Towards a circular economy within planetary boundaries

Interdisciplinary research team develops a robust definition of a sustainable and resource-based circular economy.

​Despite the growing popularity of the circular economy as a concept, definitions lack clarity and adopt a bottom-up approach, focusing on individual business and economic actors.

To foster society’s wellbeing within the planetary boundaries and long-term economic prosperity, an interdiscipilinary research team from NRP 73 at Empa and the Universities of St. Gallen and Lausanne developed a resource-based and systemic view of a circular economy. Aiming at taking all variables of the Earth system into account, this view integrates three perspectives. First, it sees the environment as a non-negotiable space for all human activities. Second, human activities should integrate boundaries set by nature. Third, the economy is seen as a constellation of actors and entities providing goods and services for society.

Framework for holistic view on the circular economy with a cascading top-down approach in 3 layers:
Layer 1: the environment forms the overall frame for human activities.
Layer 2: the “society” as part of the biosphere.
Layer 3: the economy as a constellation of actors and entities providing goods and services for the society.


Accepting a non-negotiable resource base goes hand in hand with a shift in the way the environment is perceived by individuals and dealt with by economic actors. For the transition towards a sustainable and resource-based circular economy, the researchers propose innovative guidelines and indicators for new business models, the adoption of new regulations and incentives, as well as clear prioritisation of a sustainable resource base and life-cycle thinking approach.

Providing the example of a washing machine, the study offers a pathbreaking and robust framework for assessing progress towards a circular business model and articulating Earth’s bio-physical capacity with policy and legal issues, as well as with sustainable business management.

The article ‘A circular economy within the planetary boundaries: Towards a resource-based, systemic approach’ from the project ‘Laboratory for Applied Circular Economy (LACE)' was published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling. Please contact us to order the full article as a PDF.

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