Observe, enlighten and decipher the evolution
of consumption patterns in France and abroad

Section 2 - The circular economy takes root

A concept that is gaining recognition

5 minutes of reading
The concept of the circular economy has come a long way since it first emerged in 1990. When combined, these two simple words manage to conjure up a degree of mystery in the eyes of Europeans. Yet, they tend to view the circular economy in a positive light and not simply as a temporary fad. Indeed, they are quite keen to engage in the practices it encompasses in a lasting way and with increasing consistency.

Two words that are becoming more familiar to Europeans

mappemonde et porte voix

Circular economy. Two simple words which, when combined, still manage to conjure up a degree of mystery and even a sense of the unknown. It is hardly surprising that the concept to which they refer has been assigned a variety of definitions. However, whether it be politicians, the media or NGOs, a whole range of stakeholders have been working closely on the issue over the last few years and are now placing it front and centre.

So, does the circular economy mean anything to Europeans? Almost 7 out of 10 say that it does. It is also encouraging to see that more than a third know exactly what it entails (Fig. 1). However, this awareness is somewhat variable, particularly from country to country.


Fig. 1

The origins of the circular economy

In the wake of a number of key social movements that shook the world, many intellectuals in the 1970s began to question our way of life and its impact on the planet’s future. Political environmentalism was born and fresh new concepts saw the light of day. For instance, Michael Braungart, a German chemist, and William McDonough came up with the Cradle to Cradle principle, where 100% of a product is used at the end of its life to make an identical new product, without the use of polluting processes. In 1990, the term circular economy was coined in a book co-authored by the British economists David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner: Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment. Over the subsequent decades, the concept, which marks a departure from that of the linear economy, has gradually established itself as a new paradigm, to the point where it is now inspiring government policy. Although it can be defined in a number of ways, it is often symbolised and summed up by the 3Rs: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse. For the purposes of this survey, we will use the following definition*: “the circular economy is an economic system in which, at every stage in their lifecycle, products (goods and services) are produced and traded in such a way as to increase the efficiency with which resources are used and to reduce their environmental impact, while enhancing the well-being of individuals”.

* French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME, France).

The most astute consumers on this topic can be found in Southern and Western Europe. For instance, 36% of Italians are able to accurately define these two words. This is not particularly surprising in a country where localism and environmentally sound practices in general are relatively widespread, as previous Observatoire Cetelem surveys have often highlighted. In the East, perceptions are not as sharp and the words hold less meaning. Only 9% of Slovaks have a clear idea of what the circular economy is.

When people are questioned regarding their exact understanding of the term circular economy, a generational divide emerges that reappears on numerous occasions during the course of this survey. Under 50s are noticeably more au fait with the meaning of the term than their elders.

A positive image

Although the words might not resonate with everyone, overall perceptions are very positive (Fig. 2). Once the concept has been explained to them, more than 8 out of 10 Europeans view it in a positive light. The Italians are extremely receptive to the idea, but the Portuguese are even more so (93% and 94%). Once again, one must travel east to find more dissenting voices, the Czechs being a case in point, although the positivity score remains very high (73%).

Fig. 2

A modern phenomenon, but more than just a fad

This positive perception of the circular economy is reflected in the opinions of those who associate it with equally positive values (Fig. 3). Indeed, 85% of Europeans believe that it is beneficial to the environment and natural resources, which happens to be one of its primary objectives. The Portuguese and Italians are the most likely to express this view (92%). The second quality associated with the circular economy is its capacity for innovation, as highlighted by 82% of Europeans, with the Italians and Portuguese again proving slightly more enthusiastic than the rest, although there are no major differences between the countries. Completing the podium in third place is job creation, an attribute put forward by 75% of Europeans, with very few divergences between the nations.

Fig. 3

As confirmation of its potential staying power, only 35% of Europeans consider the circular economy to be a fad. One nation clearly stands out on this issue, with respondents expressing a view that sets it apart from the other countries. Indeed, 52% of those interviewed in France see the circular economy as a temporary trend.

Sub-section 4
Purchasing power is under threat from inflation
This 2022 Observatoire Cetelem Barometer reveals a more significant change in the opinions of Europeans when asked about their purchasing power, which they have traditionally considered to have decl
Sub-section 6
Established and increasingly widespread practices
So the term circular economy combines two words that resonate positively with Europeans, especially when its semiotic boundaries are clearly defined. Better still, without necessarily being aware of