Define 'circular economy'

In order to make your procurement circular you need to decide what ‘circular economy’ means to your organisation. Remember to stay in tune with both national policies and local priorities: for instance, objectives regarding the biobased economy or the creation of local employment. You need to distinguish between the definition of the concept (‘A circular economy is ...’) and a definition for a specific product group (‘A circular clothing item is ...’).

Define your product group in preparation of your procurement project and validate your definition in a market consultation.

The circular economy

The circular economy is all about closing product and material life cycles. In this context, a distinction is made between a set of biological cycles (green) and a set of technical cycles (blue). The biological cycles contain products that are non-toxic and biodegradable, such as food or organic waste. The technical cycles relate to products that are not biodegradable and should therefore remain 'in circulation' as long as possible.

The circular economy, comprising a biological and a technical cycle. Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2012
The circular economy, comprising a biological and a technical cycle. Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2012

Circular economy versus circularity

Circular economy and circularity are often used interchangeably, but each has a different focus. Circular economy is focussed on the economic system as a whole: it involves high-value reuse of products and (raw) materials, and the use of renewable energy. Depending on the definition this may also include social aspects. Circularity primarily concerns the high-value technical reuse of products, components and (raw) materials.

The circular economy: not just a technical issue

To achieve a circular economy, we cannot limit ourselves to the development of substantive circular solutions. From a technical point of view much is possible already, however, in terms of effective implementation the results have been limited. To enable circular procurement, there are three aspects that require change:

  • The technical aspects (I): the extent to which the procured product has circular qualities.
  • The process and organisational aspects (P): the extent to which the main value chain partners are involved in the procurement and the degree to which the process is equipped to enable both circularity and circular usage.
  • The financial and economic aspects (F): the way in which suppliers and partners are provided with an economic incentive to pursue circularity.
The circular economy requires interaction of technical, process and financial aspects. Source: Copper8 (2013)
The circular economy requires interaction of technical, process and financial aspects. Source: Copper8 (2013)

Many definitions

There are a lot of definitions of the ‘circular economy’ going around. This is no surprise, considering that the ‘circular economy’ is currently in a phase of transition. Take, for example, the procurement of a table: when is that circular? If the table is made of reused materials? Or if it has had a previous life? And is one table more circular than the other, or less?

A frequently used definition of the circular economy is:

“A circular economy is an economic system that is based on minimising the use of raw materials through reuse of products, components and high-quality raw materials. It is a system of closed-loop recycling in which products lose as little value as possible, renewable sources of energy are used and systems thinking is seen as a priority.”

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012), Towards the Circular Economy Vol. 1: an economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition

Therefore, it is important to use the preparation stage of a procurement project to give clarity to market players by providing a clear definition that is appropriate to the context of your request. In this way, there can be no dispute about what is understood by ‘circular’.

Definitions at project level

Each procurement project is unique, as every procurement has its own context and starting point. Therefore, it is important to define a clear definition and clear ambitions for your procurement project.

For example:

  • The procurement of office furniture can be made more ‘circular’ by focussing on extending the service life of the existing furniture if it is still in good condition. If the old furniture does need to be replaced, circular procurement can for instance be achieved by ordering furniture that is made of healthy and safe materials (in line with ’cradle-to-cradle’ principles) or that offers maximum future reusability.
  • Building projects also offer various opportunities. For new buildings, for instance, ‘circular’ has a different meaning than it has for renovation or transformation. For a new building you can define ‘circular’ as ‘maximum application of reclaimed materials’ or ‘all components can be disassembled and reused in the future'. Renovation or transformation projects often focus on retaining the value of materials and existing elements.


  • Make sure you have a clear definition of the circular economy, both for your organisation and for a specific procurement project.
  • Link the definition for your organisation to the local context and internal priorities.
  • For each procurement project, provide a definition that matches the context of the project.

Inspiring examples

Background information

Suggestions and/or additions?