Although the term has been used in a variety of contexts, it has not been mainstreamed. The principles that underpin a circular economic system are slowly but surely being incorporated into our daily lives.
When you’re deciding what to wear to a fancy event, these days it’s increasingly normal to borrow an outfit – not from a friend, but from a business.
Selfridges and other big names have teamed with peer-to–peer loan sites such as Hurr to offer dresses for loan; it’s cool to turn up to the Golden Globes in a frock made from recycled bottles, or, if you’re lucky, Some vintage Jean Paul Gaultier. Even Carrie Symonds. According to reports, the British prime minister’s wife spent her big day in a rented wedding gown.
Although the average person on the street may not have heard of the ‘circular economy’, or the idea that things can be designed with continued use or reuse in mind, this economic model is incrementally becoming a part of society and of business.
You can now borrow clothes instead of buying fast fashion. You might be able to recycle your goods instead of throwing away endless amounts of bubble wrap postage paperOr reusable packaging. Meanwhile, it’s not just ‘alternative’ shops that are encouraging people to refill potsAnd packets: the likes of Tesco and WaitroseThey are trying to get to grips with the concept, and will be experimenting to see if it makes economic sense.
Consultancy firm McKinsey & Company recently published a reportInvestigating how consumer goods companies are fundamentally changing the way they package their products to reduce wastefulness, due to consumer pressure and government change. Meanwhile, more than 100 leading businesses have signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s extended producer responsibilityIt is a pledge acknowledging the importance to take responsibility for the packaging that they put on the marketplace.
Johanna Haering works as a marketing manager for the Landbell Group. Green Alley AwardFor circular economy startups, and was one of those who signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation promise, believes that the increase in entrants for the award in recent decades shows how sustainability has become serious business.
“We started in 2014 and we had 70 or 80 applications, only focused on the German-speaking market. The next year, we expanded to the whole of Europe, and every year the number of applications has increased, with a slight dip last year because of the coronavirus.”
Haering says that companies that rethink disposable fast fashion are becoming more common. “Last year, Three of the six finalists came up with ideas for making the textile industry more sustainable.”
Those at TrusTrace, based in Sweden, have developed an app to make it easier for people to track the lifecycle of products and their ingredients – and they have just raised a further $6m (£4.34m) in investment. KleiderlyGerman startup e-Stitches recycles old clothes and textile waste to create an alternative material to plastic. In the meantime DimporaBased in Switzerland,, the company has created a way to make waterproof outdoor clothing that doesn’t contain toxic chemicals.
In other industries, mainstream businesses have adopted circular ideas and made them profitable. Sulapac, which won the €25,000 (£21,064) Green Alley Award in 2017, is now making a biodegradable, plastic-alternative bottle cap for Chanel fragrances. And the 2014 winner, reusable packaging company RePack, is now serving clients as big as H&M and German e-commerce company Zalando, across Europe and North America.
Julia Linz, who is working alongside Haering at Landbell Group and Green Alley Award, says that circular economy startups have tremendous potential for success, but they are also desperately needed in all industries. “It is a really huge task, not just in creating products for people but in getting the private sector to work with startups,” she says. “Our focus isn’t just on single products but on solutions that can help the whole system become more circular.”
Some everyday items are already very circular, without us even realizing it.
Dr Emiel Wubben, associate professor in strategic management at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University, is studying how business can transition to a more sustainable and circular economy. He points out how some items we use every day are already deeply circular.
“One of the top examples I offer my students is that you often rent a room in a student house,” he says. “It will not be demolished, but used by someone else. Buildings, the most important investments for citizens and consumers, are owned temporarily and then someone else will take over, and the product keeps its value for as long as possible.”
There’s a difference between the finished product, its components and the molecular building blocks that comprise it, he adds – and in a truly circular economy, the future lives of all of these need to be considered.
“We often focus on whole products such as cars, bikes or clothes and how they can be reused or become filler material or insulation. But a lot of molecule-recycling technology is still in the research phase,” he notes. Companies like ChainCraftAmsterdam, which produces bio-based chemicals, The Protein Brewery, the creators of animal-free proteins or specialty-chemicals companies CrodaThey are currently developing new products using waste streams and biomass.
However, Wubben adds, there is still often a commercial challenge: “A lot of developments find it very difficult to make it work financially… Sometimes they struggle to compete with a highly mature and efficient industry, like the cement or petrochemical industry. These innovations, he says, take a lot more time. Sometimes, innovators need to lobby for new regulations. Most face stiff competition from conventional, lower-priced products. “There’s no bullet or simple solution,” Wubben concludes.
Haering believes that initiatives like the Green Alley Award, which links the finalists with expert coaching as well as to crowdfunding advisors, form one small step in creating change – and not just in people’s behaviour. They make the best commercial option the default.
A more circular economy is slowly emerging thanks to increasing awareness among the general public and government action. Haering also says that it is not just for your wedding day. “It should not be a luxury,” she says. “Sustainable products should be available for everyone.”
Felipe Galvan is the main image