International organisations as drivers of transformative change: The case of the European Union and the circular economy

Global ecological degradation and growing social inequalities are two major challenges our world is facing in the 21st century. These challenges have been created by practices of mass production and consumption that have come to dominate societal systems since the onset of the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago. These practices, based for example on intensive fossil fuel use and excessive waste production, have caused the world to be close to reaching several planetary boundaries – while the wealth they created is very unevenly distributed across the world’s population. Therefore, radical socio-technical change is needed. But how and by whom can this change be realized?

Deep Transitions

In an effort to understand the kind of radical change processes that are needed to stay within planetary boundaries and address growing social inequalities, Schot and Kanger (2018) have developed the framework of Deep Transitions. With their framework, the authors aim to understand the fundamental transformations which have taken place during and after the industrial revolution (constituting the first Deep Transition) and investigate the potential for an equally profound second Deep Transition towards sustainability. A Deep Transition can be defined as a “coordinated change of many socio-technical systems in the same direction, over a period of time, which result in large-scale social and economic impact, transforming the nature of world societies” (SPRU 2019).

One central idea of the Deep Transitions concept is that rules shape the behaviour of actors and thus determine the direction of travel. Rules can shape behaviour within a certain socio-technical system (such as energy, agriculture or transport) but also can be influential across a number of socio-technical systems. Rules that affect several socio-technical systems are referred to as meta-rules. An example for such a meta-rule is the drive to use fossil fuel, which originated in the mobility sector but also came to profoundly shape socio-technical systems such as energy and agriculture. Changing meta-rules can develop a powerful transformative potential as they drive and coordinate innovation within various sectors of society.

The role of inter- and transnational organisations

The transformation of socio-technical systems involves a variety of actors from industry, policy-making, civil society and science. International organisations have been suggested as key actors to facilitate and accelerate deep transitions through spreading norms across individual socio-technical systems and internationally (Schot & Kanger 2018). But how does it work? Looking for answers, we turned to International Relations scholars, who have explored the role of expert networks (Haas 1992) and international organisations (Barnett & Finnemore 2004) in creating shared rules. When putting their concepts into the context of deep transitions, we consider two processes as central: the absorption and diffusion of meta-rules (see figure 1).

Absorption happens when an international organisation takes on certain new ideas and beliefs – rules – as part of their agenda. These new ideas most often form in expert groups (expertise can be scientific as well as policy related) that generally share similar values and beliefs. The absorption of a new idea – a rule – by an international organisation from such an expert group can happen through a range of different mechanisms such as funding research, seeking advice or through recruiting experts to work in the organisation. Absorption is most likely to happen in policy fields characterized by high levels of complexity and uncertainty. Diffusion takes place when an organisation promotes absorbed rules in its interactions with other political actors such as national governments and other international organisations. This can be implemented, e.g. through coordinating actions, jointly administering and co-funding programs, or through “leading by example”. Figure 1 provides an overview of the suggested mechanisms that potentially lead to an absorption and diffusion of meta-rules.

Diagram How international organisations absorb and diffuse meta-rules
Figure 1. How international organisations absorb and diffuse meta-rules

When considering the role of international organisations (IO) in deep transitions, bureaucrats themselves can be active participants of transnational epistemic communities, developing ideas to solve complex policy problems – and not just act as aggregators for ideas or neutral intermediators. Even though IOs are often perceived – and want to be perceived – as depoliticized, impartial and technocratic, absorption and diffusion processes can be deeply political.

The transition to a Circular Economy – made in the European Union?

What do these conceptual considerations mean for emerging transitions? How can they help us to better understand such processes? One example for such an emerging transition might be the one to a Circular Economy, a concept that we argue has been absorbed and is now being actively diffused by the European Union (EU).

Circular Economy is essentially an alternative to the current ‘linear economy’, which aims to close energy and material loops in all production and consumption process. It therefore stands for radical changes not only in one, but in many socio-technical systems. Based on existing definitions of Circular Economy, we identified four key rules, which would characterise such an economic system: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover. Together, these form a set of meta-rules that could potentially guides the replacement of the current linear economy practices through Circular Economy practices and be part of the second deep transition. In practice, those rules have, until now, mostly influenced the waste sector, notably through an increase in recycling practices at the household and industry level. However, in other areas, such as the manufacturing sector or service sectors, actors are starting to change their behaviour as well, for example by offering repair services to customers. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that our global economic system is far from being circular. In fact, it is estimated to be only 9% circular (Circle Economy 2019).

The EU aims to change this and can be seen as a frontrunner and promoter when it comes to the Circular Economy. Especially the European Commission made important contributions to developing the concept and putting it on the policy agenda. An important milestone was the Action Plan for a Circular Economy in 2015. Importantly, the Commission’s work has influenced other international organisations, most notably the United Nations Environment Programme, in recognizing the importance of Circular Economy and in defining targets.

