Can changing the way we talk about the circular economy help make it more effective?
‘Circular economy’ is still a relatively new term for many; and there are inconsistencies in the way it has been defined, impacting the reach and accessibility of the communication around it. This piece argues that the use of plain language is an effective solution to this challenge. By investigating circular initiatives in Guelph-Wellington in Ontario (?), Canada, insights are revealed on effective communication strategies using plain language, and recommendations for future circular communications are developed.
Why there is a need to understand the term ‘circular economy’
The realities of climate change have made it clear to many that a transition towards renewable energy generation is necessary for the sake of our collective future. For advocates of a circular economy, renewable energies are intrinsic to the increasingly popular economic model which at the same time reduces Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions via a shift in the current model of production and consumption towards a more resource-efficient industry, regenerative agriculture, forestry and other land use. Yet, the lack of public understanding about the circular economy is a major barrier to widespread participation in ‘circular’ initiatives.
Due to its novelty, and due to substantially different circular economy narratives there is a lack of consistency in the way the circular economy is explained and described. In 2017 already, A study by Julian Kirchherr et al. identified and examined 114 different definitions used by scholars and practitioners; more recent research by Martin Calisto-Friant analysed how different stakeholder groups refer to the circular economy and established the first-ever typology of Circular Economy discourses.
Organizations and academics that are looking to increase awareness and use of circular economy principles should apply plain language principles of writing. While plain language does not guarantee readers will understand the text, it demonstrates that the communicator is actively trying to reach as many readers as possible.
This lack of consistency and the different discourse types can cause confusion and creates a barrier for people who might otherwise want to adopt or learn about circular economy practices. When people do not understand the meaning of circular economy when academics, policymakers or practitioners use it, there is the risk of it being treated as merely a trend or buzzword.
There are organizations that are helping to strengthen public understanding of the circular economy by merging academic research with practical solutions. However, the challenge of using inconsistent definitions remains for these organizations as they frequently use academic wording that can be inaccessible to much of the public. Agents of change, in this case business owners, entrepreneurs, and other community members, might be dissuaded from participating in circular economy solutions. Language like “systems solution framework”, “beyond the linear model”, and “planetary boundaries”, can be unclear to the audiences that these organizations are trying to inspire, including businesses and the consumers who support them. This article illustrates the importance of using plain language to help circular economy initiatives have a meaningful impact.
Increasing accessibility through plain language
To change perspectives on sustainable practices, and help people recognize the value in using a circular economy approach, barriers to understanding the concept itself need to be removed. Using accessible language has been shown to be a key factor in ensuring ideas are understood by readers, and those ideas can be applied by the target audience. This approach is meant to accommodate people with differing literacy skills and varying levels of understanding on a certain topic. Strategies include explaining terminology that may be considered advanced, using examples or analogies, and avoiding the use of jargon.
To make writing more accessible and increase the ease with which a text can be read, plain language can be used. Plain language means writing in a clear and concise manner so readers can understand the message and use the information for its intended purpose. This does not mean heavily editing out information, but simply ensuring that the ideas are communicated completely in ways that everyone in the target audience can understand.
A circular food economy reimagines and regenerates the systems that feed us, eliminating waste, sharing economic prosperity, and nourishing our communities.
Our Food Future
Research toward the use of plain language has been active since the 1960s in several countries including the USA, the UK, Australia, and Canada. In Canada, the Plain Language Act (1994) was signed to promote the use of plain language in federal laws and regulations. Plain language is relevant across fields, whether it be for patients to understand their medical documents or for the public to understand government communication. This writing method breaks down barriers to communication and enables messages to reach a broader audience. In effect, it is a crucial tool when engaging the public about the circular economy.
