Toward Circular Governance in the Culture and Creative Economy

Toward circular governance in the culture and creative economy: learning the lessons from the Circular Economy and Environment


This paper considers the two concepts: the cultural and creative ecosystem, and the circular economy. It explores superficial commonalities and differences, as well as what can be learned from this ‘cyclical’ thinking (which we later frame as relational and contextual thinking). We lay out the common narratives of circularity in the representation of environmental and cultural sustainability. The aim is to move beyond superficial comparisons and understand the conceptual shifts that underlie them. The paper then seeks to explore what lessons can be learned from this understanding for the creative economy, about which there has been recent debate about its environmental impact. The final section turns to the governance of the (proto-) circular economy, and explores what sort of a ‘fit’ these new ideas have with existing institutions, and what changes are likely to be needed to current institutions and governance.

0. Introduction

Discussions of the environment, the circular economy and sustainability have often by-passed culture altogether; or, they have viewed culture as simply an instrumental means of achieving environmental objectives. At first sight this may seem logical: we might assume that if anything ‘walks lightly upon the planet’, surely it is culture. However, a little reflection leads us to consider, for example, the by-products of a music festival in terms of litter and waste. Pushed further we might also consider the transportation that that both audience and the performers used to get to the venue; we could go further and examine the exotic hardwoods used in instruments, and so on. This type of extension of the argument is allied to the conception of all resources as being on a journey from being used to re-used, or to waste. The aim of the notion circular economy is not only to reduce this latter factor waste, but also to increase our awareness of the ‘incomplete circuits’ of re-use which produce waste and lead to the inefficient use of limited planetary resources: circular economy arguments stress logistical solutions. However, the circular economy concept is also a powerful communications tool; and one that links abstract ideas to concrete practices (this applies to culture as well as the environment).

This paper argues that simply taking the environment into account, adding it as an additional factor, or new item on an existing agenda is not enough. The problem of a ‘bolt on’ notion of environment to culture, and vice versa, is one that it undermines the holistic notion that the circular economy concept propagates - in this sense more ‘magical thinking’ than ‘circular thinking’. Interestingly, a parallel debate about culture and the creative industries has moved away from linear to circular and network concepts: the exemplar being the creative economy ecosystem. The aim here being to capture the processes by which new ideas become cultural artefacts and processes; which themselves are the foundation for new cycle. This re-conceptualisation from a linear ro circular understanding has caused both policy makers and creatives to re-consider their processes of creativity in a holistic manner. It has also led to a re-consideration of the very definition of culture and the creative industries, one that can no longer be just limited to, or concerned with, the artist, but must include the processes and activities of making, distribution, exchange and archiving.

Moreover, taking into account the expanded production system of culture means following its strands through time and space, as the circular economy urges us to do. Some questions that we may ponder regarding the waste generated by cultural activities, assuming that they do not go straight to ‘land fill’ but are ‘recycled: what happens when you dispose of your computer or phone, where do your discarded clothes end up, and how much energy do we use when we play music via a streaming platform?

The aim of this paper is to consider the two concepts: the cultural and creative ecosystem and the circular economy and to discuss the commonalities and differences, as well as what can be learned from this ‘cyclical’ thinking as well as its limitations. We sketch out the parallel narratives of circularity in the representation of environmental and cultural sustainability. Overall, the aim is to move beyond superficial comparisons and understand the conceptual shifts that underlie them. The paper then seeks to explore what lessons can be learned from this understanding for the creative economy, about which there has been recent debate about its environmental impact. The final section turns to the governance of the (proto-) circular economy, and explores what sort of a ‘fit’ these new ideas have with existing institutions, and what ‘accommodation’ is likely to need to be made in the institutions and governance (above and beyond specific targets and objectives: which is not dealt with here). In so doing we aim to expand and enrich the conversation between the creative economy and the environment; a timely task in this 2021 UN year of Creative economy and sustainable development.

