A visionary approach to our environmental and economic sustainability is the adoption of a circular economy – a train of thought based on the once natural sustainability of our eco system.
Prior to the first industrial revolution our environment was still relatively similar to its original circular existence. A system that revived itself and thrived in a circular cycle through the rejuvenating cycle of organisms, animals, plants and trees. An organic cycle which regenerated and revitalised itself. Natural waste from fallen trees and animal carcasses were feeding the soil to stimulate growth for new trees, foliage and grazing plains for animals and the prosperity of the eco system.
Progressing through the first four revolutions our eco system has been battered and bruised by an escalating linear manufacturing and economic culture. Eventually we have reached the 21st century with the growing realisation that we simply cannot sustain our environment in such a grab-and-go; use-and-discard approach by simply turning to waste anything that we don’t need anymore.
Environmental activists like Greta Thunberg have managed to get the attention of first world leaders and United Nations officials about the dangers of ignoring climate change. The feisty teenager would also have addressed the annual world economic forum at Davos about these dangers by the time this publication goes to print.
How a circular economy can sustain our planet and benefit retail
A circular economic approach is an approach among manufacturers aimed at recycling and reusing. The end result is intended to minimise the use of resource input and reduce escalating landfill waste management practices. According to Vend, designers of a cloud-based software pay system, we can “expect more retailers to be part of the circular economy, in an effort to minimise waste and promote sustainability”.
This shift is on the cards because retailers have no other choice. Research by OC&C Strategy Consultants shows that Gen Z is very much environmental-conscious. It was found that 15% is dedicated to cut down on waste; 14% is committed to reduce their carbon footprint; and 13% want to lower the single use of plastic. This generation will most probably raise their children with the same philosophy, increasing the followers of an environmental-conscious society. This could only result in a positive outcome, given the planet’s exploding consumer population.
At The Ellen Macarthur Foundation they distinguish between biological and technical cycles. Biologically-based materials (i.e. wood and cotton) are designed to find their way back into the manufacturing cycle through “composting and anaerobic digestion”. Technical cycles include the recovery and restoration of “products, components and materials through reuse, repair, remanufacture or recycling”.
According to the foundation we have an opportunity to rethink the way we manufacture goods and products. “We can re-design the way our economy works – designing products that can be ‘made to be made again’ and powering the system with renewable energy.” The end result is intended to create a “restorative economy”.
Vend illustrates the selling power in sustainability with Nike’s “Grind” programme. The company uses old shoes and their own manufacturing waste to reproduce useful raw materials. This is then transformed into alternative applications like gym floors, play surfaces, playground equipment and new Nike shoes.
Smaller retailers are also turning to circular economic trends. An Australian eyewear retailer sources plastic waste and gathers discarded fishing nets from local beaches to manufacture recycled spectacle frames.
Circular economic principles
Venture analyst at Plug and Play, Paloma Mas, says: “Retailers know that adopting circular economy principles and producing in a more sustainable way will help them engage with their existing customers and reach new audiences.” With consumers and retailers being aware of measures to take care of the environment, while walking the talk can benefit manufacturers and retailer alike.
This has resulted in extensive social media campaigns by retailers and manufacturers to create awareness about their efforts in avoiding plastics and other polluting materials. Social media drives and marketing campaigns are created to inspire re-gifting and new technology has developed automation to reduce material waste during the manufacturing process.
Innovative circular economy players
Goodnet has identified five companies that have embraced the concept of circular economy with ingenuity:
• Timberland (from tyres to shoes) Timberland is a tyre manufacturer who teamed up with Omni United, a footwear manufacturer. Footwear manufacturing gobbles up most of the available virgin rubber. With the Timberland collaboration, when tyres reach the end of their life, it is recycled to crumb rubber, which is then processed into sheet rubber for Omni United shoe soles.
• Johnson Controls (recycled batteries) The company has developed 99% recyclable batteries. Their public awareness inspired consumers to recycle conventional batteries. This enabled the company to acquire enough recyclable material to avoid hundreds of millions of batteries ending up in landfills.
• Aquazone (turning wastewater into fertiliser) By treating wastewater biochemically, solids and nutrients are separated from the water. The nutrient-rich sludge is used for organic fertiliser, while the water can be used for irrigation or refined for drinking water.
• Vigga (a shared wardrobe) A monthly subscription provides a parent with 20 pieces of children’s garments. When they don’t fit anymore, it can be exchanged for another set – one size bigger. The clothing is designed to be high-quality and long-lasting.
• RAW for the Oceans (upcycling ocean trash into clothing) RAW for the Oceans recovers plastic from shorelines and turns it into jeans, graphic t-shirts and kimonos. The process involves breaking down the plastics and turning it into a fibre that can be woven, called Bionic Yarn.
Commitment to the environment
A golden thread running through the mission statements of these circular economy players, is their commitment to the environment, ensuring sustainability. At the same time, they are able to apply this vision to their brand promise. In the case of Timberland they promote their recycle drive with, “Drive. Recycle. Wear. Is our commitment to performance, sustainability and style. When you buy Timberland Tires, it reflects your values and passion for the environment, quality products, and looking good while doing good.” Making the point that sustainability is more than just good marketing.