Craft and the circular economy 


26 April 2023

Biji Biji Beyond Bins project

Although green practices are already embedded in some craft practices the sector has its own environmental impact to address. Rosy Greenlees and Joseph Lo report on a seminar that asks how can adopting the principles of the circular economy enable craft to play an active role in mitigating worsening global climatic changes?

This is the second in our Future at Hand series.

The craft sector is a significant player in the global economy. According to’s report, the global handicrafts market size reached US$680 Billion in 2021. Looking forward, it is expected to reach US$1,252 Billion by 2027 with a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.4% during 2022 – 2027.

However, in light of climate change, it is also imperative that the crafts sector considers its product designs, sourcing of materials, making processes, marketing and usage; re-examining the manner in which craft products are consumed. Although green practices are already embedded in some craft practice, such as the usage of natural dyes or recycled glass, etc., the craft sector has its own environmental impact to address. This is especially pertinent when crafts are produced on an industrial scale or when whole regions are devoted to craft production, much like some of the craft cities accredited by WCC. One means by which the crafts sector can address and participate in mitigating climate change is the adoption of circular economy principles.

What is the Circular Economy?

The best means of illustrating circular economy is to contrast it against the present linear economic system. The linear economic system is based on several assumptions. Firstly, it presumes that economic growth is infinite and the resources to support this growth are inexhaustible. Because of a perceived abundance of resources, there is no need to retain products after use and to consider the lifespan of products. Thus, products are made to be disposable, and the space to accommodate waste is assumed to be limitless. The rate of production in a linear economy is driven by consumer demand based on low prices, convenience and a wide range of choices. The rapid and extensive consumption of products has shaped our identities, value systems and our relationship with our environment. Thus, since the 1800s, the linearity of the economy has been described as: ‘Resources Manufacture-Consumption-Waste’ or ‘Take-Make-Waste’. The result has been exponential waste, environmental degradation and now, climate change.

The concept of a circular economy was developed in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. It is the opposite of the linear economy whereby the ‘waste’ serves as a resource and is re-fed into the manufacturing process. Ideally, it stops waste from being produced in the first place, products are in use as long as possible, re-generating natural systems, replacing products’ end-of-life concept, re-using, recovering and restoring. The circular economy also includes exploring other ways of production, beyond the linear model but importantly, it does not mean to stop production. Related to the circular economy, other associated theories include Cradle-to Cradle, Performance Economy, Industrial Ecology, Blue Economy, Natural Capitalism and Re Generative Design.

Aligning the Crafts Industry and the Circular Economy

It could be said that because of the nature of crafts, amongst all the other industries (such as petroleum, fashion, etc.), the crafts sector is most aligned with the principles of the circular economy. Yet, questions remain – in some countries, many small community-based enterprises are actually operating in an industrial global marketplace, open to market forces: making products with the lowest possible cost, maximising profits and selling as much as possible. Will the cost of adopting the principles of the circular economy affect the viability of the craft sector? Can the crafts sector, made up of many individual or small community-based practices implement changes that are structural in nature in order to observe the principles of circular economy? How might customers return products to a maker for repairs if the structure of reverse logistics 1.Reverse logistics is a type of supply chain management that moves goods from customers back to sellers or manufacturers? Once a customer receives a product, processes such as returns or recycling require reverse logistics. is not in place? What other challenges are there when implementing the principles of the circular economy within the crafts sector? But as a first step, what can individual crafts practitioners, artisans and community-based producers undertake to embark on this journey of circularity?

The discussion of the circular economy and craft industry was part of a series of webinars organised by World Crafts Council International and British Council in 2020/21. The intention was to introduce new themes and approaches into craft practice at a time of crisis (during the pandemic). To raise the sector’s consciousness of pertinent issues, to generate ideas and adopt them into craft practices so as to mitigate against future global crises; climate change is at the forefront.

The session was chaired by Halle Butvin, Director of Special Projects, the Smithsonian Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Panellists included Joe Iles from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Nick Gant, founder of Community21, University of Brighton; Gabish Joshi, an associate with Ennovent, a venture catalyst that takes innovative business ideas with sustainable solutions to low-income and complex markets in Nepal; Chiri Babu Maharjan, Mayor of Lalitpur Metropolitan City, Nepal (Lalitpur which is also an accredited WCC Crafts City); Prasad Bidapa, an Indian Fashion Designer and Rashvin Pal Singh, Group CEO of Biji-Biji Initiative, one of Malaysia’s pioneering and award-winning social enterprise that champions sustainability.

