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The world’s first national road map set out the starting point for Finland to a circular economy

The development of a circular economy in Finland has been teamwork after the intial spurt.


The world’s first national road map to a circular economy was published in Helsinki in autumn 2016. The road map created under Sitra’s lead set out the starting position for Finland in the promotion of a circular economy. The moves that followed started to define the steps that a systemic change of a national economy towards a circular economy would require.

The circular economy is an economic model not based on the continual production of more and more goods but on the use of services – sharing, renting and recycling – instead of owning things. Materials are not lost at the end of their useful life but are used to make new products over and over again.

Economic strategy is undergoing its biggest change in centuries. The extended period of overconsumption can no longer guarantee our success in the future. Instead, the climate crisis and the associated decline in biodiversity are challenging the foundations of our society and the traditional political agenda, as well as the logic of doing business. We need to make the sustainable solutions created within the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity available to everyone.

This means that the transition towards a circular economy is not only inevitable, but, at the same time, it offers growing business opportunities. Furthermore, on the international playing field the competition to create the best solutions keeps getting harder. The role of cities and towns is to enable actions in line with the circular economy as part of the everyday activities of administrations, companies and inhabitants. The winning solutions are not created using the old ways of doing things – they require many kinds of co-operation models between private- and public-sector operators.

The circular economy is not an individual event but a team sport.

The target set in the first Finnish road map to a circular economy was to make Finland a global leader in the circular economy by 2025. The goal was to be reached by promoting the interests of three fields: the economy, society and the environment. The initial steps towards a circular economy set out along five different routes. The first step was to seek solutions for the food system, the second one for transport and logistics, the third one for technical loops and industry, the fourth one for forest-based loops and the fifth one for actions intersecting all of society. In all focus areas, policy measures were implemented and large key projects and smaller pilots carried out.

The road maps are syntheses of the views of our society’s key operators. Just like in 2016, the updating work that will define the next moves to be made has involved dozens of stakeholders from the public and private sectors as well as the third sector.

Assisted by Deloitte, Sitra’s experts have prepared the proposals for the next road map targets. Material for the work was collected from the background study for the situational picture of the circular economy made in autumn 2018 and the relevant interviews conducted with decision-makers and experts. The Circular Economy Steering Group set up by Sitra also participated in the formulation of the goals. The proposals for actions were prepared in the five expert workshops held in September and October 2018. In addition, circular economy initiatives from other operators identified at this stage were also included among the measures.

Strategic support for this phase of constructing the path to a Finnish circular economy was provided by the Circular Economy Steering Group under the leadership of the Minister of Housing, Energy and the Environment, Kimmo Tiilikainen, and Kirsi Sormunen, a professional in corporate board work. Other participants included hundreds of professionals from various sectors, experts from Sitra focused on ensuring a comprehensive approach to the work, and various people who shared their ideas and made comments via the service.

After the initial spurt

Since 2016, Finland has moved forward on the paths towards a circular economy. At a political level, 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. The important initial steps have been taken, but a whole lot more ambition and action across boundaries of administrative sectors are needed. There is a pressing need for economic steering methods in particular. So far, the legislation and steering related to the circular economy has not been examined as a single entity, which is necessary with a view to promoting co-operation between sectors and operators.

Only a few sectors have shown any signs of a comprehensive change. For instance, one of Finland’s former success stories, teaching and education, is fast advancing to the next level: the circular economy is being integrated into all levels of education. It is pleasing to see that in some age groups three out of four students study the circular economy at school – in total, circular economy teaching already reaches more than 70,000 children and young people. Young people do not need to unlearn the old practices, and the transfer to a circular economy will pick up speed when these generations enter working life. For them, the circular economy is the new normal.

Many Finnish companies have also already developed a good eye for the game – they understand that, in the future, business will be increasingly often based on something more than a business logic that is hundreds of years old. Examples of such solutions can be found from companies involved in, for example, the manufacturing industry, forestry and the transport sector. Supported by research institutes and legal amendments, small and agile companies have been able to develop solutions that use resources in a more efficient manner than before. Some regional centres of expertise in the circular economy have arisen in Finland, offering excellent opportunities to create global pioneers. There are also significant circular economy projects under way at city and local levels.

Finland has already taken the leading position in the circular economy league.

Our pioneer position has been acknowledged internationally. Thanks to the first road map and the visible actions following it, Sitra was honoured as the world’s leading accelerator of the circular economy in the public-sector category of The Circulars Awards competition at the World Economic Forum in January 2018. The gift given to the world by the 100-year-old Finland and the half-a-century-old Sitra was the first World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF) organised in Helsinki in June 2017. It brought more than 1,600 leading experts in the circular economy from almost hundred countries together to plan the next global steps in the circular economy. Thanks to the conference, Helsinki created for itself a visible position as a global circular economy pioneer. The status of WCEF as the key event within the sector was further strengthened with the second forum held in Yokohama, Japan, in 2018. In the summer of 2019, the WCEF will be held in Finland again.

But, based on interviews with experts, Finland’s visible international position within the sector does not yet mean that the present policies or actions are sufficient to implement a systemic transition to the circular economy.

The future fund as a playmaker

The first moves towards the circular economy made by various operators still bear the hallmarks of the future fund Sitra. For example, the change in the teaching and education sector is one of the visible results of Sitra’s accelerator role in helping various societal operators take the next steps in the right direction. The updated road map is also one of these measures.

Similar advances have also been made on the other paths that in the first road map were referred to as focus areas. Still, a lot remains to be done to make the circular economy scalable to society on a wider scale. Promising signs of the change include the Sitra Lifestyle Test, which was taken by more than half a million times in 2018, and the popularity of the Circular Economy Playbook for Finnish manufacturing industry in the corporate world. Since its establishment as a partnership between Sitra and a number of large Finnish corporations in 2014, the Climate Leadership Council has been actively challenging companies and society to use natural resources in a sustainable manner and to curb climate change.

Sitra has promoted the implementation of the road map to a circular economy by providing a funding framework of 16 million euros, focusing on common cross-sectoral actions that affect all of society and topics that take advantage of Finland’s strengths: the sustainable food system, industrial loops, and transport and logistics. The paths leading in the same direction have branched into multiple trails of development: in all, more than 70 projects for generating systemic change have been launched with funding provided by Sitra, in the areas of transport revolution and the reduction of plastic waste, the latter being one of the most visible symbols of an economy based on excessive consumption.

To succeed you need to break through

As pointed out above, the circular economy is a team sport. However, success in the national league requires participation in international leagues, since trade and material flows are global. Emissions and global value chains do not know national borders, and, in order to solve global challenges, you need to have the best global players as your practice partners. As we concluded earlier, finding solutions to the global sustainability crisis requires finding a comprehensive understanding of the root causes of the crisis.

Therefore, Sitra has been actively producing new significant information on the circular economy with international partners. For example, the observations on the role of the circular economy in the mitigation of climate change made in the report Sitra and the European Climate Foundation jointly commissioned from the consulting firm Material Economics have already been taken into account in the EU’s long-term climate strategy. We have shared the lessons learned from the first national road map to a circular economy with other countries and continents. In 2019, we will compile our experiences of the preparation processes of road maps, in the hope that they will benefit countries facing a similar challenge, be it Chile or Australia.

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