Different Routes


Fashionable circular economy flounders when it comes to repairs and renting


Different Routes


Fashionable circular economy flounders when it comes to repairs and renting

Finns are used to recycling, because we have been guided to do so for a long time in our society. It is at least equally important to learn how to repair and rent goods, but that is something our system does not encourage. In Russia, the opposite is true. In an article by journalist Kati Kelola, researcher Angelina Korsunova-Tsaruk explains what motivates people to participate in the circular economy in two very different countries.

Why are some people prepared to spend time recycling and living a sustainable lifestyle when the surrounding society does not in any way encourage it?

In 2019, researcher Angelina Korsunova-Tsaruk heard from her colleagues at ITMO University, St. Petersburg, about city dwellers whose activities aroused her interest.

These residents recycled their waste of their own free will, without it being a requirement and without any infrastructure set up for it.

“They even formed groups and hired an eco-taxi to transport their sorted waste to small waste disposal plants,” Korsunova-Tsaruk explains.

In Finland, there is a strong positive social norm associated with waste sorting and recycling.

Children learn to do it as early as kindergarten. A child feeding plastic bottles into a bottle bank at a grocery store receives encouraging smiles from passers-by.

In Russia, things are different. Many Russians associate flea markets with poverty, and there is a strong stigma attached to returning bottles.

“It is usually only done by people with a very low or no income  who may have a drinking problem.”

Korsunova-Tsaruk was fascinated by the activities of the recycling activists in St. Petersburg. Why were some people willing to make their lives so much more complicated voluntarily?

Raw materials are running out

Angelina Korsunova-Tsaruk leads a research group that is studying citizens’ participation in the circular economy in Finland and St. Petersburg, Russia, a city with a population of more than five million. The circular economy is an economic model that aims to achieve sustainable production and consumption. The idea is to try to keep the products and the raw materials used in making them in circulation for as long as possible.

“The world is running out of raw materials, which is why we really need to rethink our activities.”

The project involves researchers from both the University of Helsinki and ITMO University in St. Petersburg. It is part of Kone Foundation’s funding programme called The Changing “Neighbournesses” of Finland.

Originally from Ulan-Ude, the Republic of Buryatia in Russia, Korsunova-Tsaruk became interested in environmental issues already in childhood. Her parents were researchers in the fields of biology and soil science. Her mother gave lectures on sustainable development at the local agricultural academy.

At that time, the term ‘circular economy’ was not yet used. Yet people reused things. There was a shortage of a lot of things. It was common, for example, to wash and dry plastic bags so that they could be reused for storing bread or other food.

One of the major environmental problems in Eastern Siberia to the north of Mongolia was the pollution of Lake Baikal, resulting from the paper and pulp mill in the area discharging effluents into it.

Korsunova-Tsaruk, who originally studied administrative sciences at Buryat State University, longed to engage with topics relating to sustainable development. She was interested in ecological issues, but could not find a suitable study programme in Russia. Twenty years ago, Korsunova-Tsaruk moved to Finland to study environmental management and eventually defended her doctoral thesis on it. Today, she works at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry in the University of Helsinki’s Department of Forest Sciences and is a member of the research network of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science HELSUS.

With their research, Korsunova-Tsaruk’s team aim to find out what motivates people to make and maintain choices that promote the circular economy. What are the challenges of living according to the principles of circular economy? And what kind of support would be required from society to facilitate participation in the circular economy?

Many people associate the circular economy with recycling, but it is much more than that.

“The most important circular economy action is to try to prevent the generation of waste in the first place.”

One way to do this is to cut down on unnecessary consumption, for example, by renting things instead of buying them. The circular economy also includes various acts that extend the service life of goods, such as maintenance, repair and modifying goods in order to use them for a new purpose. Selling goods on at flea markets and online marketplaces is also part of the circular economy.

“At the heart of the circular economy is the careful use of natural resources.”

Studying two circular economy societies with very different starting points – Finland and Russia – side by side is fascinating to Korsunova-Tsaruk, because it allows her and her team to look for similarities in people’s activities, resulting in insights that may be applied to disparate cultures.

“If we look beyond political and cultural differences, the circular economy can be something that unites us.”

The consumer is a concept of a bygone era

In order to make a genuine transition to a circular economy in the future, we need to understand people’s attitudes to it and how they act in it.

According to Korsunova-Tsaruk, this is not yet the case. The circular economy has been studied mainly at the level of companies and structures, whereas citizens’ active participation and willingness to participate in the circular economy and the social norms associated with it have not been studied with equal attention.

“We don’t have enough information or understanding of citizens to support policy-making.”

