What is Circular Economy and How Does It Work?

Found object art created from mirror fragments and wood spools

The world of sustainable and ethical fashion is constantly growing and evolving. It’s a living, breathing entity. And in the same way that we check in with an old friend it requires work on our part to maintain and keep up our relationship; our friendship. 

When we take the time to check in we often find a host of new words and phrases that we need to learn in order to stay in the loop. And while these words seem new to us, the idea or process behind them is typically one that has been around and in practice for a long time. Take for example greenwashing. Oxford Languages defines greenwashing as: 

“disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” 

An article from The Guardian states that the word was first coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld with usage of the word reaching peak popularity within the last 5 years (Oxford). The concept of greenwashing, however, has been in practice for much longer. The Guardian traces its origins back to Westinghouse in the 1960s and NPR credits the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign of the1950s with first putting it into practice. We feel fairly confident in speculating that the concept of greenwashing existed long before the 1950s due to capitalism’s happy marriage to disinformation. These points aside, the practice came long before it was given a name.

This is the beginning of a recurring blog series that will dive into some of the terminology and concepts that are making the rounds. Some might be unfamiliar and some might be familiar. If this is a first introduction, we hope it’s a good one. If this is not, we hope we can expand upon what you already know. Our aim is simple: to inform, to help influence the way we shop and to encourage brands to take a look at their processes and the transparency around them. 

In an effort to practice what we preach, we will dive into a term we use frequently in our social media posts and throughout our website: circularity, or circular economy. So what is circular economy and how exactly does it work?   

 

Circular Economy

Sustainability Guide provides us with an excellent definition for this concept: 

“A manifestation of economic models that highlight business opportunities where cycles rather than linear processes, dominate. It is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.” 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation dates the idea of the circular economy back to the 1970s but the true proprietors of circularity are the indigenous peoples throughout the world that have implemented this concept for thousands of years. The below graphic from Sustainability Guide shows a concise representation of the cycle of the circular economy. The cycle is made of different stages that show how materials and products can be utilized again and again based upon the state they are in. Circularity is something we strive to achieve within our own business especially with efforts such as our Circularity Program.

 

Diagram of the circular economy*image source: Sustainability Guide
**image modified to show "USER" at top

 

Repair

A word we are all familiar with. Merriam-Webster provides this simple and straightforward definition of repair:

“To restore by replacing a part or putting together what is torn or broken.”

We’ve all utilized this technique to some degree, from sewing a patch on a pair of jeans to replacing the screen on our smartphones. But the challenge as consumers is to expand upon how and when we use it. In our graphic above we can see that the repair ring is the closest to the user and is therefore the action of highest value thus making it the most profitable action. If we are able to find a way to repair the material that will keep us from moving into the next stage and will yield us the closest thing to the new product we purchased. The Culture of Repair Project shares this thought: 

“The Circular Economy model does not address challenges inherent to the Consumer Economy, nor to privileging maximizing shareholder value and publicly traded companies’ quarter-to-quarter reporting.  It is the consummate understatement to note that these are material concerns relative to developing a culture of repair.”

This communicates a pretty strong message to consumers: the vast majority of corporations in a capitalist society do not want us to repair their products. They want us to throw them away and purchase new ones as to maximize profits and keep us coming back. As usual, it falls on us as consumers to be mindful of who we purchase from and to be vigilant in finding ways to repair.

 

Reuse

The Wildlife Habitat Council defines reuse as: 

“Using materials more than once in their original form instead of throwing them away after each use. Reuse keeps new resources from being used for a while longer, and old resources from entering the waste stream.” 

Revisiting our graphic, we can see that reuse is also a high value stage in the circular economy model. At Body Parts, our creative process straddles the line between reuse and remanufacturing (which we will talk about next). We often times decide to reuse materials in their original form with a completely new purpose in mind. And in our case, we utilize reuse with the goal of yielding a product that is of even higher value than the original intended use of the product or material. The circular economy is fluid and can ebb and flow depending upon what the material is and what it can be used for. That’s why we love it so damn much.

 

Remanufacturing 

Manufactured Again shares this definition of remanufacturing: 

“A standardized industrial process by which previously sold, worn, or non-functional products are returned to same-as-new, or better, condition and performance.”

They explain further that this process actively implements the practice of reuse and helps to conserve the embodied energy in existing products. We might be more familiar with the term “refurbishing.” While similar, they are not interchangeable. Remanufacturing is specifically selected for the circular economy model because it adheres to higher standards. Techwalla explains that in remanufacturing the process is completed by the original manufacturer and is a more thorough process with inspection, replacement of worn parts and testing. Refurbishment is a much broader term with a lot of grey area. Replacement and repair can be done by the original manufacturer or by a third party, have no standards for replacement materials and warranties can often times be non-existent.

 

Upcycling

Intercon defines upcycling as: 

“A process that can be repeated in perpetuity of returning materials back to a pliable, usable form without degradation to their latent value—moving resources back up the supply chain.” 

One last look at our graphic shows the final stage as a combination of Upcycling and Recycling but frankly we need to change the dialogue on recycling. It is a process that we should not be utilizing as there is not a need to do so. And if you're looking for more insight on this, here's some pretty sobering data about recycling. But for our purposes we think Intercon again lays it out pretty bluntly for us: 

“Recycling keeps materials moving down the supply chain and often times only delays the progress of the material to its end of life in a landfill.”

In a truly circular economy we should be able to find a way to upcycle, not recycle. Materials may have a use that is far beyond how we know and recognize them and everyday manufacturers are finding new ways to utilize materials that would otherwise end up as waste.

 

So, what is circular economy? Now you know! And we hope you share what you've learned with those that you know. Let's do our part to help its adoption. It's a model we believe in and would love to see a future where its implementation is vast and its impact monumental. We can all apply these concepts to our own lives and ask the brands that we love to do the same. Please leave us a comment or question below. We absolutely love hearing from you.

 

 

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