Elemchi Nwosu takes a personal look at the idea of the circular economy…

Friedrich Schumacher once said “infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility”[1]. Since the industrial revolution, the UK has created a linear economy around this ‘impossibility’ – take, make, use and waste. We extract finite raw materials, we manufacture, we consume, we recycle or recover some, and then our discards go to landfill. Now more than ever we are feeling the weight of commodity price surges and material volatility in a world where the global middle class is predicted to more than double to five billion by 2030[2]. Our relentless consumption can be described as attempting to buy champagne with a beer budget. It is simply not possible.

Conversely, the circular economy concept offers us the ability to extract maximum value from our planet’s resources by eliminating the current ‘end of life’ habit. But it hasn’t always been like this and still isn’t in many parts of the world.

If it’s broken, fix it

I have extended family in Nigeria and, whilst pondering on this topic, it reminded me of a trip I took there when I was younger. Our visit was an endless itinerary of family celebrations­ – birthdays, christenings, weddings, festivals – and it was imperative that everyone looked nothing less than impeccable. Once, when travelling to an event with my cousin Ugo, his sandals broke leaving him barefooted. We had travelled too far to turn back and a shoeless appearance just wasn’t an option so I hurried to the nearest market to buy a replacement.

By the time I returned, Ugo had fixed his sandals with nothing more than a loose rubber band, a safety pin and sheer dexterity. Whilst the incident left Ugo unperturbed, I was slightly embarrassed at the fuss I had made over something so trivial. It led me to notice how people in Nigeria were extremely resourceful and highly skilled; it was a nation full of doctors, bankers and lawyers who also doubled up as carpenters, electricians and tailors. With the exception of a corrupt few, the national motto could well have been ‘if it’s broken, fix it.’ More importantly, this self-sufficiency flourished organically, displaying the ability of communities to create sustainable living absent from government control.

Rather than dismissing such resourcefulness as the product of austerity or a characteristic of the undeveloped ‘third world,’ we should ask ourselves: how can we relearn this habit in the UK? I have a few ideas.

1)      Repair and reuse groups – During World War Two, repair and reuse was not an option but a survival mechanism. People were encouraged to come together to reuse their clothes and household items in support of the ‘Make Do and Mend’ movement. Let’s take a lesson from history and revive this repair enterprise. It’s beginning to happen already with creative and repair cafés springing up from the grass roots. Local people are taking over community spaces and offering their mending skills for free to fix things as well as to teach others, such as carpentry skills to fix old furniture and sewing techniques to mend clothes. But there’s still a long way to go before it becomes mainstream.

 2)      Online exchange – The mere existence of Ebay, Gumtree and Freecycle indicates that we are half way there. Online markets and social media websites like Facebook’s ‘buy, sell or swap’ play a huge role in circulating items that would otherwise be thrown away. Local authorities and local charity shops could play a much bigger part in promoting community reuse networks. However, the onus should always be on us as individuals to take responsibility for our own actions, and on brands and manufacturers too. After all, these products bear their name.

 3)      Maximising security and minimising risk – Demand for reused products heavily depends on consumer confidence and much of this rests with our need to be satisfied that they are safe, reliable and risk-free. Consumer research carried out by the Local Government Association (LGA) about the reliability of reuse products found certain measures which maximise security and minimise risk were particularly popular. Warranties on second-hand goods came top at 36%, then testing second-hand products against an approved standard at 19%, trading with trusted/well-known organisations was rated at 17% and the ability to try products before purchase came in at 13%[3]. If measures such as these were to be introduced for reuse items, they could considerably overcome the ‘second-hand’ stigma.

I say the maths has been done and the results are clear. Let’s join the grass roots movement and help make change happen!


[1] Environmental quotes. E. F. Schumacher

[2] Ellen MacArthur Foundation – Towards the circular economy report

[3] Local Government Association: Routes to reuse report