Published 2021-05-21

This post is also available in Swedish

Wording a key factor in creating new behaviours and business models

Waste or resource? Used or vintage? Product or service? Words and definitions express values and influence our thoughts and actions. This has become especially clear to Mattias Lindahl, Programme Director of Mistra REES, in his work on the new ISO standard for circular economy.

Standardisation to promote the transition to a circular economy is under way at both national and international level. Professor Mattias Lindahl, an expert in ecodesign and product service systems at Linköping University and programme director of the Mistra REES (Resource-Efficient and Effective Solutions) research programme, also chairs the Swedish TK616 (Circular Economy) working group at the Swedish Institute for Standards (SIS), which is coordinating national efforts.

In the latter role, he is highly active in drawing up one of the upcoming international standards documents, ISO/WD 59004 Circular economy — Framework and principles for implementation. Defining ‘circular economy’ is a key aspect of the work. The international standard for circular economy is aimed at facilitating communication among stakeholders, paving the way for international collaborations and promoting common working methods. Use of language and definitions are of the utmost importance to its success.

‘Very often, we use concepts without reflecting on their meaning, or how others may interpret them. In ISO’s work, it’s crucial to create a common understanding of what we mean,’ Lindahl says.

Disapproves of term ‘circular economy’

Not only ‘circular economy’ needs defining. Lindahl cites many examples: ‘product’ and ‘service’, ‘waste’ and ‘resource’, ‘natural resource’ and ‘bio-based resource’, and ‘technical life cycle’. He says the knowledge and experience gained in Mistra REES are highly useful in ISO’s work.

Mattias Lindahl, programchef för Mistra REES. Foto: Linköpings universitet

In SIS and ISO, Lindahl and his colleagues are currently working to produce the first drafts of the standards documents that are scheduled for presentation in about two years’ time. But… there is a hitch: personally, he does not like the notion of ‘circular economy’ at all.

‘The problem is that lots of people think of circular economy in terms of a clock, although it’s really about creating resource-smart and resource-efficient solutions. We’re not going to “circulate” or “take back” resources but, instead, pass them on into the future and safeguard their quality and value for a long time to come. This approach generates new thinking and ideas, and is particularly important when it comes to the time horizons of resources. Is it like a package that loops around, time and time again, or a building made to stand for 100 years?’

Legal elephant in the room

Lindahl sees a risk in using concepts that lock us into a particular thinking and behavioural pattern. We interpret certain words as better or worse. But under the ‘right’ circumstances, we can also change our behaviour. Few people buy ‘secondhand’ towels, but we have no problem with drying ourselves on a hotel towel used by thousands of people before. Nor do we think twice about moving into an apartment or house where others have lived before. Is a product ‘antique’ or ‘vintage’? That sounds a bit more refined. Characterising ourselves as consumers or customers means that we act accordingly. There are many examples. Words and definitions are tremendously important, and terms can influence innovation processes, business models and business ideas — as well as behaviours — in various directions.

This is a critical function of Mistra REES. Jointly with a number of companies, Mistra REES is working to develop resource-efficient products, services and business models — and reassessing every aspect of traditions and norms. But there are legal aspects that put a spanner in the works of a more resource-efficient society, Lindahl notes.

‘The Swedish Sale of Goods Act, for example, favours consumer-based, traditional product sales. A major focus is on technical issues, despite the legal elephant in the room. If we’re to focus on functions and services instead of products, this needs to be properly regulated. How can suppliers who offer services raise loans on their assets? What access rights do customers have? Questions like this need to be studied even more in the future.’