30 January 2023 LESSONS

Are we laying the foundations for a circular EU Economy?

Aerial view of a circular grassy park

The objective was to develop a circular economy policy as a systemic transformation of the EU economy in order to progress the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To do this, the initiative has built on existing policy frameworks and helped to initiate new advocacy instruments and to apply them, prioritising the fashion and built environment sectors.

The initiative focused on three essential levers of a circular economy which are able to contribute to systemic change and can best be performed at the European Union and national level:

  • Setting an advocacy pathway for a circular and inclusive EU economy in order to progress towards the SDGs through product policy initiatives, fiscal reform approaches, narrative setting and trade/corporate responsibility and due diligence;
  • For the fashion sector, it designed policy options and activated policy instruments while taking advantage of the announced comprehensive EU strategy for Textiles; and
  • For the built environment, the initiative took advantage of the comprehensive EU strategy on Sustainable Built Environment (housing) and moved it beyond the existing policy framework that is largely limited to the energy performance of new buildings and recycling.


Partner: European Environmental Bureau (EEB)

Investment: EUR 1.262 million

Duration: 2020 to 2022

Geographic region: Europe


The effectiveness of the initiative has been demonstrated in advocating for policy reform in fashion textiles and built environment sectors in spite of delays and counter-lobbying

There has been significant progress in influencing the European Commission on sustainable product and materials policy through the Ecodesign policy and the EU Textile Strategy which impacted the private sector by pushing businesses to align around the new policy frameworks. Advocacy wins were reflected in the inclusion of circularity, footprinting, recycled contents, microplastics and substances of concern in the Ecodesign policy; and in the EU Textile Strategy provisions for reparability and durability were key achievements. Furthermore, the initiative also intends to influence buildings sector materials policy by bringing in local-level experiences under the Whole Life Carbon roadmap.

The initiative was able to achieve these accomplishments through focused technical work on EU policy documents, as well as intensive relational and communications work across many actors in the system regionally, nationally and globally. Nevertheless, the full ambitions of the initiative are yet to be met and the progress needed to address the urgency of current environmental and social challenges has not been sufficient.

The initiative's effectiveness in networking has been strong; it engaged with partners across scales and the environmental, social and political landscapes. Two highly functional task forces were put in place for textiles and buildings. However, a focus on the intentional inclusion of less represented voices in the circular Economic ecosystem, including the recycling and repair sectors, the secondary use sectors, Small and Medium Enterprises, trade unions, women’s movements, youth organisations and social development NGOs, is yet to be realised.

There has been some progress in the three strategic pillars (fiscal and economic instruments, new consumption narratives, influencing EU trade) where we aimed to expose and thwart harm

However, the pace and scale of changes have not been sufficient for a transition towards a circular economy:

The initiative influenced policies and financial incentives to reduce the use of virgin resources, promote business models that save on resource use, and extend the geographical reach of Extended Producer Responsibility schemes for textiles and construction products. However, the policy progress on fiscal and economic instruments will fall short if the fees associated with Extended Producer Responsibility in textiles don't shift behaviour or stop the further exclusion of vulnerable groups in the supply chain.

Additionally, the initiative provided evidence and data to inform definitions for the EU Taxonomy, specifically on building materials, and aimed to increase targets for the use of secondary materials in buildings in line with the Circular Economy Action Plan from a consensus of around 30% to an ambitious 50%. Progress may be ambushed as the sector finds alternative ways to pass on energy efficiency costs to those with the least resilience in the ecosystem.

The value of the initiative was incremental given its role as a translator between the overall consumption narrative and the granular policy agenda. It created momentum for lowering production and consumption levels in the textile sector and it proposed the idea of sufficiency in the EU buildings policy sector forums as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, there is no evidence that the industry is moving away from its current economic growth model.

There was some success in tackling due diligence regulation and waste shipment regulation within the EU trade system; this would have been almost impossible two years ago. The work on waste shipments contributed to a ban on all textile waste exports to non-OECD countries and stricter obligations to monitor shipments to OECD countries; however, heavy lobbying and delays, alongside pushback from industry and nation states, may impact progress.

What did we learn?

Laudes Foundation

In terms of its transformational advocacy influence, a wider range of organisations within member states needs to be supported to enact, enforce and refine hard-won policy gains.

Transformational policy advocacy involving hard-won policy gains requires a wide range of organisations and member states to align, enact and enforce.

Intersectionality is an important part of the policy-making landscape and needs more attention. There are opportunities to broaden the scope for policy recommendations to better systematically incorporate the perspectives of different income groups, races, genders, and religions, as well as the consideration of local and global socio-economic disparities.

For Partners & Others

Building inclusive relationships for policymaking takes time (counted in years) and capacity to deeply understand and incorporate diverse perspectives.

The inherent tension in movement building between widening the power base and diluting the policy ask can be addressed by obtaining clarity on the objective and defining the approach, and then focusing on when different actors can come together to achieve the goal.

By working with other coalitions focusing on similar issues of interest, such as fiscal issues and linkages with experts, lends credibility to advocacy initiatives and strengthens partnerships and collaborations.