Values, Visions, Strategies and Creativity

Significantly, the discussion started by asking the macro question – What type of future does the crafts sector want to build? It is this answer that will direct and indicate the types of activities and support that can help in realising this objective. Importantly, the Covid pandemic provided a watershed moment to re-evaluate crafts’ pre-pandemic economic model and consider whether such a model is resilient enough to combat future crises, especially climate change.

Considering craft is a global industry that involves some 160 million practitioners, strategies need to be established in order to respond effectively to the climate crisis. For example, the crafts industry can adopt some of the following strategies – elimination of waste and pollution, keeping resources in use as long as possible, generating natural systems, recycling of materials, repairing, using non-toxic materials, designing products with modular devices, low maintenance and built-in bio-degradability, etc. All of these are strategies of the circular economy which the crafts sector can adopt and implement. Interestingly to note, practising circular economy is not merely adopting one singular strategy but rather a multitude of strategies. It is important to identify those that are most suitable for one’s practice and context and the panel emphasised that the application of these strategies is underpinned by creativity. There must be enough space for craft practitioners to use their creativity to find new solutions or amalgamate different strategies, in order to find one that works effectively and efficiently for their practice and context.

Design, Decisions and the Circular Economy

The transition into a circular economy is all about design. However, in this case, it is more than simply designing the physical form of the product. Rather it includes the designing of systems. For example, designing new ways of production that are more energy efficient or new tools that minimise waste, etc. For a system to be fully circular other auxiliary systems also need to be considered, designed and developed. For example, return logistics need to be in place for customers to return their products to the makers so that they are suppliers as well as consumers of materials.

It is important to note that the circular economy is a design-led process and making decisions on which design-led process to implement is critical. Everything that is related to the process of making has a decision stage. If wrong decisions are made, it will be hard to reverse that decision or un-do the action; much like an omelette that cannot be unscrambled. In order to make credible decisions, it is important to have the best and latest information based on one’s values and vision for the future.


By UNESCO’s definition, craft is considered an intangible cultural heritage, yet, the expression of this heritage is physical in nature. Therefore, in craft practices – and in line with the principles of circular economy – the conservation of resources is through responsible production, consumption and making materials last as long. It is the best path to reducing the amount of materials used and hence, decreasing its toll on the environment. Yet, one must also consider this from the perspective of the maker’s income generation. What are the implications for the maker if they were to make items that last forever? Will they be able to increase their earnings if customers were to purchase products based on this principle? At the same time do we really want some products to last forever?

On the other hand, the appreciation of the value of materials is important. For example, the sector needs to find and inculcate value for using and reusing waste. Innovation in the material world is also important. What innovative methods can be employed to manage and use materials effectively and efficiently?

Interestingly, one suggestion was the establishment of an audit system to examine how materials are used within the production process and to identify gaps or leakages. But to establish such an audit system, it is necessary to have a deep understanding of the material and of the process, without which one would not know whether a production process was or was not operating at its optimum level.

Terms such as ‘recycling’, ‘upcycling’, ‘renew’, ‘reuse’, etc. are increasingly fashionable. But the reality is that these are very often challenging to implement once the product is sold and out of the maker’s hands. Hence, in order to implement such approaches, it may be necessary to design these into the products from the start. Furthermore, the producer needs to educate their customers on the end of life of the product and appreciation of the materials and the production process in order to instil value and respect for the product. They cannot automatically assume that customers themselves will take the initiative. Hence, it is really up to the maker to take the lead and educate his/her customers in up-cycling, etc.

Localism and Indigenous Practices

In a globalised world today, the international distribution of goods and services is multi-layered, demonstrating the far-reaching effects of a global economy. The crafts sector has not been isolated from this phenomenon. Being connected globally has offered craft producers endless choices of materials, enabling them to be more creative and economically priced. Furthermore, a global marketing network has enabled them to expand their customer base, selling their products worldwide.

However, being connected globally also has a price to pay: craft makers are vulnerable to the fragility of supply chains and are subject to global price fluctuations. Moreover, the carbon footprint of imported materials and the delivery of finished products will impact negatively on the environment. Yet, it is prudent not to ignore the opportunities that the world has to offer craft makers and that they have the option to choose local or non-local in their obtaining their supplies and marketing their products. However, in order for them to make informed and credible decisions, the playing fields of internationalisation and localism need to be equal and level. For example, the cost of procuring local materials can often be higher than those that are imported.

In addition, is it possible to reconcile ‘scaling up’ in terms of being local? Significantly, one of the main characteristics of localism is the ability to engage in face-to-face/person-to-person exchanges. Thus, in localism, the establishment of other systems, such as repairs, exchanges, rentals, etc. can be facilitated. The mode of exchange can also be re-examined within the local contexts. Hence, instead of selling products (which is the foundation of consumerism – encouraging people to buy more and more), leasing, rental, take-back or exchange service models can be explored and implemented, reducing the quantity of products made and sold. Yet, at the same time, still enables craft producers to earn an income. However, this can only be instituted at local levels where producers and their clients have direct relationships.

