Social dilemmas and opportunities in the circular economy

People at the heart of the circular economy: Social dilemmas and opportunities for the circular economy

Johan Wempe, Katinka Quintelier, Koen van Bommel, Amba van Erkelens & Sabine Oude Avenhuis
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam | Het Groene Brein

By 2050, the Dutch government wants a fully circular economy, a strong ambition based on an extensive  implementation program. In this ongoing research project, we focus on themes such as material use, circular procurement, circular design and market incentives. There is little attention for social themes within the circular economy. It is automatically assumed that a circular economy contributes to a more sustainable society and thus has a positive impact on people. This assumption has so far been insufficiently questioned. Because what are the implications of the circular economy for humans? For example, what does the transition mean for the future of our jobs? What does it require in terms of skills and competences? What is the influence of the circular economy on our culture? To ensure that working towards a circular economy has a positive impact on our society, more attention must be paid to the role of people in the circular economy.


First insights are available in a report where 50 experts in the field of circular economy were asked to share their observations. Different social aspects were identified during three phases. Based on the research, we can distinguish three types of links between the social aspects on the one hand and the physical and economic aspects of the circular economy on the other:


  • Social aspects that create preconditions such as knowledge and skills: people who shape the circular economy must have talents and the skills to study the problems and possibilities of others in the circular chain.
  • Intrinsic aspects of circularity: repairing or refurbishing discarded products means that the chain is extended (physical aspect), that economic value is created, but also that meaningful work is created in which people can flourish, because they can develop and embedded in a social environment.
  • Direct and indirect social effects: such as employment that is embedded in the production process of the circular economy.


Our research is mapping out the role of social aspects in the circular economy, what dilemmas these social aspects entail, and what social opportunities the circular economy brings. This will help circular entrepreneurs and policymakers to make choices and to find solutions to the tensions that can hinder the development of the circular economy. In addition, the insights can also point to opportunities for circular entrepreneurs to create social value.


This research project originated in the working group "People at the heart of the circular economy," which operates under the umbrella of the Community Social Circular. This is an initiative of The Green Mind and the Goldschmeding Foundation. The initiative connects scientists and practitioners in the development and application of knowledge about the social changes that are necessary to realize a circular economy.


Further information and report:

Sociaal Circulair

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