Walk the Walk in a Circular Economy

I learned a new term at a conference I attended recently, the circular economy.  The term has been around awhile, I had just never encountered it until now.  The circular economy is an economy based around expanding the lifetime of the raw resources we use.  We all know the idea of recycling but the concept of a circular economy takes recycling one step further, and makes recycling the strategic foundation of the economic activity in a society or region.  The end result of a circular economy is that the inputs of new resources needed to fuel the economy are greatly reduced and the amount of used resources going as waste into landfill is also greatly reduced. 

The circular economy is not new when you think about it.  At the turn of the previous century and throughout the war years, people in the rag, scrap metal or used glass trades made a living collecting used goods from wealthier households, and then reselling them to people who would recycle them.  Even in my family household when I was growing up, we kept and reused everything—string, elastic bands, plastic containers. My mother turned old clothes and scraps of leftover cloth into woven rag carpets.  She rolled old newspapers into paper logs and sticks to get the fire started.  My father sawed up used wood pallets from his customers as wood for the fire.  We melted down old candles to make new ones.  When bed sheets got worn out in the middle, she cut them in half, reversed the halves so that the worn parts went to the outside of the sheet, and stitched it back up.  Or she turned the unworn parts of the bed sheets into pillow cases.  Nothing went to waste. 

When did we stop our reuse of old products?  If you think about it, the only place in the world today where there is NO circular economy is in developed countries.  In developing countries, there are families who live on the edge of garbage dumps who earn a living finding reusable things that have been discarded to sell.  Their livelihood depends on the circular economy. 

Back to the conference.  This particular presentation focused on seven fashion start-up companies in Italy that used different recycled materials to create fashion accessories such as belts, purses and jewelry.  The companies were having varying degrees of success, but all were facing the challenge of getting customers to pay slightly more for their products.  Their production costs were higher than those of companies working with brand new materials.  They were having trouble convincing potential customers that the extra cost for the products was worth it.  When you factor in the environmental impact, why would you NOT buy the products?

The fashion industry is ripe for principles of the circular economy, to combat the trend of fast fashion—clothes and accessories that are made to only last a short while, to be replaced with another trend when they quickly wear out.  Gone are the days of clothes that last for years and that get handed down, traded around, altered or repurposed. 

This got me thinking about two things.  The first is recycling in general, which is at the foundation of a circular economy.  Our recycling efforts with plastics, metal cans and paper have been in the news recently in Canada, but not for a good reason.  Unknown to me, as an ordinary Canadian, a lot of our recycled materials get shipped by the container-full to other countries for processing.  China, the Philippines, Malaysia are all destinations.  The news focused on containers that had arrived in the Philippines that were supposed to be full of recyclable materials for processing, but were in fact full of rotting landfill garbage.  The ensuing outrage in the receiving country is completely understandable.  It is time that we stop using the rest of the world as our dumping ground and built our own circular economy right here in Canada.  Why are we shipping this material to the other side of the world instead of reusing them right here?

And I also recalled a friend in New Orleans who was way ahead of the game in the fashion circular economy.  Quite a few years ago she started an enterprise called Uptown Redesigns.  She takes old leather jackets, at the end of their lifecycle either because their design is outdated or parts of them are worn out, and turns them into fashionable purses and tote bags.  Each bag is a fashionable, unique design, because the leather jacket from which it is made is unique.

Looking at all of this, here is the central question to the circular economy.  What will it take for consumers in developed countries to put their buying power behind products that have been recycled?  When will “recycled” have more value than “new”?  Regardless of what business we are in, we can take part in the circular economy with all of our buying choices.  We can demonstrate and protest about the environment as much as we want, but until we put our consumer power behind initiatives that address environmental issues, we are talking the talk but not walking the walk.