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Finland shows the way towards a circular economy

Finland shows the way towards a circular economy

| Text: Gunhild Wallin and Bengt Rolfer

Finland wants to be a world leader in the change towards a circular economy. To do that, the country has taken a holistic approach and written the world’s first national roadmap detailing the necessary measures.

The roadmap consists of a range of pilot projects across several trades and businesses, different policy decisions and not least a massive education drive which is also being followed up by projects for lifelong learning in the workplace.

The initiative comes from The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, which is a bit like the spider in the web. Sitra is a public body and future house which studies future development scenarios.

“We cannot continue to consume as if we had four Planet Earths. That is why the circular economy must permeate the whole of society. It will also create new jobs,” says Tim Forslund, Sitra’s circular economy expert.

No more use and dispose

But how do you define a circular economy? This might seem like a naive question for someone who has dedicated nearly their whole life to this, but Tim Forslund takes it seriously and answers.

“We can begin by describing how today’s society works. Products have far too short lifespans and most often we actually use materials and resources only once. Cars are stationary and offices are empty most of the time. There is a lot of food waste. This is not efficient, it is a system failure.

“What we should be doing is move away from the use and dispose society towards a society where we keep as much value in our economy as possible for as long as possible. We need things that last longer, that are used as much as possible and that can be fixed or reused. This is a key point." 

Tim Forslund is enthusiastic about some solutions and mentions two examples that most people will be familiar with: Spotify – a way of listening to music without owning (and producing) CDs, and Airbnb – which increases the use of available housing by hiring it out as an alternative to hotels.

“This is about meeting a need and creating new ways of accessing resources that otherwise would not be used.”

A circular business model

His favourite example is the Finnish company Lindström which designs, produces and rents out work clothes to companies. They also take care of cleaning and maintenance. Lindström cooperates with a company that recycles textiles, which means that when their products have reached the end of their lives, some of the textile fibres can return to Lindström as new fibre products. The company aims to recycle 100 percent of its products within five years.

“This is an old company built on a circular business model. Providing businesses with work clothes is a smart idea. Lindström can do this more efficiently than the businesses themselves and also build on existing long-term customer relationships. Lindström’s service solution also frees up the businesses to concentrate on what they are good at, their core services. The idea is to provide products that last for as long as possible, not to sell as much textile as possible.” 

Another successful example is the electronic company Swappie, whose business idea is to upgrade second-hand mobile telephones rather than producing and selling new ones. 

“My colleague’s children came home proud about having a second-hand phone. It had become cool and had increased the mobile’s lifespan. Then you have succeeded,” says Tim Forslund. 

He argues similar business logic can be used in many areas. Sitra has recently started four pilot projects in order to increase awareness around a circular economy in the labour market – one in the manufacturing industry, one in the chemical industry and two in the construction industry (one about construction and one about demolition).

Circular economy training across all levels

Over the past few years, the Finnish education sector has also been working on the world’s largest circular economy drive. The training is mainly on a higher educational level, but the idea is for this mindset to permeate all levels of society. One project that ran in nine preschools introduced “mealtime pedagogy” with the aim of reducing food waste and creating closeness to nature. 

The education drive and the targeted business support are the pillars of the Finnish strategy and the basis for the so-called roadmap from 2016. The roadmap has created a lot of attention and contains a long list of measures for how to achieve a climate-neutral society with the help of a circular economy. The support offered to businesses that want to be in front is one way of encouraging this development. 

More work-intensive jobs

But how will the circular economy affect the labour market? Will there be more jobs or fewer?

There are no clear answers to this. The effect varies between different sectors, but most studies have pointed to a slight net increase in the number of jobs. The EU, for instance, predicts a GDP increase of 0.5 percent and 700,000 new jobs by 2030 if the ambitious circular economy goals are reached.

Tim Forslund points out that the circular economy means less mass production and more work-intensive jobs. More services, hire and repair mean more working hours per product.

More circularity also means less harmful exploration of natural resources. This could lead to fewer jobs in the exploration of raw materials like limestone, oil and iron ore, while more small-scale production could benefit rural communities.  

But the largest job effect on a global level is expected in agriculture, according to Sitra’s study "Tackling root causes” which was published in May 2022.

“This is about our own health”

So are we going back to the agrarian society then?

“Yes, but the Nordics or the rest of Europe might not be where we will see the main effect on jobs. The transition to more regenerative agriculture will mean more labour is needed. We have to disrupt the soil less, use more crop rotation and use fewer chemicals. We need to transition from agricultural practices where we waste and pollute our soil, to agricultural traditions that improve soil health and diversity. In the end, this is about our own health.”

Positive “side-effects” would be saving biological diversity and the climate. With a rapid transition to a circular economy, biological diversity could recover to 2000-levels by 2035, according to the Sitra report. The food and agriculture sector is clearly where you could achieve the greatest effects. 

“By reducing waste and making products with less input and increasing life spans, you use fewer resources. And when we use less land, the pressure on nature eases. If we also disrupt the soil less we can trap more CO2, which is also good for the climate,” explains Tim Forslund.

The Finns' future house

The Sitra foundation is known as the Finns’ future house. Sitra was set up in 1967 as a gift from the Finnish parliament when the country celebrated 50 years of independence. Sitra’s role is to create conditions for renewal. The aim is a sustainable, fair and inspiring future within the framework of a sustainable Earth. To begin with, Sitra had state funding. Today it is financed by returns on this capital.


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