Beyond circular: moving towards a regenerative economy

Regenerative economy

Beyond circular: moving towards a regenerative economy

Linear, circular, and regenerative economies are alternative economic models with distinct peculiarities. In a linear economy, resources are extracted, used, and discarded as waste. The circular economy aims to maintain resource value by minimizing waste through reusing, remanufacturing, and recycling. It emphasizes closed-loop systems. Going further, a regenerative economy focuses on holistic sustainability, restoring natural resources, promoting social well-being, and fostering equitable economic growth.

Linear economy: the “take, make, dispose" system

The linear economy is often called the traditional or linear "take-make-dispose" model. It has been the prevailing approach to economic production and consumption. Since the Industrial revolution, the linear economy has become the dominant economic approach, characterized by a linear flow of resources: raw materials are extracted, transformed into products, used by consumers, and eventually disposed of as waste.

“Take-make-dispose” - the mantra of a linear economy “Take-make-dispose” - the mantra of a linear economy

While the linear economy has brought economic growth, job creation, and technological advancements, its limitations and drawbacks have become increasingly evident. It heavily relies on extracting finite resources from the natural environment, such as minerals, fossil fuels, and timber. This leads to resource depletion, ecological degradation, and biodiversity loss. On current trends, global material resource use is likely to more than double by 2050. Similarly, by 2025, nearly 1.8 billion people will live in areas with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could face water-stressed conditions. This is a worrying stat when you consider the fact that waste from economic activities actively contributes to the contamination of water sources.

The linear economy's focus on maximizing production and consumption often leads to planned obsolescence and frequent replacement cycles, generating significant amounts of waste that end up in landfills or are incinerated, contributing to pollution and environmental degradation.

Circular economy: the cyclical loop

A circular economy is an economic system that aims to reduce, reuse, and recycle materials and products to keep them in use for as long as possible. This is in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which takes resources from the environment, makes products, and then throws them away as waste. The circular economy system is essentially a loop.

In a circular economy, products are designed to be durable, easily repairable, and capable of being disassembled for efficient recycling. Materials from products at the end of their life are separated and processed to be reintroduced into the production cycle as secondary raw materials. Thus, the circular economy promotes the refurbishment, repair, or upgrading of products to extend their lifespan and reduce the demand for new products.

What happens when materials cannot be recycled or recovered? Such materials are transformed into energy through processes like incineration with energy recovery, minimizing their environmental impact.

The circular economy offers a distinct advantage over the linear economy by providing a more sustainable and regenerative approach to resource management and economic activity. Unlike the linear economy's "take-make-dispose" model, the circular economy aims to minimize waste, reduce resource depletion, and maintain the value of materials within the production cycle for as long as possible. For instance, in a circular economy, products are designed with durability and reparability in mind, extending their lifespan and reducing the need for frequent replacements.

A circular economy is a closed loop - while standing outside of the biosphereA circular economy is a closed loop - while standing outside of the biosphere

MUD Jeans’ lease a jean service is an example of the implementation of the circular economy. Consumers can send used jeans to them and lease new jeans from the brand. Philips Lighting also keys into the circular economy by using future-proof components that are easily upgradable and serviceable to last longer. On an even wider scale, the City of Amsterdam is committed to building a circular economy where waste is eradicated. By 2030, the city hopes to halve its use of new raw materials. And by 2050, it aims to be fully circular.

However, the problem with a circular economy is that it still takes without giving back. A circular economy is a closed loop, while standing outside of the biosphere. Admittedly, it looks better than taking and disposing of waste in landfills like the linear model. However, if we keep taking without restoring, the source will ultimately deplete, albeit at a slower rate.

The regenerative economy: going beyond sustainability

There’s a need for an approach that replenishes the resource. Thus, the idea of a regenerative economy.  The regenerative economy goes beyond sustainability by actively restoring and replenishing natural resources and social systems. It distinguishes itself from the circular economy by actively seeking to restore and replenish natural and social systems, going beyond merely maintaining existing resources.

Unlike the linear economy, which is unsustainable, both the circular and regenerative economies aim to promote sustainability, but the regenerative economy takes a more holistic approach. A regenerative economy is climate positive, as it repairs and revives our planet. It is also nature positive as it creates more biodiversity for the future. Finally, it is socially and economically positive. Thus, the regenerative economy aims to create positive impacts across all dimensions of sustainability, for humans and non-humans.

By actively restoring and improving natural and social systems, the regenerative economy offers a promising pathway to long-term sustainabilityBy actively restoring and improving natural and social systems, the regenerative economy offers a promising pathway to long-term sustainability

For instance, regenerative agriculture practices involve restoring soil health, enhancing biodiversity, and reducing the use of harmful chemicals, leading to increased agricultural resilience and sustainable food production. In the energy sector, regenerative approaches might involve investments in renewable energy sources, ecosystem restoration projects, and equitable energy access for marginalized communities. Additionally, regenerative business models prioritize sustainable practices, circularity, and social responsibility to achieve both profitability and positive societal and environmental impacts.

The regenerative economy's comprehensive and transformative nature sets it apart from other economic models. By actively restoring and improving natural and social systems, the regenerative economy offers a promising pathway to long-term sustainability, resilience, and holistic well-being, making it a compelling and pragmatic approach to shaping a better future for humanity and the planet.

One example of a pioneer in a regenerative economy is Forestwise. They develop products made from rainforest ingredients that are sustainably harvested and help regenerate the rainforest in Borneo. The company’s activities have helped conserve wildlife, safeguard fresh water supplies, and prevent floods and droughts. Through its value-creation process, Forestwise has increased the average annual income of more than 1,000 raw material collectors. By actively involving and empowering local communities in sustainable practices, Forestwise fosters a harmonious relationship where rainforest preservation aligns with the well-being of those who depend on it.

Final Thoughts

The urgent need to transition away from the linear economy is undeniable, given its unsustainable "take-make-dispose" approach that depletes finite resources and contributes to environmental degradation. While the circular economy presents a significant improvement by promoting resource efficiency and waste reduction, it falls short in actively replenishing the sources of these resources. The regenerative economy emerges as a transformative and comprehensive solution, going beyond mere circularity to actively restore and replenish natural and social systems.

To address the pressing global challenges of resource depletion and climate change, we must embrace the principles of the regenerative economy. By adopting regenerative practices in agriculture, industry, and everyday life, we can create positive impacts across all dimensions of sustainability. Supportive policies and incentives are essential to enable the widespread adoption of regenerative practices. Governments should prioritize the development of policies that encourage businesses to adopt regenerative business models and reward sustainable practices.

💡Check out tocco’s marketplace to source for more than 1000 regenerative materials here


Secretary-General Warns Two-Thirds of Global Population Could Face Water-Stressed Conditions within Next Decade, in Message for International Forests Day | UN Press. (2016, March 18).

The Earthshot Prize. (2023a, May 11). City of Amsterdam, Circular Economy - The Earthshot Prize.

tocco: accelerate the arrival of a regenerative economy | tocco. (n.d.).

With resource use expected to double by 2050, better natural resource use essential for a pollution-free planet. (n.d.). UN Environment.

Written by Anh N. on 07/08/2023

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