Image via @recoverbrands
Take a resource, make a product, throw it away.
That’s been the story of stuff since at least the industrial era. But on a planet with limited resources and with human population expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, the sustainability of the take-make-waste approach to economic growth is a pressing concern.
In response, companies around the world are crafting and implementing circular solutions, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce defines as “action that drives greater resource productivity improvements, eliminates waste and inefficiency, and contributes to a stronger competitive economy.” These companies are bending traditional lines of thinking on how to make and dispose of a product by taking its full life cycle into account, a departure from the linear approach to production. And as more businesses adopt circular solutions they are not only reshaping their individual entities; they’re changing the shape of the global economy, too.
That transition is well underway. “It’s happening at a beautifully fast rate,” said Reynir Smári Atlason, head of consultancy at the aptly named Circular Solutions, an Iceland-based firm that helps businesses meet their sustainability targets. “If you can design a product in such a way that you can get the raw materials back, then you don’t have to spend as much money on purchasing new materials.”
Similarly, Reynir explained, if you can assemble a product that has the ability to break down in the biosphere at the end of its life cycle, then less money needs to be spent on waste management. “It makes business sense to do this,” he said.
Both of those approaches could be categorized as “cradle to cradle” methodologies, a phrase popularized by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart in their 2002 book. Cradle to cradle is a play on the popular corporate mantra, “cradle to grave,” an old industry standard that neither accounts for the value of materials that go to landfill nor considers the life of future generations.
Cradle to cradle design and circular solutions don’t just benefit human health and the environment. Rather, the circular economy represents a reward of $4.5 trillion in additional economic growth, according to research from Accenture, a multinational management consulting firm. “At its heart, the circular economy is about decoupling natural resource use and waste from the good stuff that we want from a global economy: economic development and prosperity,” the firm claimed in a 2016 report.
Issue No. 3 of The Regeneration features several fashion brands that showcase the power of circular solutions. Arvin Goods, for example, makes socks and underwear from recycled used clothing, fabrics and textile scraps, saving freshwater, lowering C02 emissions and reducing landfill waste in the process. Consumers are encouraged to return used socks to Arvin, so the company can recycle them into their original form (yarn) which is then combined with other responsibly sourced yarns to generate new products, creating a closed and sustainable apparel loop.
Illustration by Hannah Salyer
Circular solutions aren’t just for fashion companies, though. Travel companies, construction companies, food processing companies and many more are reaping the benefits of cradle to cradle design, too.
In the case of food production, up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. is never eaten, although one in eight American families struggle to put food on the table, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group. A key problem in food production is linear design — the take-make-waste approach. In Latin America, The World Resources Institute estimates that 56 percent of food is wasted before even reaching distribution. Barnana and Wonky Juice, two young health food brands in Costa Rica, are working to change that by buying misshapen, “ugly” and discarded food products from local farmers and using them to make new treats like energy bars and sauces.
Niaga, a Netherlands-based startup, is another early adopter of circular solutions. The company is bringing to market a disruptive technology that “enables the production of a fully recyclable carpet,” writes Hugh Welsh, president of DSM, a Dutch multinational active in the fields of health, nutrition, and materials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 4 billion pounds of carpets go to landfill each year. In partnership with DSM, Niaga creates regenerated, future-proof carpets that are made without harmful volatile organic compounds, prevent waste and require 90 percent less energy to manufacture — a win-win-win for consumers, the environment, and the economy.
Circular solutions are still a relatively new concept, and companies are just beginning to leverage their potential. “Environmental responsibility was considered a liability in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but now it is being more discussed in private firms,” Reynir said. If they are going to become the new norm, though, the discussion needs to move beyond just the social and environmental benefits, he added. “Products that are consciously made simply sell faster … that’s the main selling point for manufacturers.”