Sustainability is a Privilege


Being sustainable is a privilege. While at first that statement may seem quite harsh and out of place, it is in fact a reminder that sustainable living and actions are often for those whose basic needs are fulfilled. This is not only true for consumers and the general public but also for companies. If you are in a constant battle to sustain your own way of life, either being able to put food on the table or struggle with your mental state, how can you also make sustainable choices when they may often be out of your reach? The same is for companies starting up their business struggling to keep themselves afloat in the battle that is the economy.

Circular Economy to Even Out the Playing Field

The reason I like the term Circular Economy and have decided to study it lies in its fundamental logic. The logic of circular economy started off by observing nature and how natural cycles take place. A good example of this is the natural cycle that trees go through every year. The leaves are green and lively during the summer time, by fall they change colors and the forests are as if on fire. Eventually, the leaves will fall down and winter takes the liveliness away.

Yet winter is not death or the end of the trees, the leaves in fact feed the ground so that the trees may again in spring come to life and the cycle may continue again. This logic is what circular economy is all about, harmony within the system, where all materials have a place and time and nothing is truly lost.

Picture: Mira Valkjärvi

The logic of circular economy while often focused on the flow of materials and recycling, offers us far larger scope of benefits than what we see on the surface. The transition towards a circular economy will not only benefit the natural environment and businesses, but also the people who live on this planet. A key aspect of the transition towards circular economy is the fact that we move away from finite materials to infinite materials, which means that there will be enough resources for all. When there are resources for all, there is also room for social welfare as well as overall prosperity.

This transition of course also requires an active questioning of the current economic model as well as the constant pursuit of growth, but a world were resources are enough for all and we can all have prosperity, isn’t that worthwhile pursuit? It is like in the beginning when I spoke about sustainability being a privilege, once we can fulfill the needs of our planet and have resources for all, our basic needs are fulfilled and we no longer need to survive but we can finally live and be happy.

Lessons Learned from Pioneering Companies

Now where do I base my logic which I have just explained, well besides the relevant literature but also on the pioneering circular economy companies in Finland (c.f. Sitra). Finland as a developed economy has reached a certain level of prosperity which means for many that the basic needs have already been met, if not for all. Yet as a ground for companies to start their operations, the field is quite fruitful with many organizations offering help in one way or another. So, when we look at why these companies choose to adapt to circular economy-based business models and strategies, we find that the motivations relate to ideology, culture, traditions, being a role model, logic, profitability and customers’ wishes.

While the Finnish culture has always had a special bond with nature (the belief that nature’s resources are everyone’s right), it makes sense that many of the companies utilizing circular economy base their logic on that aspect. Some even relate their business activities as pursuit of saving the planet and other ideological stances of sharing and open knowledge. Companies have also noted that the atmosphere in the market is changing, in some fields faster than others, for example with the popularity of vegetarian diets and second-hand shopping. Other fields are slowly catching up, for example within the construction field. In some cases, the circular economy innovations come up from fields that you would least expect to desire change, but small steps in the right direction will eventual lead to a larger change. It is just like how a few raindrops may feel insignificant, but they lead to river flowing.

Sustainability Change Starts from Within

While being sustainable and making a change is many cases is a privilege, there are still minor things we can all do to start the process. The most important ones start within our own heads to unlearn old habits and generally supported patterns. Some other steps are more concrete and there are many places to find information, how about starting with these two:

In the end of the day, the one thing I wish for all those who read this text to think about is what is truly important to them in their everyday life and work life. Remember that change starts from within, small steps are important and that while there are many voices out there telling you what to do, only you can decide yourself what is important to you. There are many ways to live sustainably and take part in the transition to a circular economy, trust yourself and take care of yourself.

Mira Valkjärvi
PhD researcher
Turku School of Economics


Useful references:

Sitra – Most interesting companies in the circular economy in Finland 2.1

Ellen MacArthur Foundation – What is the circular economy

Tim Jackson – Prosperity without growth: Economics for a Finite Planet
Jackson, T. (2011) Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. Earthscan, London.

Gunther Pauli – Blue Economy
Pauli, G. A. (2010) The blue economy: 10 years, 100 innovations, 100 million jobs. Paradigm Publications, Taos, New Mexico.