Circular economy realities from a consumer perspective: Insights, challenges, and social dynamics

Authors: Aistė Bartkienė, Renata Bikauskaitė, Diana Mincytė, Ieva Šakelaitė

The Vilnius University team has completed its contribution to Work Package 4 (WP4) in the CIRCLE project, which focused on the study of consumer perspectives. Working with other teams, we studied the ways in which consumers understand their agency and positionality in relation to the circular economy, specifically in the context of agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture. This research bridges a gap in the scholarly, business, and policy discussions that tend to sideline consumer perspectives and engagements with the circular economy.

To conduct this research, scholars in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Ukraine completed a total of 36 interviews and conducted four focus group discussions. Among the notable findings, we discovered that regardless of their familiarity with the terminology, respondents actively engaged in circular practices such as composting, recycling, waste sorting, and participating in various circularity-related campaigns and organizations. Many acquired these skills through exposure to traditional and social media, while the younger generation also mentioned influencers as significant sources of information. Others highlighted the influence of their peers. Importantly, a number of respondents mentioned acquiring skills and values associated with reusing, recycling, repairing, and otherwise extending the lifespan of products and conserving energy from an early age in their households. This emphasizes the continued significance of early education and family environments in shaping consumer awareness and motivation for participation in the circular economy.

We also found that consumers had varied perspectives regarding the labeling of circular products and debated the necessity of a standardized definition for the circular economy. They raised concerns about the proliferation of multiple eco-labels, which could lead to consumer distrust and be perceived as greenwashing. At the same time, other respondents underscored the pivotal role of labels in conveying vital information, advocating for a system where certifications do not drive up prices, and ensuring broader accessibility to certified products. This finding underscores the need for nuanced and targeted approaches to communicating values and marketing circular products.

In addition to other findings, our research also points to the importance of incorporating an inequalities dimension in the analyses and policies promoting circularity. For example, municipal waste elimination and consumer-oriented policies tend to overlook the gendered nature of household and consumption work, which in turn may negatively affect women, especially in households with limited time- and financial resources. Such circularity-related practices include kitchen biowaste sorting, food shopping and gardening, but also cleaning, maintaining, and repairing various items such as clothes that have historically been seen as women’s responsibilities even in Northern Europe with strong gender-parity traditions. Therefore, policies and regulations leading to additional work responsibilities for households and consumers must be sensitive to gender and social inequalities. Overall, we found that values of care and responsibility for the environment and future generations guided respondents’ engagement in the circular economy. Simultaneously, practical concerns, such as ensuring the provision of healthy food and environment for one’s family, limiting expenses, and access to convenient and well-operating infrastructures played pivotal roles in motivating the study participants to use resources efficiently, reduce waste, and otherwise practice circularity. Taking a long perspective on their role in the circular economy, respondents underscored the importance of government support and regulations as essential in driving circular initiatives.

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