Korsunova-Tsaruk considers it important that the vision of the circular economy of the future is built together with citizens. Citizens play as important a role in the realisation of the circular economy as companies, municipalities and states do.

“In order to make a transition to something, we need to know precisely what the future we want looks like and we need to believe in it. I don’t think we are asking people enough questions about what kind of a future they envision.”

In traditional economy thinking, people are seen merely as consumers. The division of roles has been simple: the task of a company is to produce innovations, while the individual’s task is to consume them. In Korsunova-Tsaruk’s opinion, this way of looking at things is extremely limited.

“Being branded as a consumer has paralysed us into thinking that the best way we can contribute is to consume the right products.”

In a circular economy, people are no longer merely consumers. In Korsunova-Tsaruk’s opinion, it is important to replace the word ‘consumers’ with ‘citizens’.

“If we see ourselves as citizens, it automatically includes more responsibility.”

In a circular economy, citizens have many roles. Citizens not only consume things and thus destroy their value, but they also generate value through their own actions; for example, by repairing and modifying goods. This means that products will no longer be unusable as a result of consumption. Instead, citizens will make them useful and desirable in new ways. This will also make the process more meaningful to the person themselves.

Korsunova-Tsaruk cites economist Manfred Max-Neef’s theory of fundamental human needs. It postulates that people not only satisfy their needs by acquiring things, but also by doing things and participating.

“I think it’s obvious that people crave creativity. It’s one of our fundamental human needs.”

Finns are used to the state, municipality or some public institution providing a framework for circular economy measures. In Russia, the lack of infrastructure forces people to look for other solutions.

Ideas from inspiring stories

A crafts blogger who shares posts about the conversion of goods for a new use and organises bring-and-buy sales for high-quality goods. A father who organises litter collections sessions with his children and makes funny videos of them online. A mother who likes to visit flea markets and vintage shops.

For their research, Korsunova-Tsaruk’s team interviewed forty circular economy activists in Finland and St. Petersburg. They found the Finnish interviewees through Zero Waste Finland and its networks, as well as from social media, while the Russian ones they found within and on the fringes of the Trash.No.More movement.

“The interviews showed that people participate in the circular economy in many different ways. Everyone had a different life story.”

Korsunova-Tsaruk found the stories of the interviewees very relatable. Of course, this was the goal. One of the purposes of the research project is to share personal, inspiring stories about living a sustainable life, as well as ideas about such lifestyles. These have been compiled on the project site at

“These stories encourage us all to consider whether such acts and lifestyles might be suitable for us as well.”

Both Finns and Russians considered their own health and that of their loved ones an important reason to make sustainable choices. Many of them would like to have fewer belongings and focus on something more meaningful in life, such as finding pleasure in nature.

The differences in the responses of the Finnish and Russian interviewees were reflective of the differences in infrastructure and institutions.

Finns are used to the state, municipality or some public institution providing a framework for circular economy measures.

“Russians can’t rely on such frameworks. Instead, the lack of infrastructure forces them to look for other solutions.”

In St. Petersburg, citizens have set up sharing schemes for the redistribution of medical supplies and food to reduce waste. A drinking water project involved gathering information in an interactive map about all the cafés and restaurants in St. Petersburg that allow you to fill your water bottle for free and thus reduce bottle waste. In St. Petersburg, tap water is not drinkable.

However, there are more things such as repair services available in Russia and they are cheaper than in Finland.

“In Finland, people are almost encouraged not to repair things.”

For example, toasters are hardly ever repaired. It is considered easier to buy a new one.

According to Korsunova-Tsaruk, the reasons for this are complex: one of them is the fact that repair services can appear expensive when compared to the cost of a new product. Also, certain societal structures or rules have an influence on people’s attitudes to repairs.

“Very often, the terms of an insurance contract influence a person’s decision on whether to repair something or not.”

Finns recycle but do not rent

Finland is considered a pioneer of the circular economy. According to Korsunova-Tsaruk, however, there is a lot of room for improvement even in Finland when it comes to circular economy services.

Korsunova-Tsaruk’s team conducted a survey based on the data obtained from the interviews with circular economy activists. In a nationally representative sample, one thousand ordinary Finns were asked what kinds of actions related to the circular economy they had taken in their everyday lives.

The results showed that Finns know how to recycle, but they make much less use, for example, of services related to the circular economy, such as renting or leasing goods. Often such services were not available near enough or at all.

“Finland is a country where there are great differences between its cities. There are quite a lot of options available in Greater Helsinki, but you only have to go a hundred kilometres outside of it for the situation to be different.”

Another finding that emerged from the survey was the fact that although Finns like to buy second-hand goods, a large share of the population never buy certain products second-hand. These include, for example, small household appliances, such as the coffee machine, and, somewhat surprisingly, mobile phones.

