Published 4 years ago.
About a 8 minute read.
Image: Jeremy Thomas (via Unsplash)
While a growing number of industries are working to eliminate waste globally, two in particular — which happen to be two of the world’s biggest culprits where waste is concerned — also have me feeling particularly inspired.
There’s been a dizzying amount of activity, especially in the past year, from
companies seizing the myriad business opportunities inherent in eliminating
waste from their operations — either by redesigning products and processes or
finding new life for existing products post-use — laying the groundwork
essential for building a global circular economy.
While a growing number of industries are joining the party, two in particular —
which happen to be two of the world’s biggest culprits where waste is concerned
— also have me feeling particularly inspired.
Dozens of the world’s household-name brands (and/or their parent companies) have
joined forces and are now signed on to at least one — if not multiple —
coalitions, task forces or partnerships of some kind, dedicated to eliminating
the glut of plastic clogging up our landfills and oceans.
Many of the initiatives revolve around extended producer responsibility —
companies finally holding themselves accountable for their packaging waste in a
variety of ways.
In late 2017, Lonely Whale — along with Dell, General
Humanscale, Bureo and Herman
Miller, to name a few — launched NextWave
a group developing a sustainable economic model and global supply chain for
ocean-bound plastics. Since then, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New
Plastics Economy Global
has rallied over 250 signatories, including companies representing 20 percent of
all plastic packaging produced globally and over 70 well-known consumer brands —
the coalition’s goal is for all plastic packaging to be 100 percent reusable,
recyclable or compostable; and to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging
through redesign, innovation and new delivery models. Along with the chemical
industry’s Alliance to End Plastic
and Quantis’ Global Plastics Leak
(which will create a guide that any company can use to locate plastic leakage
along its value chain), the number of engaged companies, the number of tools and
solutions promised, and the funding directed at the cause (over $1.2 billion)
has skyrocketed. These initiatives have a lot of overlapping players, but those
players have some of the biggest product — and therefore, packaging — footprints
in the world.
One of my favorite new initiatives to date is
an online shopping platform through which dozens of trusted brands — including
The Body Shop, Clorox,
Unilever — ditch plastic
packaging for hundreds of their most popular consumer products, in favor of
customized, brand-specific, durable packaging that is collected, cleaned,
refilled and reused. Launched in January by TerraCycle, pilots are planned this
year in the UK, Paris and the northeastern US — with any luck, the model will
succeed and continue to proliferate.
While these commitments and innovations are all very exciting, they’ll take time
to produce results. In the meantime, the NGO community has had enough with the
plastic pollution and has started calling out these big consumer
— many of whom are now front and center on these efforts to overhaul the system
— for the damage their products and packaging are causing to the environment;
the Story of Stuff Project is in the midst of the first-ever brand audit
to collect plastic waste in coastal and inland communities across the US and
identify the companies behind that trash, the results of which will be made
public in October.
Meet and learn from over a dozen of these circular innovators — along with William McDonough, globally recognized visionary on sustainable and Cradle to Cradle design, who will present his ambitious new vision for tackling plastic waste at scale — at SB’19 Detroit, June 3-6.
While we wait for the system overhaul, it helps to think we can do our part by
wearing clothes by companies including
G-Star Raw, Girlfriend
Unifi, to name a few — which are
already giving plastic pollution a purpose.
Speaking of clothing, we’ve arrived at my second reason for optimism …
From the natural resources that are used to create our clothing to the number of
textiles that end up in landfills when they could be reused, the fashion
industry has become one of the world’s top polluters. Globally, 73 percent of
the materials used to produce clothing are landfilled or burned at the end of
their life, while less than 1 percent of old clothing is used to make new. But a
growing number of global brands are beginning to do their part to change this.
While recycling cotton and other pure fabrics is becoming common practice,
blended and synthetic textiles have always presented a problem — but no longer:
Enter chemistry innovators such as
which are piquing interest with their ability to turn troublesome polyester
textiles into high-quality raw materials for new products. And of course, Worn
Again, which in 2015 developed a first-of-its-kind, textile-to-textile
that separates polyester and cotton from old or end-of-use blended fabrics, with
the goal of enabling the recaptured polyester and cellulose from cotton to be
spun into new fabric; the company partnered with H&M and Kering to pilot the
technology. H&M has since launched the Global Change
— an annual search for game-changing circular apparel startups — and branched
out into more partnerships around textile recycling, teaming up in 2017
with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to develop a
breakthrough hydrothermal recycling
A host of fashion retailers have initiated in-store garment-recycling programs:
Companies including H&M, Target, The North Face, Levi Strauss and American Eagle
Outfitters have partnered with textile recycling specialist
I:CO; and EILEEN
and The North
have kept what they’ve collected and created collections of refurbished clothes.
Another strategy is convincing consumers to take better care of — thereby
extending the life of — the clothes they already have, as
have worked to do; while resellers such as
and campaigns such as NYC’s
are working to show people the value of donating, over tossing, the duds we no
While these big brands and more are beginning to incorporate circular thinking
and products into their offerings, emerging innovators really own this space.
Small, independent brands such as
and Reformation make clothes
from deadstock fabric, and some startups are pioneering closed-loop models: For
example, For Days is a circular, subscription-based
T-shirt brand, launched in September, that gives customers an unlimited rotation
of shirts — which are sent back to the company, recycled and replenished at
their end of life. In January, For Days began extending its circular offering to
other brands — starting with DTC bra brand Harper
Wilde: Under the new partnership, when Harper Wilde
customers receive a new bra, they can then ship their old bras, of any brand, to
For Days for recycling. Speaking of underwear …
Amidst the already dismal statistics on textile waste, underwear is among the
least recycled apparel items. But our zero-waste undergarment needs are now met,
from top to bottom, thanks to more scrappy startups, such as The Very Good
Bra — which makes its wireless bras from
water-saving Tencel, sustainably sourced rubber elastic, labels printed with
zero-waste thread and organic, toxin-free inks; and is compostable at end of
life. Then, there’s Knickey — which offers organic
cotton undies in recycled packaging that is designed to be reused, to send back
your old pairs at the end of their useful life. Knickey has a subscription
service and a take-back
for end-of-life undies; the company offers a free pair as incentive for sending
old ones back for recycling.
Side note: Though it remains to be seen whether public or private sector efforts (likely, a combination)
will ultimately catalyze the necessary changes at scale, the UK government has
set a brilliant example, by holding companies accountable for both their
waste through extended producer responsibility legislation (though it also
remains to be seen whether these measures will make the cut amidst all of the
uncertainty around Brexit — but, I digress).
So, what does all of this mean?
The die has been cast — with this much momentum, expertise and buying power
dedicated to designing waste out of our most ubiquitous products and processes,
this skeptic sees reasons to believe we are on the right track, toward remaking
our global economy into what it should’ve been all along — one in which companies
and consumers reward each other for responsible consumption.
It also means that we won’t get there, unless we go together.
*The companies and initiatives mentioned here are by no means
an exhaustive list.
Published Apr 5, 2019 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST