Cooperatives and the Circular Economy: Building a Sustainable and Thriving Future

Circular Economy

The premise of a circular economy is in the name: An economy that looks not to produce goods that end up in a landfill or in the ocean, but goods that can be integrated into a global life in a cyclical way – whether they are reused, recycled, or sustained.

The principles of the circular economy model are strongly connected to the idea of communities providing a strong foundation for efforts to create a sustainable future for generations. And because a sustainable future must include the human connection to the environment and the planet, efforts to create an impactful circular economy must build on actions within local and global communities today.

Cooperatives and the circular economy are intuitively integrable – with circular economic models fitting into cooperative models and vice versa. Rafael Ziegler director of the Alphonse and Dorimène Desjardins International Institute for Cooperatives and associate professor at HEC Montreal specializing in research on cooperatives and the circular economic model. He points out that cooperatives provide a model that embeds the circular economy in the deliberations of members and their interests.

“Locally this can foster social innovation for regional economies and resilience. Internationally it strengthens the idea that we need a circular society: people are asking for the purpose the economy serves, rather than the economy telling people what needs to be done,” says Ziegler.

As we see discussions surrounding the impacts of climate change, ecological devastation, and resulting community disintegration continue to become more and more prevalent, we must ask ourselves how cooperatives are contributing to these discussions, and how we’re acting now to lead a better, more sustainable, more circular future.

Rafael Ziegler

Ziegler co-authored survey for the International Institute for Cooperatives that examines how the circular economy is exemplified in Quebec, Canada, and found that “cooperatives contribute comprehensively to the circular economy, not just to downstream categories of recycling and revalorization but also to upstream categories of rethinking production and consumption, sharing, and durable use.”

A sustainable future driven by the cooperative principles  

Democratic member control and member economic participation allows members to have a say in how their economy is run, and what that economy looks like. Focusing on practices and profit that benefit the community members like producers, workers, and consumers, will drive cooperatives to maintain sustainable practices that will last generations.

Education, training, and information lays the groundwork for cooperatives to teach people how to create circular economies, and by simply integrating the idea that we can share, cooperate, and connect with each other to build a prosperous global economic society without sacrificing the planet.

When there is cooperation among cooperatives, feedback and sharing of knowledge ensures success. Technology cooperatives can share innovative digital processes to reduce physical waste and collaborate with recycling cooperatives to reduce and reuse physical waste. Energy cooperatives who deliver sustainable energy solutions can collaborate food cooperatives to reduce their production costs. Farming cooperatives can work with local housing cooperatives to not only reduce food scarcity but to limit transportation impacts and keep food local.

Concern for community is perhaps the cooperative principle most prominently tied to the circular economy. It is through our desire to look after our communities, to build connections between people, and to see shared responsibility for our needs being met that we see how cooperation on the local, regional, and international level can create a circular economy that sustains not just this generation but generations to come.

As we explore the theme of the Circular Economy we look to see how cooperatives around the world are leading the future in a renewed way.

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