Can the circular economy save our cities?

By Lynn Wilson
October 22, 2020

Circular economy advocate, Lynn Wilson, discusses whether small space living and a change in attitude to ownership can save our cities.

I found it interesting and encouraging to read of John Lewis’ new collaboration with Fat Llama to launch a furniture rental service. Shoppers can now rent out desks, chairs, dining tables, coffee tables and sofas for a period of three, six or 12 months before making the commitment to buy at a reduced rate.

The move addresses a growing market trend, with consumers becoming more interested in ‘access’ than ‘ownership’. Attitudes towards renting items and the sharing economy are shifting, with the renting, reselling and recycling of goods now important considerations for many people.

As a consumer behaviour specialist and circular economy advocate, I look at the development of consumer products and services within an economic model that helps us to achieve long term environmental goals. At its heart, the circular economy is about stripping out the huge amount of waste generated by our existing models of production and consumption.

For the past 250 years, linear economic systems have ensured that goods are designed, manufactured and supplied to all corners of the globe. Unfortunately, these systems have often evolved without legislative or voluntary responsibility for the product’s eventual end of life, leading to waste. This, in turn, has led to a global resource shortage, huge environmental consequences and an urgent need to rethink everything.

One of the most significant economic aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has been the massive impact on our city spaces. The reduced footfall experienced by city centre businesses has already hit many hard. What’s more, with the widespread adoption of homeworking during lockdown, how much longer will employers continue to lease expensive office space that they no longer need?

For those in the business of designing and developing office space, the sudden reversal in fortunes has been dizzying. What can be done to halt the rapid decline and abandonment of our city spaces? What fresh ideas are out there for us to consider?

I believe the looming crisis in our cities provides us with an opportunity to innovate and introduce more circular economy thinking into our patterns of production and consumption. For example, let’s consider how empty office space could be repurposed to support the trend towards small space living.

Let’s imagine that some of the soon-to-be vacant office space is converted into a new model of small space living units. In a city like London where young people often need to band together into groups of 5 or 6 just to be able to cover the rent on a place to live, a more affordable alternative could be very popular.

While some people would lease such a small space as a temporary, transient measure, others would be happier to ‘live small’ over the longer term, leading them to prioritise what physical goods they actually need in their home. In this context, it’s easy to see how furniture, as John Lewis are predicting, would be something that consumers would lease rather than buy outright, increasing the lifespan of the furniture in the process.

We are living through an extraordinary time. If we can meet the challenges we are facing with imagination and creativity, and place circular economy thinking at the heart of our conversations, we have a chance not just to save our cities, but to regenerate them as places to live.”

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