How Brands Can Champion A Circular Economy

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, November 22, 2023

In the aftermath of Hurricane Otis, many will be grappling with the visceral reality - once again - that climate change is at our doorsteps and almost no one is spared its impact. Our homes, streets, and lives have been disrupted, reminding us that the natural world is not a force to be reckoned with lightly. Too often now, the adverse cycle of now predictable destruction, triage, and rebuilding reaches from coast to coast, from south to north, and around the world.  

Politics and personal beliefs aside, it is impossible to deny that weather disasters are happening more frequently, more severely, and in more places affecting more people, wildlife, and flora. Sadly, owing to the fact that, if the world’s largest countries don’t each do their part (think China and India and the US, for example), many point out that efforts by governments and employers to fight climate change are doomed to fail. With the utmost hope that I am incorrect, I predict that a cycle of skepticism among even the most climate-forward thinkers is bound to happen, and we are already seeing the headwinds from climate deniers pressuring investment funds to abandon ESG investment principles. The fight of all fights, fortunately, is on.  



Enter the “circular economy”: an increasingly achievable, practical, and desirable radical restructuring of the way we design, produce, and consume. It’s a model that could not only reduce environmental impact but also increase resilience against climatic upheaval. With the alarming frequency of extreme weather events like Otis, it's time for brands and companies to recognize the benefits of a circular approach and invest heavily. We’ve already seen where our current path is leading: never-ending destruction, loss of life, and expense, punctuated by one natural disaster after the next.  

The traditional linear economy, characterized by the ‘take, make, and dispose’ approach, developed over the millennia before there were clear impacts of the folly of the pattern, has accelerated our plunge into environmental catastrophe. The examples are endless, just take ocean plastics for example. The billions of tons of plastic in the ocean end up in fish and ocean fowl as microplastics, which end up back in humans, among the many other problems caused by a trash-it value system.   

In contrast, a circular economy emphasizes regenerating natural systems, keeping products and materials in use, and designing out waste and pollution. When companies prioritize reusability and recyclability, they move closer to a model that mirrors natural cycles. We don’t have to wait until we are in a Mad Max world wearing vapor recovery devices to preserve precious moisture to start converting linear to circular systems. In fact, this conversion is happening in more places than you think, and more investors are finally wising up that blended missions of sustainability and profit are not mutually exclusive.   

So, how can companies champion a circular approach in the wake of Otis?  

