The circular economy is an important tool for achieving the sustainable development goals of Agenda 2030 and preparing society for the future. But what exactly is the circular economy? And how do we measure it? RISE is one of the many companies, government agencies and organisations across the globe working together to standardise the circular economy. By getting industries to align themselves with ISO standards, we ensure that global standards are widely adopted and that all countries are involved in deciding what is to be included in future standards.
The circular economy is a resource-efficient and sustainable society that accepts responsibility for material resource values and, for example, strives to extend product life cycles prior to the recycling stage.
– “The linear industry is centred entirely on physical products, while the circular economy considers the functionality, services and benefits products offer consumers. This is a field with enormous potential for innovation, and we’re only just getting started. Private car leasing and product rental apps are just a taste of what’s to come,” says Raul Carlsson, a senior researcher at RISE.
Circularity will affect all industries
The circular economy is more pertinent than ever, and there is a great need for consensus on how we are to define, measure and implement circularity. The circular economy affects all industries, and any stakeholder wanting to remain relevant will have to adapt. RISE is one of the hundreds of stakeholders around the world currently working on the development of global ISO standards for the circular economy. The initiative began in France, but all participating countries own the initiative together. Work was begun in May 2019 and is expected to continue for three years.
– “By getting industries to work together on the standards, we’re ensuring their wide adoption. The work is being conducted in parallel by four separate working groups, which are also sharing their progress with each other. The participants are from all over the world,” says Raul.
The first working group will define what the circular economy is, that is, establish standards for frameworks, principles, terminology and management systems.
The second working group will provide guidance on implementation and industry-specific applications, such as by presenting concrete examples.
The third working group will produce circularity metrics, so that we can measure, for example, to what extent a company is saving resources.
The fourth working group will develop a knowledge bank with the most frequently asked questions about the circular economy.
It might be a label, like the Nordic Swan
Clear metrics enable government agencies to establish requirements
Raul works as a researcher at RISE, where he is responsible for a working group that is to formulate circularity metrics. His fellow participants are located in places such as Japan, China, the USA, Canada and Brazil.
– “There’s enormous interest in being able to measure what is circular and, say, the level of resource savings or the increase in the lifespan of a product or a material. Producing clear circularity metrics is the only way to enable government agencies to establish requirements,” says Raul.
Different stakeholders have different reasons for participating.
– “Japan and China are mainly seeking to lessen their dependence on other markets while wanting to audit and extend the lifespan of their own materials. The USA, on the other hand, mostly wants to be involved in influencing the development of the legal aspects, as the new frameworks will of course affect the entire global market,” says Raul.
Industry calling for common ground rules
Industry has been calling for common ground rules for some time. Only once these are in place will companies dare to invest heavily in the development of more circular production.
– “The regulations will mean, for example, that no one will be able to claim that their product is made from 25 percent recycled material unless they have a certificate showing this. The same will apply to used products sold for a second or third time. Since you cannot tell from the product itself whether it is new, old or partly reused, certificates will be required. It might be a label, like the Nordic Swan,” says Raul.
Because the standardisation is international, it will also enable governments to compare their countries with other markets. They will also be able to tax the right things and, for example, increase taxes on resources and reduce taxes on labour, such as maintenance and design work.
– “The fashion and furniture industries are two sectors at the forefront, and both of them want to see clear regulatory frameworks. This is, of course, due in part to the fact that they are often heavily criticised for making products with relatively short and linear lifespans. The automotive industry has also been heavily criticised and is largely driven by technological innovations. It’s apparent that those who are criticised want to act,” says Raul.
Digital development needed
Circular development is dependent on digital development.
– “To trace the materials, you need to work with digital twins. And to transition from providing products to providing services, you need the necessary systems in place. We’re going to see a brand-new innovation environment completely removed from the products,” says Raul.
However, even with new ISO standards in place, the transition will take time.
– “It’s difficult to imagine such far-reaching changes being achieved in less than 10 years. I think it’ll be more like 30 years before all levels of society have transitioned. Nonetheless, the ISO standards offer clear common ground rules and the right conditions for achieving a circular economy,” Raul ends.