A major part of the solution

Editorial by Jan Peter Schemmel, CEO, Oeko-Institut

The warning signs from the climate crisis are becoming increasingly clear. And yet this crisis is still viewed primarily in terms of the energy supply and perhaps transport, with no regard for another major part of the solution: the required radical shift in our economic paradigm towards the establishment of a genuine circular economy.

Our high consumption of primary raw materials releases large quantities of greenhouse gases. Extracting these resources destroys ecosystems and biodiversity. Primary raw materials consumption must therefore be drastically reduced and the materials themselves integrated, as far as possible, into closed loops. This is not limited to recycling as much waste as possible – the approach often equated with the concept of the circular economy in the German context. A circular economy is about maintaining and processing products, and the resources they contain, for a variety of uses and users for as long as possible, creating minimal waste later on.

This is not an easy task. Our economic system is geared towards a high throughput of products and resources and is still based on the principle that businesses and consumers should not have to bear any environmental costs. Instead, these costs continue to be passed on to the whole of society. The complexity of our economic model, with its great diversity of products and widely branching value chains, confronts us with another challenge: what can be achieved with regulatory instruments, what form should these instruments take, and which product groups should they apply to? What is technically feasible and economically viable? What might profitable and sustainable business models look like?

There are already countless ways to conserve resources. We need only to think of repair cafés, zero waste shops and products that are created from recycled materials or are easy to repair. And of course, another question arises: do we really have to own everything we use? For example, I sometimes borrow my neighbours’ car, and some people happily use handbag rental services. And one more question: is there really any need to discard items immediately if we are no longer using them? At the Oeko-Institut, for example, computers or mobile phones that are taken out of service are made available to staff for their private use.

We need small-scale approaches and innovations in progressive niches, but we also need to exert leverage at critical points by making use of economic mechanisms or continuing to extend producer responsibility, for example. And not least, we need a different mindset. We have lived beyond our means for far too long – at the expense of the environment, the climate and people in other countries. For their sake – for all our sakes – we need the courage to act. The right time is now.


Jan Peter Schemmel