Want to change the world? Embrace the circular economy!

What on earth is the circular economy and why should you care?

Well, I’m glad you asked…

Today, the vast majority of products we all use every day are made in a linear way. In other words, they are created from some sort of raw materials, used by us (often very briefly) and then thrown away.

When you pause to think about it, this is a pretty wasteful and unsustainable approach. It requires lots of new materials and results in a large amount of lost value and waste.

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Landfill – where most of our stuff ends up in the linear economy

The good news is that there is a quiet revolution underway to change this. Step forward, the circular economy. Increasingly, products are being designed to be circular – that is, to be reused, repaired, remade or recycled into something else. 

Old and new businesses are challenging the linear approach at every stage of the product lifecycle – i.e. how products are sourced, produced, consumed and disposed of. If you want a fuller explanation of the circular economy, then here’s a great one from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It’s all the rage – with everything from a “Circular Economy Week” in the Netherlands (we have one in London in June) to BlackRock launching a new circular economy fund. 

In this blog I’ve collected together some of my favourite examples of circular products, including clothes, phones and toys, to inspire you to give it a try…

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The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s depiction  of the circular economy

 

Re-use

Why own something when you can hire it? From Michelin tyres to Rolls Royce jet engines and Philips lighting, some big companies are transforming their business models to offer goods as a service. Unless you own a plane or fleet of trucks, here are some great examples of things that you and I can now hire too…

Hirestreet – a clothes rental service for premium brands. For £9 to £100+ you can rent an outfit for 4 to 16 days, breaking the habit of needing to buy something new. You get to try out different styles, pay less and do better for the environment. According to their website, no clothes end up in landfill.

Unpackaged – have worked with the organic veg box company Able & Cole to launch the first refill delivery service for kitchen staples and cleaning products based around VIPs (Very Important Pots). In an interesting twist, they have deliberately designed the VIPs to be ugly, so that customers decant and return them rather than making them a permanent part of their kitchens!

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Able & Cole’s VIPs – Very Important Pots

And a couple for all the parents out there…

Whirli – a subscription toy box for children aged 0 to 7 years old. From £9.99 a month, you get a box full of toys of your choosing. When your baby gets bored of one, you post it back and get another in its place. Not only can the toy then be used by someone else but your home doesn’t fill up with toys you no longer need. Another perk is that if your baby loves a toy enough to keep it for 9 months, then you can decide to keep it for free.

Bundlee – for £24 a month you can rent baby clothes and swap up for the next size whenever you like. Given your baby will need 7 different sizes of clothes in their first 2 years, this makes a lot of sense. Renting them avoids you having piles of old clothes around the house, saves money and is good for the environment. Bundlee claim that their model extends the lifespan of clothes by up to 400%.

 

Repair

Whatever happened to repairing things? We live in a culture where even if you want to repair something, it can be extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to do so. A number of businesses are seeking to change that…

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The modular Fairphone 3 – designed to be easy to repair

Fairphone – Mobile phones are packed with valuable materials such as gold, silver and rare earth metals, yet many are just thrown in the bin when contracts come to an end. By contrast, Fairphones are ethically sourced and designed to be modular, so if one part breaks then it can be replaced without needing a whole new phone. If this is too big a step for you and you remain attached to your iPhone like me, then it’s good to know that for £49 you can get the battery changed in an Apple shop and it will feel as good as new.

MUD jeans – a Dutch company innovating a “Hire A Jean” model that takes sustainable jeans to the next level. You pay a monthly fee and they will repair your jeans if they get damaged and take them back to repurpose them into a new pair when you are done with them. I’ve tried them out and they are great – see my previous blog.

 

Remake

One person’s waste is another’s treasure. That’s certainly the case for these start-ups who are making amazing products from what others are throwing away. Even Meghan Markle was recently spotted enjoying the height of “trashion”, wearing a pair of plastic-bottle shoes and carrying a recycled ocean waste bag…

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The discarded fire hoses that inspired Kresse Wesling

Elvis & Kresse – it began with Kresse Wesling’s penchant for visiting rubbish dumps – “I would sit and stare at the piles of waste and I couldn’t help but think that some of it was beautiful”. They started with a £25 belt made out of old fire hose (I have one and it’s brilliant) and now make accessories from 15 materials including parachute silk, shoe boxes and leather off-cuts.

