the other. We, then, call policymakers to establish circular economy guidelines in tandem with fundamental human rights and sustainable development goals to foster care for people and nature.
Vignette 3 – Sufficiency in the circular economy
The circular economy proposes different ways through which environmental depletion and virgin resource consumption can be reduced. A prominent example is closing material loops via recycling. However, there is no guarantee that simple strategies of material cycling will lead to an economy able to manage natural resources, pollution, and societal demand within environmentally sustainable levels . As a result, it is crucial to change unsustainable consumption patterns to promote environmental sustainability. Consumers can enact a lifestyle change by buying less, using less, shifting toward a post-material lifestyle, or rejecting packaging waste and shopping bags . Producers can refuse the use of hazardous materials/design production processes to avoid waste or even virgin materials .
Sufficiency can be accomplished by applying the following hierarchy: “reuse what you can, recycle what cannot be reused, repair what is broken, remanufacture what cannot be repaired” . Bocken and colleagues  argue that business models can foster a sustainable transformation of consumption patterns through long-lasting products, emphasizing a non-consumerist approach to sales. As such, manufacturers need to reduce end-user consumption through not overselling or no sales commissions. The central objective of encouraging sufficiency-based business models is to make products that last and allow users to hold on to them as long as possible through high service levels. These business models usually excel in quality, as price premiums justify slower sales and higher service levels.
Still, what would be the maximum and minimum thresholds for consumption? How many planets will we need to satisfy our own demands? Please see the Ecological Footprint Calculator . Therefore, it is time to rethink how we consume, especially considering the environmental boundaries of our planet.
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