The City of Guelph and Wellington County in Ontario, Canada are working to build a regional circular economy. Through the Our Food Future initiative and the Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad (COIL), they have made the understanding of a circular economy more accessible to business, organizations, and the community. Our Food Future and COIL are supported by the Circular Food Economy Innovation Hub (CFE iHub) based at Innovation Guelph (a regional innovation centre). These initiatives describe the circular economy as an approach that “designs out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems”. Our Food Future further defines their specific focus, the circular food economy: “Inspired by the planet’s natural cycles, a circular food economy reimagines and regenerates the systems that feed us, eliminating waste, sharing economic prosperity, and nourishing our communities.”
Explaining a circular economy
These two clear and concise descriptions allow readers to quickly understand what is meant by a circular economy and how they can apply it – whether finding ways to reduce waste as a business owner or using regenerative farming practices as a farmer, for example. Since terms including “regenerating natural systems” may be new to some, the Our Food Future website uses principles of plain language to direct readers to resources on the website that provide more information. This includes organizing information logically, putting the most important information first, orienting readers to the text, and using an active voice. With these strategies, Our Food Future introduces readers to all related documents and resources that have been produced.
One of the resources the public has access to is a series of blogs highlighting businesses that have participated in Our Food Future and COIL programming. Participants of the Seeding Our Food Future (SOFF) micro-grant program were interviewed about their program projects and what circularity means to them. These stories were written using plain language principles, with business owners and anyone in the public interested in sustainable businesses as the target audiences. Following plain language writing, each paragraph is limited to one idea (company overview, SOFF project, then thoughts around circularity) and technical words are explained. For example, in the blog post Circular Business Highlight of the Week: vegetaBALES, the term “hydroponics” was immediately clarified as “growing without soil”. These easy-to-read, real-life examples use effective communication through plain language, allowing readers to understand how to apply circular economy solutions.
Circular Economy Digital Passport
The Circular Economy Digital Passport is another resource on the Our Food Future website targeted at entrepreneurs and business owners interested in the circular economy. The webpage uses active voice to ensure sentences are clear and direct. For example, the “Get Started Today!” button orients readers to where they can click to get involved. Upon singing up, members receive a guidebook to further explain how Our Food Future and the CFE iHub can help them learn, understand, and apply circular solutions in their business. The guidebook considers that the audience might not be familiar with circular economy terminology. Therefore, all new terminology or complicated ideas are explained, and examples are given. For instance, the “regenerative materials” model of circularity is described as “a company reduces the need for new material inputs through the use of bio-based, renewable or recovered materials”, with a link to an example in the form of a Circular Business Highlight of the Week. In this way, readers can process the new information quickly and without confusion.
To further break down barriers to communication, Our Food Future provides a podcast and videos on their website. While these modes of communication do not use plain language writing, they do provide an alternative way for the public to engage with and learn about circular economy concepts. The public can better understand these concepts through listening to the In Conversation with Our Food Future podcast as they discuss emerging ideas in the food sector with active members of the community. Providing these options increases public access to this new knowledge.
Implications & Actionable Recommendations
Using plain language can help people to better understand and approach circular economy solutions, as shown by the analysis of Our Food Future Guelph-Wellington’s approach to communicating the circular economy. A business’ lack of understanding, however, can deter them from applying to circular economy programming, like those offered by Our Food Future and COIL. This would prevent them from accessing new funding opportunities and scaling growth. It also prevents the growth of the circular economy in Guelph-Wellington and beyond. When organizations use plain language, they make a commitment to clarity and can achieve equity, authenticity, and transparency.
Organizations and academics that are looking to increase awareness and use of circular economy principles should apply plain language principles of writing. While plain language does not guarantee readers will understand the text, it demonstrates that the communicator is actively trying to reach as many readers as possible. A study on circular economy by Ritzén and Sandström (2017) found that most of their respondents were either unfamiliar with the concept or only had a surface-level understanding of it. Every member of a community should have the opportunity to contribute to the circular economy, therefore all deserve to understand what it means to create one. Organizations and academics should provide plain language summaries of their circular economy documents and collaborate with one another to achieve consistency in definitions. This will allow for deeper understanding and transformational change toward a circular economy.