Pinatex – ever wonder what you could do with all the pineapple husks you throw away? Well, this clever company turns the leaf fibre that is usually discarded from the harvest into a leather substitute, providing a new income for farming communities and removing the need for animal products. It’s now being used by a range of designers to make clothes and accessories.

Sundried – offer two ranges of activewear, one made from 100% recycled plastic and the other from 100% old coffee grounds. The former have a carbon footprint just 80% lower than using new polyester and 65% lower than cotton.

And returning to where we started, Rothy’s, the maker of Meghan’s high-end shoes, has recycled almost 50 million plastic bottles since its launch in 2016.

 

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg – there are plenty more out there. I hope you feel inspired to “think circular” the next time you’re about to buy something that will soon be thrown away.

New Jeans – You’re Hired

“I like your new jeans.”

“Thanks Mum,” I said, “but they aren’t actually mine…”

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The fast fashion industry has come under the spotlight in recent months, as people have realised just how much water, chemicals and energy are needed to make a simple t-shirt. And globally it is estimated that we are now producing 100 billion garments and 20 billion shoes every year. The Chair of a Select Committee put it well, when announcing Parliament’s first ever inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry: “Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. But the way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact.”

One of the worst offenders is something that most of us have quite a few pairs of – jeans. In fact, 70m new pairs are sold in the UK each year. Recent reports have shown that it takes 2,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans – half of this is to grow the cotton and the rest to turn it into jeans. That’s equivalent to 20 baths. Then there’s all the energy, pesticides and chemicals required to process the cotton into denim and make them look “sand-blasted” or vintage. 

I was shocked to find out how bad a typical pair of fast-fashion jeans were for the world, so I set out to find an alternative…

They broadly fall into three categories…

Organic

Ethical Consumer lists a range of different jeans that are sustainably produced and organically sourced. These include Monkee Genes priced at £60 and Kuyichi at £100. The European Fashion Retailer C&A have also recently produced the world’s first Cradle to Cradle certified jeans, costing only £25.

However, this feels to me much like switching from intensively-farmed beef to organic beef. If you can afford it then it’s undeniably a good thing to do for the welfare of the animals and the quality of the product but you are ultimately still eating beef, which has a big environmental impact.

Circular Economy

A couple of European manufacturers are taking a more interesting approach and embracing the circular economy.

Nudie make sustainable jeans like the others but then they offer you free repairs for life! They repaired nearly 50,000 pairs of jeans in 2017, saving 40,000kg of clothes from being thrown away and over 300m litres of water. The bad news is that they are a luxury item, costing £120 and to take advantage of the free repairs you will need to go to Hipster London (Shoreditch or Soho) or wait for their periodic repair roadshow to appear somewhere nearer you.

Another unusual option is the “Lease a Jean” model from MUD, which is proving popular in other parts of Europe. You pay a one-off signing-on fee (£26), a delivery fee (£7.50) and then a rolling £6.30 a month to lease a pair of jeans. MUD retain ownership of the jeans and will repair them for free or pay for someone local to do so. After a year, you can choose to keep paying and lease a second pair, or stop and keep the jeans as long as you wish. Whenever you decide you are done with them, MUD will take them back and turn them into something else. It’s not cheap (I make it £109 for the first year and £80 thereafter) but there is something quite alluring about the concept. 

Denim innovation

Finally, of course, there is the option of ditching the denim. There is a scramble underway to come up with a sustainable alternative. 

These guys claim to have developed compostible denim, that biodegrades in a couple of months. 

Levis have been making jeans out of 20% waste plastic bottles for a few years now. 

And others are using old jeans as insulation.

All interesting and exciting ideas but no one has found a silver bullet just yet.

 

So what did I choose? I went for the MUD leasing idea, so I am now the proud owner of a lovely pair of jeans that I don’t actually own! 

Cue a number of very strange conversations with my friends and family…