  • Design for Longevity and Reusability: Our throwaway culture, particularly evident in industries like fashion, food & beverages, and e-commerce, contributes significantly to global carbon emissions and landfill waste. If we emphasize product and packaging design that prioritizes durability and the potential for reuse or repurposing, we can begin to reframe the conversation and production model itself. Patagonia, the purpose-driven outdoor clothing company, has championed this through its "Worn Wear" program, which encourages customers to trade in their used items for store credit. These used items are then refurbished and sold, giving them a new lease on life and reducing waste. This example is a tried and true case study of how companies, big and small, can reduce their carbon footprint, save on raw material costs, and cater to an increasingly eco-conscious consumer base. I get excited about the idea that, at some point, companies will arrive at critical mass where companies wouldn’t feel they had a complete offering without at least some circular elements like this.  
  • Embrace Renewable Energy: Non-renewable energy sources like coal and oil not only deplete finite resources but are also the primary culprits behind greenhouse gas emissions. A pivot towards renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydropower, are key to unlocking crucial steps in reversing the damages of climate change. Unfortunately, so much noise has been kicked up by legacy energy companies and their climate change deniers, that progressive thinking has to overcome skeptics. The facts are clear: economies of scale are already present in many areas and corporate policy is a high-impact way to accelerate further cost reductions, making renewable sources desirable economically even without factoring in all of the environmental and human benefits. Currently, IKEA is one of the largest companies in the world with clear sustainable development standards to become climate-positive by 2030. More specifically, the company is currently expanding its renewable electricity program in ten additional global markets to support suppliers in switching to this type of energy source. IKEA will provide local solutions, such as bundled framework agreements and Power Purchase Agreements to purchase renewable electricity from the grid, which enables its direct suppliers to consume 100% renewable electricity in their production. The benefits for companies making these types of renewable energy investments are immense. Businesses can safeguard against fluctuating energy prices, decrease their carbon emissions, and position themselves as forward-thinking in the eyes of both investors and consumers. In fact, “Renewables are the cheapest form of power today confirms a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency. Amid climbing fossil fuel prices, investments in renewables in 2021 save US $55 billion in global energy generation costs in 2022” (source: United Nations).  
  • Support Local and Sustainable Supply Chains: Long, geographically disparate supply chains not only contribute to increased carbon emissions from transportation but also often rely on unsustainable resource extraction. We must invest in local supply chains and choose sustainable materials to reimagine this pipeline. Many purpose-driven companies are already on this path, and new bipartisan domestic incentives passed during the Biden Administration, are making this easier by funding domestic production and rewarding (with some frustrating loopholes, to be honest) local sourcing, such as rare earth minerals. As part of its zero-waste target, 95% of Lush Cosmetic’s production waste is recycled. This means they produce nothing that cannot be circled back through biological or technical cycles, leaning into building a fully circular business. Other sustainable practices from the brand include using 100% recycled material for their boxes; reducing the thickness of their plastic significantly which avoided using roughly 13,600 pounds of plastic annually year; and selling 65% of their products "naked", or with no packaging at all. Their commitment to investing in a circular business model is one of the major contributors to their success in becoming an international company operating in 52 countries. These companies are finding economic success while incorporating circular economy mechanisms in their businesses.  
  • Transform Potential Waste Streams into Regenerative Solutions: Our rapidly expanding industrial landscape often results in heaps of waste – disregarded and unutilized. Circular Systems is revolutionizing this paradigm by showcasing how waste can be repurposed to create sustainable and high-value solutions for the fashion industry. With a foundational belief in a net positive impact on the environment, society, and economy, Circular Systems merges the principles of material science with the ethos of sustainability. Through their pioneering Texloop platform, they efficiently transform textile waste into resourceful fiber, yarn, and fabrics, setting a benchmark for regenerative techniques. The Agraloop innovation goes a step further, converting crop residue into the game-changing BioFibre. These innovations not only tap into two significant waste streams but also produce materials compatible with conventional yarn-spinning systems, ensuring a seamless transition to high-quality fashion products. Much like how IKEA is channeling renewable energy and Lush Cosmetics is redefining supply chains, Circular Systems is sculpting the narrative of sustainable fashion, converting potential waste into textile treasures. As industries worldwide reevaluate their waste-management tactics, the initiatives of Circular Systems stand as a testament to the potential of innovating with intent and care for our planet.  

Companies adapting to a circular economy don’t just contribute to environmental conservation; they also make a smart business move. A circular approach can lead to cost savings in the long run, enhanced brand reputation, and a loyal customer base that values sustainability. Not to mention, as inclement weather events become the norm rather than the exception, a circular economy offers increased resilience. In a world where resources are kept in circulation, communities can recover faster, as they aren't wholly reliant on external aid or linear supply chains that might be disrupted. As the Economist puts it, however, the “problem is that current economic and regulatory frameworks incentivize linear models of production and consumption, making it challenging to adopt circular approaches.” Economies of scale and government support continue to be needed.  

Hurricane Otis, like so many natural disasters before it, has been another wake-up call and cry for help from Mother Earth. As rebuilding continues yet again, it is imperative to recognize the profound link between our consumption patterns and the health of our planet. It is a call for brands and companies to lead the charge, transitioning from passive bystanders to proactive change agents. In the face of such monumental challenges, it might be tempting for businesses to view sustainability as a secondary concern. If we don’t prioritize a circular economy now, we will be confronting even more devastating Otis-like events in the future in unusual geographies and with increasing strength and impact. I’m optimistic that companies have enough evidence that sustainable practices are the only sound paths moving forward. 

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