Circular Economy

Countries must transition to a circular economy. The right roadmap can help

People clean the Baltic Sea coastline during the World Environment Day Clean-Up event in Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki, Finland


Laura Järvinen
Leading specialist, Sitra
Riku Sinervo
Specialist, Sitra
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  • A circular transition is needed to tackle a host of crises, from resource scarcity to biodiversity loss and climate change.
  • A circularity roadmap outlines the steps that must be taken to transition away from a linear ‘make-take-waste’ model to one that protects resources.
  • Finland’s example shows the right roadmap can kickstart systems-wide change.

In 2016, under the leadership of the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, Finland was the first country in the world to prepare a national circular economy roadmap. This roadmap provided a plan to move the country away from a ‘make-take-waste’ linear economy model to one that protects resources and eliminates waste along value chains.

The roadmap has proven a strong tool in starting a circular change and creating a strong commitment throughout the Finnish society. Thanks to the roadmap, the country could take clear steps for a circular transition and compile key stakeholders’ views on the essential changes and actions required for the circular transformation. Today, Finland has a variety of ongoing circular economy activities in several sectors, a governmental program for advancing circular economy, and the highest number of circular economy higher education courses in the world.

Since the creation of Finland’s roadmap, more and more countries have recognized the importance of advancing a circular economy to mitigate climate change and tackle a host of crises, from resource scarcity to biodiversity loss and climate change.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

Circularity is even shaping many visions for the future. For instance, the EU’s new Circular Economy Action Plan featured as a key element of the European Green Deal, an ambitious plan to build a carbon-neutral economy.

To help these countries make their circular transition, Sitra recently put together a guide to help all countries create their own roadmap and start their journey towards a circular economy. ​ The guide features tools, guidelines and inspiration for countries, walking readers through each phase of the road map process.

The roadmap can be an important way to kickstart new circular initiatives. Here is a selection of Finland’s key lessons learned from the creation of its circular transition roadmap.

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1. Context is key

The most important aspect in creating a circular economy roadmap is to design solutions that work for a particular context and that keep a country’s particular perspective in mind. Circular solutions cannot simply be ported in from other countries unaltered. They must make the most of a country’s capabilities and resources.

To that end, Finland gathered a core working group that included 50 changemakers from all sectors of society. In addition, hundreds of participants took part via workshops and online commenting. With everyone around the same table, it was possible to create a shared mindset about a path towards a sustainable future.

2. Co-operation is a requirement for progress

Winning solutions are not simply created using the old ‘top-down’ way of doing things, but rather by demanding diverse co-operation and by persevering with effort and commitment. Expertise from government, business, academia, civil society and the public are all needed for change to take root and grow.

A just transition to a circular economy also requires cooperation across borders. According to Circularity Gap Report 2021 the world economy is only 8.6 % circular. As most countries are too small to be entirely self-sufficient in circularity, finding ways to make global resource extraction and processing more sustainable is essential. It will also be key for circular principles and practices to be adopted globally.

3. Invest in education

System-wide change is not possible without a major investment in education. Professionals, experts, and decision-makers, both now and in the future, will play a decisive role in building a new future.

Circular economy education starts in day care, where children think about reducing food waste and learn how to sort waste correctly. It continues through primary and secondary school all the way to higher education as it becomes embedded in an individual’s way of living.

Along the way, children learn about materials, business activities, the significance of art and about using personal skills and knowledge when enacting the change towards a circular economy society.

Knowing the importance of education, in 2017, Finland created an education initiative for students to study the circular economy. This was a new initiative that ranged from primary schools to universities. The study packages and teaching materials were developed together with schools in a series of projects for circular economy education in 2017-2019. As a result, more than 70,000 children and students all around Finland studied the circular economy between 2018 and 2019 in primary schools, secondary schools, vocational schools, and universities and universities of applied sciences across Finland. Based on feedback, many pupils were interested in having an influence on creating a more sustainable future and learning more about the subject. Since then, the circular economy teaching has established itself as a permanent part of teaching offered in Finland.

The circular economy was also included at universities and vocational training. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Finland has quickly become a global frontrunner in circular economy learning offerings in higher education.

Going forward, education will come form of upskilling as the principles and practices of the circular economy will affect almost every job. The transition will require plenty of new skills, which requires major investments in education. Vocational education and lifelong learning in particular need new solutions, allowing professionals in different sectors to apply the principles of a carbon-neutral circular economy to their own work.

This has been recognized also in the governmental level. One of the measures listed in the Finnish Strategic Programme for the Circular Economy (2021) was to incorporate expertise in a circular economy into the education system and work life skills.

Image: Sitra

Learning from Finland

Finland’s road map was more than just an official document. Several projects that have significant importance in Finland’s circular transition were agreed on during the road map process. For instance, governmental innovation and funding organization Business Finland launched a four-year and 300 million euro circular economy program. Technology Industries of Finland, together with Sitra and Accenture Strategy, created a playbook for circular economy business development for Finnish SMEs in manufacturing industries.

Such efforts led to one-of-a-kind experiments, such as regenerative agriculture pilot project called Carbon Action, one that gathered more than 110 farms to tests different farm methods for enhancing soil carbon sequestration. This experiment has then evolved into Carbon Action Platform that develops and researches ways of accelerating soil carbon sequestration and verifying the results scientifically. With this roadmap in place, the circular economy has established itself in the public discussion and materialized at a practical level as concrete actions.

Good initiatives have been generated, for example, in the areas of mobility services, nutrient cycle and promotion of the use of waste materials from the construction sector. Finnish Government’s Circular Economy Program, published in early 2021, is an important milestone in Finland’s circular economy work. Finland aims to curb the use of natural resources by 2035 and has committed to achieve climate neutrality by 2035. Such goals are only possible when the growth of the economy and well-being are no longer based on the wasteful use of natural resources

Supported by research institutes, small and agile companies have been able to develop solutions that use resources in a more efficient manner than before. Circular economy also has a strong support from Finnish citizens. According to a Sitra survey made in 2021, 82 % of Finns believe that circular economy creates new jobs and well-being in Finland.

The Finns do not have all the answers – they are learning as they go, like the rest of the globe. However, they’ve learned first-hand the importance of adapting and scaling up existing solutions, investing in a participatory process, working together, and investing in education. These factors – sparked by their roadmap – have been the key ingredients of Finland’s transition to a circular economy.

Countries looking to make a similar move can look to Finland’s example – and draft their own plan to move their people and resources toward a more sustainable future.

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