Back in the days of analog, you probably learned the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” It was the proto, user-friendly version of what environmentalists today call a circular economy.
What is a circular economy?
A circular economy aims to reuse its waste in a sustainable system of production and consumption. It’s an improvement on the old-fashioned, awful-sounding “take-make-waste” linear business model that begins by extracting resources from the earth and ends with piles of waste in a landfill.
It’s a model that—you guessed it—goes full circle to minimize both resource use and waste production.
How are companies innovating for the circular economy?
With savvy stockholders insisting on better ESG—that’s environmental, social and governmental best practices—before they invest, companies and corporations are responding with circular solutions that help combat climate change and reduce environmental damage.
Even better news: Many of these corporations’ circular models are proving far more innovative and interesting than “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” ever was.
From computers made from ocean-bound plastics to naturally disintegrating shoes, here’s how six leading brands are incorporating circular economy principles into products you already know and love.
1. Ikea’s Sell-Back Program
You may have seen Ikea’s old, heartwarming commercials showing a used lamp being rehomed after it’s discovered on a sidewalk. But today, there’s no need to prowl the streets hunting for used Billy bookcases. The Swedish furniture giant will buy back your gently used or discontinued Ikea products (everything from dressers to dining room tables to, yup, the beloved Billies) to send to a nearby Ikea Circular Hub (As-Is) for resale or donation.
The service is part of Ikea’s commitment to be fully circular by 2030. The commitment also includes designing more products with repurposing and recycling in mind, as well as using only renewable, recyclable and recycled materials.
Customers, meanwhile, win no matter where they land on the Ikea circle: Sellers get store credit. Shoppers at the Circular Hub get major discounts. And both sellers and buyers alike can enjoy a sense of satisfaction in keeping preloved Ikea products out of landfills.
2. H&M’s Four Steps to Circular
Fast fashion has a bad rep when it comes to sustainability. Not only does the apparel industry produce large amounts of waste, it’s known to be an industrial polluter that’s responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. But H&M, one of the world’s most recognized fast fashion brands, has vowed to do better and be totally circular by 2040.
H&M has honed a new strategy with input and guidance from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an environmental charity devoted to developing and promoting circular economies. In 2020, the clothing chain released a list of six targets for building a sustainable textile industry:
1. Cut emissions by at least 8 percent annually to get to carbon neutrality by 2050
2. Halt habitat loss and even reverse biodiversity loss
3. Stop deforestation and invest in climate-smart agriculture
4. Reduce freshwater use by 30 percent
5. Reduce pesticides by half and prevent the release of all harmful chemicals
6. Transition to a circular management of plant nutrients all along the supply chain
As H&M works toward these ambitious goals, it has also put into place a number of other circular initiatives. One of the most impressive is their in-store used-garment collection program. So far, it has diverted more than 29,000 tonnes of material from landfills so that it can be recycled or made into new products.
3. Adidas Social Plastic Program
It’s wonderful when big corporations own up to past actions and vow to use their huge clout to do better. That’s exactly what Adidas did when it proclaimed it had been a big part of the plastic problem. The company then decided to be an equally big part of the solution via its Social Plastic Program and Three Loop Strategy, launched in 2020.
Loop One is recycling. Adidas has promised to eliminate its use of virgin polyester in favour of upcycled plastic waste intercepted from beaches before it floats out to open water.
Loop Two is creating shoes that are designed to be remade. Adidas will do this by manufacturing each entire shoe with just one type of special plastic material, which can be ground up and reconstructed again. This will allow Adidas shoes to survive multiple life cycles rather than heading in a direct line to a landfill.
Loop Three is regeneration. When an Adidas shoe has finally seen its day, it will disintegrate into its surroundings, thanks to its biodegradable material. An emerging product called Mylo, for example, looks and feels just like leather but is actually made from the underground root structure of mushrooms. Mylo degrades naturally, rather than living for centuries oozing chemicals into the atmosphere.
4. HP’s Sustainable PC
For nearly two decades, HP has incorporated a circular practice into its operations by collecting used ink cartridges. Now the company is kicking up its recycling game even more: In 2019, it released the world’s first monitor made from ocean-bound plastics, and, three months after that, an entire PC.
With big goals to go entirely net-zero by 2040, HP’s circular strategy involves collecting all its older products to reuse or recycle, eliminating potentially harmful substances in the production process and aspiring toward 100 percent renewable energy and zero waste as they do it.
Next time you’re in the market for a new computer, recycle the old one, of course, and then consider choosing one of HP’s 38 Gold or 268 Silver products, as measured by the Green Electronics Council.
5. GreenWave Ocean Farming
Most people think of the ocean as a place to preserve and protect, but rarely as a resource that might actually provide climate solutions. Enter GreenWave, a regenerative ocean farming initiative that aims to train and help 10,000 ocean farmers plant one million acres of seaweed (namely, kelp) in the next 10 years.
While some might see seaweed as nothing more than slimy, underwater grass that feels a little icky when we graze it with our toes, it’s actually a very promising source of food and jobs that also does double duty helping the ocean self-clean. Since roughly 25 percent of carbon dioxide is being absorbed into oceans, and since seaweed, like every other plant, gobbles up CO2, a regenerative seaweed farm is a lot like tree planting underwater.
As for what to do with the kelp once it’s harvested, the brains at GreenWave insist it’s full of fibre, iron and antioxidants—and it’s delicious sautéed with just salt and pepper. So it’s a solid item to add to your grocery list.
6. Mud Jeans’ Lease Membership Program
If you’re the kind of person with two dozen pairs of jeans collecting dust in the closet, and only one pair you wear every day, leasing your denim through Netherlands-based Mud Jeans may be just what you need.
The company, which ships to North America and just about everywhere else, uses recycled denim to make “new” pairs of Muds. And wearers like you can lease these jeans, much like you would a car—only they’re way less expensive.
Start by sending in an old pair of jeans and get your first month free. Then subscribe to the service for just under 10 euros per month (around $14 CAD) and get a pair of Muds.
At the end of the year, you have a choice: Keep your leased pair because they’re your fave (for no extra cost), swap them for a new pair of Muds (and a discount on lease #2) or send them back for the denim to be reused again.
Whichever option you pick, your old jeans become new jeans in this closed material loop—and you also just cleaned out your closet.
Supporting circular economies is easier than ever
No matter how you choose to contribute to the fight against climate change, shopping wisely and asking questions about where your stuff came from and where it’s ultimately going can help make a positive impact.
And remember: The more often we consumers choose circular economies, the more often companies and corporations will invest in better models for the health of the world.
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