Changing of Values Systems and Cultural Perception

Beyond these material and commercial considerations, it is also important to change our mindset when adopting the principles of circular economy. After all, we perceive the world through a cultural lens. For example, for Chinese avoid purchasing or using second-hand items if they can afford to buy new ones. This is because of the perceived negative qi or

energies associated with items used by others, especially those who are deceased. In the case of waste materials, waste is a result of how we feel and think, not so much of the actual value of the product and what can be made from it. Therefore, adopting circular economy principles need to address the qualitative and emotive aspects too, beyond the material side.

This includes how we value artisans’ work and products beyond monetary terms. Within the current economic sphere, craft makers’ products are valued in monetary terms, only when they are sold. However, is society ready to value artisans’ work, talent, experiences and knowledge in other terms? For example, in Japan, master artisans are National Living Treasures. Because of their skills, knowledge and talent, the value of their work is beyond the commercial realms. Hence, they are accorded national respect and recognition, with their livelihoods supported by the government.

Finally, cultivating a sustainable future for/by future generations requires a change in value systems and cultural perception. It is a long-term evolution, rather than a short-term revolution. Educating the next generation, inculcating habits of re-using, repairing, reducing waste, etc., will take time to root.

Consumption versus Usage and the Experiential Economy

Echoing the above sentiments, some might attribute the distinction between the terms – ‘consumption’ and ‘usage’ – down to semantics. Yet, psychologically and symbolically, there are real differences between them. ‘Consumption’ indicates the expending of an item and a sense of ownership and thus, leading to the concept of ‘consumer demand’ – a mass commercial desire to possess and own a product. On the other hand, ‘usage’ has a temporal custodian notion. Whilst resources in the world are finite, our wants are unlimited and it is this demand that maintains a linear economy, exploiting natural resources while generating waste. Moreover, if it is a ‘desire’ that ‘consumption’ is fuelling, then, would it be possible to shape desires in different ways resulting in different outcomes? There is a need for a paradigm shift from ‘consumption’ to ‘usage’ where products are cherished without the need for ownership; and where a limited amount of products are made but used by a multitude of users. In operational terms, this could mean leasing or rental models, offering take-back or exchange services rather than outright purchase, which can only be realised if the crafts eco-system is localised (as elaborated above).

Interestingly, one means of reducing the quantity of material used in the crafts sector is to transpose the interaction between the maker and the customer from a physical exchange to one that is experiential in nature. Hence, rather than selling a physical product/object, is it possible to sell an experience instead? For example, providing lessons to make craft objects rather than selling craft products, teaching customers how to repair or mend broken or damaged products, collaborating with performance artists to showcase craft materials, etc.

Case Studies

The webinar highlighted some case studies where the principles of circular economy have been adopted by the crafts sector in their respective countries.


The Indian crafts sector is populated with diverse examples of artisan works that employ circular economy and circular designing principles. For example, using surface running stitches to mend, patch and quilt used textiles as a means of prolonging the life of garments. Although the genesis of this craft stemmed from economic challenges of the poor where recycled garments and textiles are used on a regular basis, it is today an art form in itself, called Khatan.

On trains, customers are served tea, or cha, in small low-fired terra-clay rather than plastic cups. After use, these cups are discarded, and thrown onto the tracks, allowing them to biodegrade naturally. Economically, these cups provide a source of income for the poor as they can be easily made and because of the way in which they are used and the demand for these cups is constant. Within the webinar discussion, this is an excellent example of localism – local clay is harvested while local communities make these cups for local consumption. The waste is absorbed back into the ground without any additional inputs.

Unfortunately, these skills are not recognised or acknowledged but merely accepted and taken for granted as part of the cultural landscape of India. Furthermore, these practices are normally employed by those who are economically disadvantaged and who move on to other trades when other more lucrative opportunities present themselves. However, during the pandemic, many of these invisible practices have been recognised and highlighted, generating new interest in historical and cultural practices, especially within the framework of environmental sustainability.


Biji-Biji Initiative is a private enterprise. Its CEO elaborated that from their company’s perspective, the circular economy can be viewed from three aspects – inputs of materials (in what they used), production process (what they do when making the products) and what happens after the product has been sold (consumer and product life cycle). Hence, they often use waste or discarded materials as raw materials for their products. During the production process, offcuts are offered to other companies as a means of reducing waste. Finally, Biji-Biji also offers lifetime warranties to repair products.

