Interview with Harald Friedl, Circular Economist & LinkedIn Top Voice

The grand re-boot: Everyone can be a circular economist!

An urgent and complete “re-boot” of the economic system is needed more than ever. Harald believes the current model of consumerism has reached unacceptable states. The good news is that everyone has the power to accelerate the transition toward a circular economy, foster innovation and collaboration, and create a new model whose essence is regenerative by design. A model that would bring more happiness to all people.

Harald is an internationally renowned circular economist. He advises the United Nations in several countries and is working with top companies on their road towards circularity. His extensive consulting experience spans across industries, as he served as the CEO of the do-tank Circle Economy in Amsterdam, and spearheaded the circular transition in his home country, Austria, in his role as Circular Economy Accelerator for the Austrian Government in 2022. The global yearly “Circularity Gap Report” Harald co-initiated is one of the most referenced publications in the field of circular economy.

In this exclusive interview for Sustainability Index Magazine, Harald shares inspiring insights and concrete steps to make the circular dream a tangible reality.

  1. You’re on a mission to inspire 111 million people and address the “lack of awareness” gap which is holding back the accelerated transition to a circular economy. How are you making this project tangible and, most importantly, why?

The circular economy is all about “doing things fundamentally better – and not just a little bit less bad.” We have let the economy and pursuit of the bottom line take over how we run things.

I believe we have to take a broader view of what we want in life and how we steward our resources.

I find the circular economy, which is regenerative by design, a great and actionable concept. It’s easily explainable – to a Minister, a CEO or a child in my son’s school. Most of us agree that we have to take care of the planet and the people. The huge environmental, social and economic crises we have caused because of the traditional economic model are now damaging the very base of our existence. Hundreds of millions of people are forced into migration because of climate change, water and air pollution that have reached globally alarming levels. Not to mention the micro plastic that has entered our blood stream!

The good news is that we can still change all of this! What we need is an urgent and complete “re-boot” of the economic system and our model of consumerism that has reached unacceptable states (take the super-fast fashion industry as an example).

Such a new model has to be “circular” and “regenerative” by design. I strongly believe such a system would bring more happiness to all people. How can we make that tangible? By following three clear steps. Firstly, we need to urgently raise enough awareness about the “circular economy” as an action plan for sustainable change. Secondly, all countries urgently need roadmaps, analog to “Climate Action Plans”, so they can take action toward the necessary transition measures. Thirdly, we need to build the circular business models and socialize a new way of sustainable consumerism so that the “right demand” stands ready to support and drive the “circular native businesses” of the future.

Everybody can and shall be a circular economist and help clean up the mess we have put ourselves into!

2. How do you see policy and regulation influencing this transition? What are your benchmarks in terms of specific policies or initiatives that have been particularly effective in driving progress? Could you offer some examples?

Smart policymaking is now more urgent than ever. Without it, we are not going to realize the change we need and for the future we deserve. In short, the top five policy measures that a government that is serious about circularity should push are:

  1. Fiscal instruments to incentivize circular practices. For example, Finland aims to “formulate justification and proposals for a circular shift of taxes,” including tax relief for circular enterprises. Spain plans to examine taxing plastic production from fossil fuels, combined with incentives for a circular plastics hub.
  2. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes make producers of products responsible for end-of-life resource management. There is movement on plastics, packaging, and electronics. We need more of that. 
  3. Public procurement. The state can set an example and use public resources in a way that incentivizes circular businesses. The Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are committing to integrating circular economy criteria into public procurement practices.
  4. Sector-specific Action Plans. Countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain have developed or committed to developing sector-specific circular economy action plans, recognizing the need for tailored approaches across priority sectors such as construction, plastics, and manufacturing.
  5. Monitoring and Governance. Robust monitoring frameworks and governance structures have been established to track progress and hold stakeholders accountable. For example, the Netherlands mandates an annual “Integrated Circular Economy Report” by its Environmental Assessment Agency, while Finland has a dedicated steering group to coordinate implementation.

Effective circular economy policies require a systemic and inclusive approach targeting key barriers along entire value chains.

3. Collaboration across sectors is crucial for the success of circular economy initiatives. Can you share some examples of successful partnerships between businesses, governments, and NGOs in advancing circular economy goals?

I love to work on circularity, as it is all about collaboration. I am really proud that, in 2018, I co-initiated the global “Circularity Gap Report”, which has become a real reference point for seeing the progress with the circular transition. We launched it with countries, the United Nations, NGOs as well as businesses and business alliances.

That has created buy in and credibility.

I love initiatives like the “New Plastics Economy Global Commitment”, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Not only it creates a vision and unites all stakeholders, but it has also catalyzed significant commitments and actions, such as companies pledging to increase their use of recycled plastics. More action is needed, especially regionally and in specific industries. Multi-stakeholder platforms such as the African Circular Economy Alliance are also very promising initiatives I admire.

4. What role do companies have in bridging the circularity gap? What would be their biggest gain for playing their part responsibly?

Companies can accelerate and deliver what is at the core of the circular economy: innovation and collaboration. They will also find several real gains with the transition, such as cost savings, new business models, more resilience in a more and more supply-side driven economy, growing demand or enhanced reputation.

5. What do you think is the main challenge or blockage hindering the widespread adoption of circular economy practices? How can it be overcome?

The main problem is the mindset. I feel many have been losing themselves in the rat race and the pursuit of individual happiness. If we could open our minds again to the community and the power of connection, I believe we would very naturally discover different forms of collaboration. 

That’s why I am hopeful that circularity and regeneration will be adopted and implemented at an increased speed. Just imagine! We could push for this at the same time: developing a new economic model that is not only focused on profit, educating the new generations, making a new sustainable form of consuming hip and trendy, and supporting policy makers with setting the right parameters today, and not tomorrow. Accelerated change is possible today!

 I love to believe in this and I am proud to get up every day – and do it!

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