Could the circular economy salvage Britain’s struggling steel industry?

The ongoing debate over the UK's escalating steel crisis has failed to consider the circular economy as a potential solution, with Tata Steel's Port Talbot production plant well-positioned to become a national remanufacturing hub as a way of securing a more sustainable future.

That’s the view of Kate Raworth, a renegade economist from the University of Oxford who believes the financial problems engulfing Tata’s operations serve as an example of a “degenerative” UK economy that is “stuck in the old, linear design” and “obsessed with GDP metrics”.

Speaking at the launch of a new sustainable development networking organisation in London last week, Raworth said: “We have no chance of achieving the goal on sustainable consumption production if we carry on like this.

“The debate about the future of Port Talbot has been conducted as if we must think about the linear economy when it comes to steel manufacturing. The discussion is focussed on ‘is [Tata Steel] competitive globally?’ and ‘does anybody want it?’

“If we were really visionary about this, we wouldn’t even be thinking about linear production – we’d be talking about the circular economy; we’d be saying ‘actually, what Britain needs is not steel manufacturing, but metal remanufacturing, refurbishment and recycling’.

“Where are we going to build a 21st century remanufacturing plant in the UK? Perhaps somewhere like Port Talbot could be a part of our remanufacturing future. I haven’t heard that conversation at all because we’re still talking about the UK as if it’s just a linear economy – we need to break out of that mindset.”

Doughnut Economics

Raworth, who acts as a senior visiting research associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, is the creator of ‘doughnut economics’ – a ‘playfully serious’, circular economy-based approach to meeting the critical global challenge of ensuring every person has the resources they need to meet their human rights.


The outer ring of the ‘doughnut’ – which Raworth drew up in 2012 in the run up to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development – consists of the nine earth system process that we need to stay within if we are to avoid unacceptable environmental degradation. The inner ring is made up of the 11 social foundations that must be prioritised to avoid human deprivation such as hunger, ill-health and income poverty.

“We want to be inside the doughnut – not underneath it, or beyond it, but in the space in between,” Raworth said.

With a book on the concept due to be published next year, Raworth refers to doughnut economics as a “close cousin” of the UN’s newly-adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Apparently, “the doughnut was on the table in the final SDG negotiating process”, but – while the SDGs contain much to celebrate – Raworth believes the structuring of the Goals is deluded on economic growth.

“The real problem I have [with the SDGs] is that there are a million contradictions in there if you want to find them,” she said. “On the one hand, we have a commitment to sustain per capita GDP growth [Goal 8.1], but then we have got to have sustainable consumption and production patterns [Goal 12].

“And then we have [Goal 8.4] to ‘endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation’.  If we want to have growth and environmental sustainability, we cannot just ‘endeavour’. We have to do it; it’s not just a ‘nice-to-have on the weekend’. This really worries me because it shows the mindset is not there yet.”


As a way of driving sustainable consumption and production habits across the globe, Raworth concluded that there is a need for ‘eco-literacy’ to be taught in schools; so that concepts of sustainability become inherent in everyday living.

“In school, every single child learns about the biology of the human body,” she said. “We can all talk about our skeletal system and muscular system – we understand that our body systems interact and we understand that there’s only so high our temperature can go if we’ve got a fever; there’s only so long we can go holding our breath, or without food and water.

“Yet, we don’t teach our children eco-literacy – we don’t learn about the systems of the plant and how much pressure we can put on it. If we all had that education, I believe it would fundamentally transform what we think we are doing as consumers; it would transform our understanding of our wellbeing, how our personal wellbeing connects to this planet.”

King was speaking at the launch of the UK Stakeholders For Sustainable Development (UKSSD) network– a new multi-stakeholder network aimed at driving implementation of the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the UK.

Also speaking at the UKSSD event was Sir David King, the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, who said he thought it will be “extraordinarily difficult” for the world to meet the ambitious 2C target set out in the legally-binding Paris climate change agreement, which was signed by 175 global heads of state last month.

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Luke Nicholls

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