The neglected side of circular economy: the inside

How many sides are there to a circle? Well, two as it turns out: an outside and an inside.

Being in the frontlines of the transition towards a circular society during the past years, I have seen more and more evidence of the importance to acknowledge the existence of an outside and an inside. As both sides are dealing with very distinctive aspects of the system change. Especially since we are currently very one-sidedly focusing on the outside. But an outside without a matching inside is just an empty shell. For a true paradigm shift to take place, it’s time to look inside as well.

The rational outside of the circle

Conversations, initiatives and communication about a sustainable circular society generally focus on the new and innovative products and services that will shape such a system. They are of course essential: in a circular economy we need differently built and designed products, a different approach during their lifespan and handling after usage. Technique, innovative design and disrupting business models are paramount to create these products and services we need so much. Essential as they are though, they represent only one part of the circle: the outside.

New products and services are the physical manifestation of the system change. That which we can see, feel and touch: the outside.

The emotional inside of the circle

This side we tend to overlook, probably because it is more difficult to grasp and because it deals with a more sensitive subject: our own way of thinking. The inside deals with the ‘why’, the intrinsic motivation and inspiration to truly do things differently, to leave the well-beaten familiar tracks of our linear systems and venture into the unknown territory of a circular economy. It deals with changing the core-values through which we live and do business, with having the courage to re-evaluate life-long thought patterns, assumptions, opinions and procedures. It is about daring to be vulnerable.

The inside is where it becomes personal.

And that makes us uncomfortable. It’s easier to focus on the outside. To talk about products, services and how things should be, especially if the ‘should-be’ part refers to behavior others should adopt. It mainly focusses on things external of our own selves.

Growing past the industrial mindset

It is completely understandable that we have been focusing on the tangible aspects of a circular society so far, as it appeals to our rational mind. It is the line of thinking, judging, approving, rewarding and making decisions that has dominated our educational systems, business cultures and basically the whole of our societies for centuries, since the onset of the industrial revolutions. We all grew up in this system. It is our ‘industrial’ comfort zone.

But the more innovative and circular products and services enter the markets, shaping the new ‘outside’, the clearer it becomes it is, in fact, our mindset that is currently causing growing pains.

From the industrial linear era’s we inherited a believe that happiness comes from achievement and success, and success is largely defined by financial results. Bigger, better and more was typically the only way forward. This way of thinking has created systems that incentivize salespeople to sell more products each year, to cut costs in the production and handling processes at the expense of others and the environment, to foster cultures of competition over collaboration and systems of suspicion over trust. In general, the linear system promotes an everyone-for-themselves mentality. 

A circular society thrives on a wholly different culture, and thus now we see friction occur at the points where the developing circular outside collides with our last-century industrial inside.

Without awareness about and attention to develop an inside matching that circular outside, we will be like toddlers trying to cram a square into the triangular shaped opening – it simply won’t fit.

So, how do we develop a circular inside?

A circular economy is driven by a radically different culture based on values like meaning, trust, connection, collaboration, creativity, free will and empathy. As an organization wanting to develop a circular inside, these values should therefore be incorporated into your culture. A good starting point is to ask yourself a couple of questions: what is the main decision-driver in our organization? Perhaps you have a beautiful mission statement, but is that really leading in operations, or is everything at the end of the day decided based on budgets? Does your organization provide ‘meaning’ to the ecosystem of clients, suppliers, employees and other partners you operate in? Do you dare to critically look at the procedures, systems, cultures and policies in your organization at all levels, no matter how logical or made in stone they may seem, and sincerely ask yourself: are they stimulating collaboration, trust and trustworthiness, social responsibility, accountability and integrity? Is your organization contributing to the best possible outcome for everyone you interact with in everything you do, or are you cutting corners and causing harm somewhere along the line?

Will this be painful? Most likely. Will this go smoothly? Probably not. Will it cause inconvenience? Definitely. In fact, look for the places that cause inconvenience as this is probably the most reliable sign you are on to something.

“Times of stress are signals for growth. If we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity”

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski

Not coincidentally, more and more people start to realize that the linear believe that happiness comes from financial success is unfulfilling. Many of us are picking up an interest in personal development along the lines of different values: self-help books about living more fulfilling and healthier lives fly off the counters, we go on retreats, back-to-nature expeditions and social media diets, and we are en masse decluttering our homes to re-claim peace of mind. Never before so many people have practiced yoga, mindfulness, meditation and breathing techniques.

It is like we instinctively have an urge to break free from the self-centered mentality of the industrial era, looking for ways to reconnect to ourselves.

These developments are an indication that something is stirring in the very groundworks of society. The shift to a different value system is gradually, but surely, taking form and it is starting in the closed and safe environments of our personal lives and homes. This dynamic creates momentum for a fundamental change in mindset in our organizations as well and navigate us out of the industrial and into the circular era.

If your serious about becoming circular, outside and in, it appears that the critical factor lies in your ability to get personal.