1. Visualising the widening circuits of relationships

As is illustrated by the other papers in this Special Issue on Forerunner Practices emerging from the CLIC initiative, we can readily appreciate the case of cultural heritage which is usually about conservation and sustaining artefacts for the appreciation of future generations; this is, in a sense, a paradigmatic example ‘respectful’ use of resources. However, the work being done on active heritage management illustrates the point that viewing the act of conservation through a circular economy has practical consequences: exploring the sourcing a materials, tools and processes; as well as their disposal and re-use is but a first step. Beyond this, the material chain of wastes, is the problematic case of the visitors and tourists: on one hand, we have the energy budgets of long-distance travel by plane, the impact of new infrastructure (hotels and roads) in delicate environments, and the inevitable damage of the footfall of visitors. This extends the core dilemma of sustainable cultural tourism (Russo 2002) to include the environmental dimensions.

On the other hand, there is the social and economic livelihood of people dependent on heritage tourism for jobs. A clear illustration of this dilemma is that of the cruise ship business in Europe, and the pollution it causes. (Transport_and_Environment 2019) A circular economy perspective does not remove such dilemmas, but it can make the dilemmas more visible, and open up potential routeways to amelioration.

An important point regarding the inclusion of this paper in a collection primarily concerned with cultural heritage is to highlight the permeability, or shortcomings, of the boundaries between commercial culture, patrimony and heritage. Expanding beyond such a narrow definition of culture and heritage we can examine the cultural economy. From a ‘cultural ecosystem’ perspective (Pratt 1997), we cannot only appreciate how culture is re/made, but we also need illuminate ‘open circuits’ that lead to waste. Perhaps the most obvious is that of the fashion industry, the worst exemplar being ‘fast fashion’ which has used logistics to source cheap labour and materials, as well as narrowing the gap between a new style and its availability to consumers (Tokatli 2008). Critically, this has led to a shortening of the ‘fashion’ cycle from 4 seasons, to a couple of weeks. The cheap price has led to reduced wear, and rapid disposal of clothing, which is clearly wasteful. There are even difficult questions about what happens to recycled clothing, and the energy use of its remediation (Brooks 2019). Interestingly enough, it has been researchers on clothing that have pioneered work on Global Production Networks (GPN) - mapping the thousands of miles that a piece of clothing may travel from its sources to use, reuse and waste (Blair and Gereffi 2001). Whilst the main focus of GPN research has been the control of production chains, and who benefits from the added value, it clearly lends itself to a circular economy approach that examines resource use and reuse (Bair 2009). Examples of this can be found in the work on electronic waste: the material environmental impact of our digital lives, where the toxic materials in printed circuit boards are shipped around the world for deconstruction, disposal and reuse commonly with minimal control over labour conditions and leaching into the local environment (Pickren 2014; Widmer et al. 2005).

As with traditional notions of culture and patronage, we have as yet a limited conception of how the circular economy challenges cultural production: as yet it is more or less rendered invisible. As with tourism and heritage sites, the carbon footprint of bands touring the world, and audiences travelling long distances to witness ever increasing stadium, or festival venues is significant and is only just being recognised, let alone measured (Garrett 2012; Bottrill, Liverman, and Boykoff 2010). Although venues commonly have become aware of waste collection the recycling, and the contribution of travel is seldom accounted for (Dodds and Walsh 2019; McKay and Webster 2016). Again, the dilemma of live performance is inescapable (Auslander 1999), but it becomes visible and more accountable.

In the recent pandemic when most live performance has been on hold, there have been many attempts to innovate with virtual events. Indeed, the process of digitisation seems to be the brightest hope for a low environmental impact cultural future. The potential for smaller gatherings, and limited travel provide one scenario (albeit missing a significant conviviality of the ‘live’ event). However, even this has been shown to be a chimera. Music has played a leading role in digitisation from Vinyl, to CDs and MP3s the material consumption has (apparently) disappeared. However, as noted above, our playback devices are not environmentally benign (especially as most are non-repairable, and ‘upgraded’ and disposed of with increasing regularity). ‘The cloud’ which is the essential digital infrastructure that enables ‘streaming’ has a surprising heavy carbon footprint, and is all too material. Cloud storage is enabled via vast server farms where the data is held; like individual computers (multiplied a million times) they get hot and need huge amounts of energy to cool them. The latest shift to locating server farms in colder climes, and the increase use of solar energy is responding. In a shocking calculation, Devine (2015) estimates that cloud music delivery consumes more energy that the old vinyl disc.

