Lessons from English Pre-Industrial Times for a Post-Industrial Circular Economy Resources, Conservation & Recycling

Catherine Casson (Lead), Frank Boons, James Davis, Helen Holmes, John S. Lee, Harald Wieser

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This paper takes an interdisciplinary qualitative approach to repair, re-use and recycling. Collaboration between academics in the fields of economic sociology, sustainable production and consumption and medieval history permits a long-term perspective on the incentives and deterrents for sustainable practices in relation to resource flows. In England in the period 1250–1500 acquisition of raw materials and production processes were labour intensive, resources were scarce and production and consumption were not strictly separated. However, a dynamic manufacturing sector and rising consumer incomes meant that new goods were readily available.

Three options were available for practising circularity of items: prolonging use to avoid immediate disposal, passing on the item (as a gift or through sale) or re-processing it through recycling. Textiles, metal working, butchery, tanning and leatherworking were the industries in which such practices were most common. Repair and re-use was promoted in the domestic environment, including by the church. In a commercial context, however, trade organisations and government implemented legal deterrents that protected consumers but also limited competition for the producers of new goods. Analysis of these practices enables us to draw three lessons for the current move towards a circular economy. Firstly, efforts need to be made to revive the practice of repair in the household. Secondly, education and greater transparency can prevent quality-control rules from limiting the scope of the circular economy by prioritising new goods. Finally, attention should be paid both the financial and emotional motivations that can encourage sustainable practices.
Original languageEnglish
Article number106968
JournalResources, Conservation and Recycling
Early online date21 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023


  • Circular economy
  • Historical perspective
  • interdisciplinary
  • recycling
  • repair
  • re-use


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