Waste not want not: The importance of the circular economy to achieving net zero

A blog post by Consumer Scotland Policy Officer Kathryn Gill


Consumer Scotland recently published research showing more than three quarters of respondents reported being concerned about climate change. However, our evidence also shows many consumers don’t have a full understanding of the scale of change that will be needed and don’t know the most effective actions they can take to reduce our emissions and environmental impacts.

There is an opportunity to support consumers to make more sustainable purchasing decisions. Our research shows current purchasing decisions aren’t being made with a strong focus on the environment, with fewer than half of consumers in Scotland saying they are influenced by environmental concerns. There is some room for optimism though, as more than half of consumers told us they will consider the environmental impact of future purchases. Supporting consumers to understand what choices can have the most impact in helping us meet our climate change will be a critical part of the move towards a circular economy.

The importance of the circular economy

Zero Waste Scotland has highlighted that a circular economy is part of the solution to the global climate emergency, ensuring that nothing goes to waste and everything has value. In simple terms, it can be explained as 'make, use, remake' rather than 'make, use, dispose'. The Circular Economy Bill, which is currently before the Scottish Parliament, is intended to provide a framework to support this approach, promoting measures to ensure goods are kept in use for as long as possible, being repaired and reused rather than disposed of. A more circular economy has a number of potential benefits for consumers and businesses in Scotland and Consumer Scotland supports the objectives of the Bill. While there are a number of commitments and targets already in place in Scotland, a more joined up approach and an overarching strategy can provide an important platform to support people to consume less and use resources more effectively. It also has the potential to create new opportunities for businesses, charities and consumers across Scotland.

Consumers need support and information

To ensure the benefits of this approach are realised, consumers and businesses will need support and information to change current purchasing behaviours. This information must deliver clarity, consistency and certainty about the changes that will be required. There is significant scope for action to build consumer understanding of decarbonisation and net zero policies and to engage consumers on the specific role they have to play. A key task will be to produce messaging that is simple, consistent across sectors and adequately targeted in order to provide consumers with the information that they need in a format that suits them.

Our research shows there is some support from consumers for circular economy measures relating to household goods. For example, more than half of consumers in Scotland are supportive of more tax being paid for products that cannot be repaired or recycled while a little under half support a ban on products which can’t be repaired or recycled.

Overconsumption is another problem that is receiving greater attention, with increasing debate taking place about how best to tackle problematic single use items, such as single use cups and disposable vapes. Currently people in Scotland consume more than double the sustainable level of material use that experts have calculated would still allow for a high quality of life.

As we attempt to move to more sustainable practices and ways of using our resources we need to design circular economy measures that take account of the impact on consumers, particularly consumers in vulnerable circumstances to ensure there are no unintended negative consequences. It is important accessible and affordable sustainable alternatives are available to all consumers where charges or bans for single use items are put in place. In addition, consideration is required of measures needed to support households to purchase long-lasting goods that, while cost effective in the long term, could initially be unaffordable to some consumers without support.


If the goals of the Circular Economy Bill are to be achieved, attention must be given to ensuring the system properly supports consumers to make meaningful behaviour changes which move beyond the lower impact solutions such as recycling. Consumer efforts will need to focus more on reducing consumption, re-use and extracting value from existing resources.

Implementing a successful circular economy strategy will need to place consumers and small businesses at the centre of the process, making it as clear and straightforward as possible for them to make the informed and impactful choices that are required to support the transition to a circular economy and to help deliver Scotland’s ambitious net zero targets.

Later this year, we will publish the findings of two pieces of research that will explore consumer understanding, priorities, values, attitudes and behaviours in relation to the transition to net zero. The outputs from this research will be the next step to inform our work and support consumers with the transition to a circular economy.