The critical lesson from this brief perspective of the ‘event horizon’ of digitisation, culture and the environment is that there is still a growing problem with regard to the relationship between the environment and culture, one that is for the most part (apparently) invisible. Moreover, as cultural consumption in firmly increasing (in the face of economic declines), and driven on by the emergent middle-class growth in China, and India (Kharas 2010), the indications are that the challenge will become more acute, and more apparent in the near future.

Circular economy perspectives have a great potential in the visualisation and communication of resource use. They have the potential to ‘reveal’ hidden waste (that is either conceptually ignored, or physically displaced/hidden by relocation in space and time). Insights from GPN research when added to that of both the cultural economy and the environment highlight the parallel impact on human life in terms of pollution, poisoning, injury and unsafe work conditions (Maxwell and Miller 2008; Pratt 2008). We can recognise that a similar conceptual logic is having a parallel impact on culture, establishing the notion of a cultural ecosystem which has made visible the wider processes of re-making culture; and, who gains and losses from cultural production, as well as emergent threats to local cultural systems that contribute to the world’s resource of cultural diversity, nowhere has this been more keenly felt than in cities, the locus of much cultural production: the waste products are hidden and dispersed in the urban and regional system. Weaving together the above ideas we can imagine ways to make more visible the environmental consequences of culture. Visibility can potentially lead to a potentially more ‘creative’ response to close the circles as we have seen in relation to debates about digital streaming services, and touring performances; as well as the sustainability of local cultural practices.

The notion of the conceptual tools of cyclical systems that are extensive in space and time that can help to ‘make visible’ the open loops, waste, and over exploitation or extinction is another way of expressing a new policy agenda. Visibility is one thing, but decision making requires decisions of allocation and trade-offs, and this brings us back to economics as a default ‘scientific’ decision maker. Clearly, advances in environmental economics have sought to recalibrate our tools of valuation with respect to the environment (Pearce, Markandya, and Barbier 1989): generally, they still undervalue the environment . Moreover, they cannot compute an infinite value; a value which logically must be added to our earth. Similar efforts have been expended in relation to culture (Throsby 2010); however, again we run up against the valuation problem of extinction: of cultures, heritage or careers. It is worth noting that even measures such as GDP are now being called into question by many economists as failing to reflect the ‘real’ economy (Coyle 2014), but more so, unable to guide us in the future use of resources. This task must of course be beyond the scope of this paper, but it is nevertheless critical to acknowledge the role that many key indicators that constitute the ‘dashboard’ of global economics have played in exacerbating rather than mitigating our problems. The following two sections explore the notions of circularity applied to both the Environment and Culture. The aim is to move beyond superficial comparisons and examine the underlying principles of connection.

2. A sympathetic critique of the Circular Economy and the Environment

The circular economy is in essence a simple idea that seeks to promote awareness of the environmentally efficient use of finite raw materials, and the minimisation of waste that is intrinsic to linear models (Webster 2015; Stahel 2016). The model seeks to conceptualise the life cycle of resources and products as an idealised cycle of use and reuse; recognising also that, strategically, an incomplete cycle results in redundancy and potential waste (Whicher et al. 2018).The notion weaves together objectives regarding sustainability, life-cycle analysis, multiple reuse under the label of efficiency . Design, logistics and pragmatism characterise the tools that mobilise debates about the circular economy. In no small part the focus on empirical processes rather than abstract aims and goals has added to it popularity and its relatively smooth adaptation into many fields. However, this strength is also a potential weakness: the following discussion elaborates this point.

The argument about feedback loops in the environment, and their intended and unintended consequences has been a staple of the global environmental movement since the Club of Rome report (Meadows 1972). Consequentially, the notion of recycling and reuse has gained popularity as a way to mitigate against the ‘Limits to Growth’ scenario that the original report identified. The ‘Bruntland Report’ (World_Commission_on_Environment_and_Development 1987) added the awareness to a need to consider intergenerational equity expressed in terms of a sustainable planet that can be handed to the next generation in no worse condition than it was received in. Both reports, and the local, regional and international movements that followed them have brought attention to the need to conserve resources through efficient use as well as the challenge of responding in transversal modes. However, in a fast-developing consumer society waste has become endemic as well as a focus on novelty and that in part because waste is under-priced, if at all; and in the other part as it is hidden from view: either literally in land fill, or it is shipped away to another country, to be dealt with ‘later’ by somebody else: literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Whilst not a fundamental critique of the Circular Economy, in practice the lack of data and full accounting of the origins and destinations of products does undermine its potential effectivess. A circular economy perspective needs to be expanded to a global scale to be effective as would the effective tracking and tracing of raw materials; moreover, whilst circular economy principles are being legislated for in some countries, export of waste to other economies too often removes it from oversight. A parochial example is that in the UK taxes on landfill disposal have led to a rise in unregulated ‘fly tipping.’

The landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1990), and the subject of a series of reports, focused our attention on the clear and present danger of global heating and its diverse consequences in terms of sea level rise, desertification and population migrations. The focus has been shifted to the limitation of emissions that produce ‘greenhouse gases’ and that this is not amenable to a one state solution, but requires global action. In short, it has raised the severe limitations of a fossil fuel energy source, and led to a focus on the potential of renewables. Which brings us back to the core idea of the circular economy as a practical tool both in managing limited resources, and developing sustainable renewable alternatives. Whilst the circular economy can help, it is clearly limited. The third law of thermodynamics tells us that energy must be expended and hence the tendency to entropy (Korhonen, Honkasalo, and Seppälä 2018).

At its core the circular economy is a design solution: creating the system of good practices that promote efficient resource decisions. Clearly, as behavioural changes of users and producers are required, this is important. Reducing packaging, replaceable module design of products that can be switched out with new features, developing repairability, making components that are separable for efficient recycling that reduces disposal and ‘empty loops’ that end in land fill sites ( Murray, Demos, and Ecologika 1999; Keiller and Charter 2014). In this sense perhaps the most powerful aspect of the notion of the circular economy is a communications strategy that enables users and producers to visualise and identify opportunities for reuse rather than waste. With a little extension, awareness of the global production chains that ferry our waste around the world might be a powerful tool in applying political pressure to reduce the production of waste in the first place (Herod et al. 2013; Alexander and Reno 2019); but, as yet, this is a minor voice in the debate.

Arguably, another strength of the notion of the circular economy is one that expands our view of the product as an atomistic lump of material into one where it is perceived as part of a flow that touches parts of the world via its ‘tentacles’ either of sourced materials (such as the rare earth Coltan in a phone mined in war zones by underage, or unprotected workers), or waste material that has to be separated by hand, and eventually dumped in toxic land fill sites (well away from the original user)(Moran et al. 2015; Hayes and Burge 2003). Such an awareness is the first step to taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of materials in products: usually responsibility has been actualised via legislation, or pricing. But this has on the whole been ineffective so far.

A key weakness of the circular economy is its foundation on a cybernetic systems model which places stress on control points that resolve inputs and outputs from sub-systems. Despite their focus on motion, they stress mostly control, and not flow. Network models that have been popularised in recent years have challenged this unitary control system model of atomistic nodes with one based on, and defined by, flows and the diversities of such communications (Castells 1996). For example, the foundational model for the internet packet switching system was designed to navigate and avoid control points and divert flows around blockages. Such multivalent network concepts remove the weaknesses of control systems as functional models (Benkler 2006). They also open up the opportunity to consider a multiplicity of flows; this is how context can be critical in the ‘making’ of the dis/advantage of space and time, and social and cultural dimensions as constitutive of things (not detached or separated) as well as notions of multiple values (political, economic, social and cultural) that are based on experience or relational terms (Latour 2018), rather than functional ones determined by the system designer (usually money) (Zwiers, Jaeger-Erben, and Hofmann 2020). Such a network perspective changes the potential balance of power from a hierarchical to heterarchical model of activity, tactics and as we will argue in the final section on governance. The aim of the current section was not only to learn what the circular economy is, but also to explore some of its underpinning ideas. As a pragmatic model of logistic and of communication is has been effective. However, this effectivity has been undermined by the lack of data to document flows, and the capability of regulation to ‘follow the flows’ across borders. The following section explores the parallel narrative that has occurred in the field of the creative economy.

3. Circular conceptions and the Cultural and Creative Industries