The aim of studying this case was to answer how and why the EU absorbed the concept of Circular Economy and how it diffuses this emerging set of rules to states and other inter- or transnational organisations. Data was collected through desk research and semi-structured expert interviews.

Why and how did the EU absorb the concept of circular economy?

According to our analysis a combination of factors explains why the EU absorbed the circular economy concept. On the one hand, there was a growing awareness of the ecological and economic crises, which made the link between resource use and climate change as well as biodiversity loss more apparent (perceived policy problem). There was also a specific political context in the sense that at the time the European Commission was restructured and in consequence, the Directorate General for the Environment needed to develop a new profile as climate was no longer part of their portfolio and had been one of their most important of their political portfolio. In this context a specific set of actors were gaining influence and played a crucial role in the absorption process. These include especially the new Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potočnik, who is an economist and was keen to overcome the perception that environmental benefits would have to come at the cost of industrial competitiveness and his Cabinet. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, working closely with a network of businesses, were very influential in bringing the concept of circular economy to the attention of the Commission. Commission Vice-President, Timmermans and Vandenberghe, from the directorate general Research and Innovation, as well as several expert groups and panels (such as the International Resource Panel or the expert group on The economics of environment and resource use) also played important roles. These actors were able to use a window of opportunity, which resulted from the inability of existing policies to effectively reduce waste and resource consumption, the wish to overcome the perception of existing environmental legislation as hampering economic activities, and the incoming Juncker-Commissions’ focus on jobs, growth and investment, to successfully push for the adoption of the concept of circular economy.

Regarding the question of how absorption took place, two ways can be distinguished. On the one hand, it was initiated by the European Commission who consulted experts (examples are the creation of the European Resource Efficiency Platform and of the International Resource Panel). On the other hand, it was initiated by a network of business and advocacy actors who jointly promoted their own beliefs (most importantly the Ellen MacArthur Foundation). They quickly gained influence and successfully ‘sold’ the idea of creating a win-win situation for environment and business through making resources flow circularly through the economy. It seems that the absorption driven by the external expert network was actually more influential than the Commission’s own initiative.

How does the EU diffuse Circular Economy to states and other inter- or transnational organisations?

And of course, in international policy-making, one does not keep good ideas to oneself. Once convinced that the future lies in a circular economy, the EU started to advertise the concepts to its partners. The EU actively diffuses circular economy ideas through bilateral and multilateral channels. Bilateral instruments include a Memorandum of Understanding signed with the People’s Republic of China, so-called Circular Economy Missions, efforts to include circular economy into trade agreements and regional programmes to support policy development and fund projects. Multilateral activities towards other inter- or transnational organisations focus mainly on the United Nations Environmental Programme, which adopted circular economy as part of its strategies for sustainable consumption and production and with which the EU co-founded and co-funds the International Resource Panel. Furthermore, the EU organises events on circular economy policy-making in the context of G7 and G20 meetings.

What can we learn from this case?

Our analysis showed that a network of actors – including academic experts, commission officials, business representatives as well as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – was formed to influence the formulation of Circular Economy agendas and policies. Nonetheless, despite acting as one expert group that pushes Circular Economy thinking, there are fundamental divides within the wider expert community between those who understand circular economy as an opportunity for green growth and those who advocate for a more transformational understanding and major changes of the economic system. The actors who joined forces at the EU level follow the growth-compatible vision of circular economy, which arguably made the concept more attractive from a political perspective.

In the transitions literature, this divide is reflected in the contrast between ‘fit-and-conform’ and ‘stretch-and-transform’ strategies. While actors often pursue fit-and-conform strategies in the beginning, gaining political momentum can create opportunities for more radical stretch-and-transform approaches (Raven et al. 2016). Whether the emerging meta-regime circular economy will follow this path, remains to be seen, as it is still in an early stage. Possibly, trends like the increasing attention on plastic pollution in oceans and resulting policies like the EU ban on single-use plastics will lead to a turning point in the establishment of circular economy as a dominant set of rules that shapes our economic system.

When looking back at deep transitions, this example suggests that international organisations are not only sharing best practices and linking different socio-technical systems, but also actively take part in the initial development of a meta-regime – as it is the case for the European Commission that contributed to framing circular economy as a solution to complex global environmental problems.

There is a long path ahead, to get from 9% circularity to 100%. International organisations can pave (part of) the way, but we cannot rely on them alone. Actors at the national, regional and local level, from civil society, national governments, the private sector and science have to shape and drive this transition alongside the role international organisations can play. Because to get there requires a true transition of how we produce and consume, one that, if realized, may contribute to a second deep transition towards sustainability.


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