According to Korsunova-Tsaruk, one of the key findings of the study is the fact that the implementation of a circular economy lifestyle is still quite complicated.

She points out that Finland’s road map to a circular economy, which can be found on the website of the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, specifically states that the role of citizens in the transition will have to change from consumer to user. This means that instead of buying products, people will start to buy services.

Or at least that is what the research team hope will happen.

“Are we really users? How close are we to transitioning to a circular economy?” Korsunova-Tsaruk asks.

“We need much more targeted measures to make the circular economy a reality. We need to wake up to the fact that no one is renting products, for example.”

According to Korsunova-Tsaruk, behavioural scientist Paul Stern has discovered that context plays a significant role in determining behaviour. Context refers to different kinds of circumstances, such as infrastructure, societal norms or supply of relevant goods on the market.

“If the context does not make action possible, everything becomes difficult, even if the person’s attitude is positive.”

The transition to a circular economy must be made easier

Still today, the circular economy as a lifestyle requires planning, time and commitment, also in Finland.

“This needs to be made easier. We cannot assume that everyone is able to be very methodical.”

That is why there should be, for example, more rental services available and they should be closer and more visible,” Korsunova-Tsaruk says.

Let’s assume that you are going hiking – and it doesn’t occur to you that you could rent the equipment you need. Instead, you do a Google search that produces a list of stores where you can buy the equipment.

Or you want to reduce waste and refill your shampoo bottle, but you can only do it in specific specialised shops that you have to visit especially, instead of being able to refill your bottle at the supermarket when shopping for groceries.

According to Korsunova-Tsaruk, repair services could become more common, for example, by means of tax concessions. Attitudes towards repairing things should also be made more positive.

“We are clinging to the idea that repairs should always be invisible. That if the repair is visible, it means you are poor.”

If anything, repairing things should be rewarded socially – after all, it extends the life cycle of the product and is therefore a good deed. Korsunova-Tsaruk suggests that employers could, for example, offer repair services as a workplace benefit through payment applications such as Epassi. This would foster the idea that repairing things is a desirable act.

According to Korsunova-Tsaruk, the data collected from citizens can be used to develop not only better circular economy services, but also to create infrastructure and education that promotes the circular economy. In her opinion, the main focus of education on the circular economy, for example, should be on how to reduce the amount of waste we produce instead of recycling. In other words, precycling.

“Precycling means reducing waste and repairing and reusing things. It comes before recycling.”

Right now at the beginning of 2023, Korsunova-Tsaruk’s research project is visiting some schools in Finland,  providing workshops for upper secondary school students and teaching them to put the circular economy into practice. Students are tasked with choosing an object at home that is broken or not used anymore and asked to think of a new use for it.

The final result will be photographed. The aim is to create a ‘gallery of objects’ from the photographs on the research project’s homepage.

Everyone can then go and see what it looks like to give objects a new life – in other words, they can see the circular economy in action.

Angelina Korsunova-Tsaruk, Doctor of Economic Sciences and leader of the research group, is a docent in sustainable business and a university instructor at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry in the University of Helsinki’s Department of Forest Sciences, as well as a member of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science HELSUS’s network of researchers. She defended her doctoral dissertation in environmental management at the University of Jyväskylä and previously lectured at Aalto University on issues such as sustainable business and consumption. Korsunova-Tsaruk specialises in sustainable consumption, the circular economy and interaction between citizens and businesses.

How the Russian invasion has affected the project

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the three-year research project led by Korsunova-Tsaruk had come to the end of its first year. The war has affected the project in many ways.

After the offensive began, the Russian part of the study was practically put on hold. The workshops in schools also had to be cancelled.

“In Russia, a person or institution may be condemned as an agent of a foreign power. For example, the Baltic Sea Challenge network, which focuses on protecting the Baltic Sea and has greatly influenced some of the inhabitants of St. Petersburg we have interviewed, has now been declared a foreign agent. I don’t want to put any student at risk as a result of our project.”

After the war started, the project team also considered whether the material already collected in Russia for the study should be completely abandoned, but in the end, it seemed particularly valuable right now to keep it.

“It allows us to show that there are many people in Russia who are actually doing a great deal for sustainability, and that they hold extremely strong values, although right now, of course, this is not necessarily visible. At the moment, we only hear about very negative things.”

At the time of writing, it is also unclear whether the researchers at ITMO University in St. Petersburg who participated in the study will be able to publish the research results they have already collected at some point.

“It’s very sad to see the kind of impact the war has had on scientific communities. We have already experienced the era of the Iron Curtain. And what good did that do?”