However, while executing these strategies, the company also encountered challenges. For example, offering to repair customers’ products would involve return logistics, increasing the carbon footprint of the product. Instead, they provide instructions to customers, teaching them how to fix and mend their own products when broken. The CEO explained that engaging in the principles of circular economy and circular design thinking are often evolutionary/trial-and-error processes where one learns while doing, as many of these practices have not been employed before.

The company also found that it is important to establish a network of like-minded companies and practitioners to take advantage of the economies of scale in employing circular economy and design principles.


Lalitpur was accredited as a WCC International Crafts City in 2018. The accreditation provided visibility and added value to the crafts sector, which has a huge presence in the city. Crafts products made in Lalitpur include wood and stone carvings and metal castings. These craft practices are deeply embedded within the city’s ecosystem. The skills are transmitted informally from generation to generation and are a vital source of family income. The craft products are linked to cultural and religious practices and the locally sourced materials are regenerative in nature. For example, waste metals from scrap yards are used in metalsmithing, wood products are made from sustainably harvested trees in the surrounding foothills.

Significantly, because the craft sector is already part of the local social, cultural and economic ecology and local eco-system, it is much easier for the crafts sector to adopt the principles of circular economy. But there is still room for further developments. For example, how to create value out of production waste, how to increase cooperation and collaboration with the city stakeholders and the crafts sector to add value to craft products, etc. These will need to be carefully explored and considered.

New Zealand 

The Maori traditional/indigenous concepts of production and consumption parallel the principles of circular economy. At its foundation, there is a strong sense of stewardship, of not only preserving the natural system but also recapitalising the natural system so that it is flourishing and stronger, leaving the world in a better place than what it was before.

The dichotomy is that although the environment is at stake, many of the interventions are often geared towards human behaviour and not necessarily towards natural systems. Within the context of Maori culture and practices, the focus is on the environment while human behaviour is then geared towards expanding and enriching the environment.

The best means of reducing waste stems from examining how materials are used.


Collectively, the crafts industry is a sector operating within the global economy. As such, the industry has a responsibility to address the climate crisis. One means of mitigating climate change is the adoption of the principles of circular economy in craft practice.

In many ways, the crafts sector has already been practising the principles of circular economy but in a piecemeal way. To be fully integrated into the circular economy, systems need to be changed, adapted and modified. To initiate this process, it is necessary to evaluate and re-establish the vision and values of the crafts sector. For example, is profit the only concern of the sector? Once this macro vision is established, it will then be possible to design a strategy to fulfil this vision.

There is no one strategy but a multitude of strategies and most probably, a combination of strategies will be needed to circularise the industry. Hence, it is important for practitioners to be creative in adopting those that are most appropriate to their contexts and practices.

The circular economy is all about design and design thinking. It embraces the whole system from the identifying, sourcing and using of materials, production processes, marketing and also product end-of-life. Hence, designing is targeted at the many levels of production and usage/consumption of craft products. For craft practitioners, it is important to design systems that are in line with the principles of circular economy.

Crafts and materials are intrinsically linked. The best means of reducing waste stems from examining how materials are used. Although seemingly simple, the implications are profound. For example, how does one balance the sustainable use of materials with one’s needs to grow one’s business incrementally? Do materials have to last forever? How does one audit material processes to identify leakage and waste?

Many of the practices of the circular economy such as repair, rental, exchange, etc. can only be addressed through person-to-person/face-to-face interactions between makers and their clients. This suggests that the operating sphere needs to be local where craft producers and their customers are sited within physical reach. But in this day and age where globalism has taken a stronghold, the decision of ‘going local’ is not so easy or simple. Thus, for craft practitioners to make credible and sound decisions, imported materials and those offered locally need to be of equal value. Significantly, the term ‘value’ here needs to be articulated, identified and defined by the makers themselves.

Notably, the circular economy is not just about physical materials and processes but also concerns attitudes, perceptions, and values. Furthermore, these are evolutionary changes, that can only be attained through long-term education, especially focusing on the next generation and change of language: are we users or consumers of craft products? More fundamentally, can crafts be transposed from a physical exchange (buying and selling of products) between makers and their customers into one that is experiential instead?

Finally, there are already examples of where the principles of the circular economy have been implemented and practised. These case studies range from traditional practices (India), entrepreneurial (Malaysia), and city-based (Nepal) to national cultural values (New Zealand). These discussions and presentations have presented some pertinent concepts and important considerations for the crafts sector to explore. However, to fully achieve the principles of circular economy as a means of mitigating climate change will require systemic change. To achieve that, more debate and practical support will be needed to empower the sector to make that change.

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1 Reverse logistics is a type of supply chain management that moves goods from customers back to sellers or manufacturers? Once a customer receives a product, processes such as returns or recycling require reverse logistics.

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