Fighting for the throne: circular economy versus bioeconomy

Authors: Sina Leipold & Anna Petit-Boix

After all the hype around the Game of Thrones finale, one particular line might stick in our minds. Quoting Tyrion Lannister, “there’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story”. We’re not going to discuss whether this was the best way of choosing the next Warden of the Six Kingdoms, but the power of stories does have an effect in the real world — the one where survival does depend on climate change. To put it another way, we might self-identify with a certain story and define who we are and what we do based on this story.

If we turn Westeros into the European Union and the Night King into climate change, what is the story about? Well, looking at current EU policies, the circular economy seems to be the ruler we need to fight climate change. Add the bio-based sector to the mix and you have a compelling story for EU industries. The challenge is to understand how industries use these concepts to shape their role in the realm of sustainability. Who is doing what and why?

“Stories are powerful. How they are told defines how we act”

We did some research to answer this question. We collected documents from a number of EU business stakeholders who self-identify as “bio-based” and studied their understanding of the circular economy and the bioeconomy. It is no surprise that the “old stories” about recycling are particularly common. Industries are concerned about closing material cycles and new technologies seem to have come to stay. Wood, bioplastics, paper, bioenergy. Business models revolve around efficiency and technological solutions. Is that all the circular economy can contribute with? Sharing, reusing or repurposing, along with social aspects, are less popular at the moment, but these strategies can also help industries approach sustainability.

What they think this story will bring about is less clear. For example, some suggest that a ruling circular economy can help us transition from the fossil fuel to the bioeconomy. Others state that the circular economy cannot happen without the bioeconomy, whereas a few view them as antagonists. This variety of understandings creates a number of stories and ways of dealing with sustainability. Is there a winner? It doesn’t look like there is. Policy doesn’t provide clear guidelines on how to deal with the circular economy in the bio-based sector. Industries might benefit from some indications, as these would show them how to prioritize their actions if they really want to make a difference and contribute to a more sustainable society.

So, indeed, stories are powerful. How they are told defines how we act. Our research shows that industries create their own understanding, their own stories, and react accordingly. If policy aims to shape practice in the bio-based sector and beyond, it needs to closely examine these stories and acknowledge their power in determining how a future economy will look like.

By the Chair of Societal Transition and Circular Economy of the University of Freiburg

By the Chair of Societal Transition and Circular Economy of the University of Freiburg