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The Glossary: What Is Circular Economy?

  • Glossary
  • 5 min read

The concept of a circular economy has gained widespread attention recently and its momentum continues to build.  From The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy has been embraced as a tool which presents solutions to some of the world’s most pressing sustainable development challenges. While the term grows in popularity, the actual meaning of it is rarely made clear. So what exactly is a circular economy?

Since the industrial revolution, our society has favoured a linear economic model which is based on extracting resources, using them to make a product, then becoming waste once it has been consumed. This model of production and management of resources, goods and services promotes short-term consumption and is leading the planet to an unsustainable situation.

In contrast, a circular model is based on preserving what has already been made through repair, maintenance, and reuse. This regenerative approach aims to minimise waste and make the most of already available resources, as opposed to the traditional linear economy’s ‘take-make-dispose’ model of production. At the same time, the circular economy encourages the use of as many biodegradable materials as possible in the creation of products so they can return to nature without causing environmental damage at the end of their useful life.

There are three central principles of a circular economy:

  1. Design out waste and pollution

In a perfect circular economy, waste does not exist. Products are designed and optimized for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. End-of-life is replaced with restoration. Changing mindsets at the initial stages of product design to see waste and pollution as a design flaw is key.

  1. Keep existing materials and products in use

Product life cycles should be preserved and extended through repair, remanufacture and reuse. This doesn’t mean every product must be repaired and reused forever, but if the materials they are made of can be reclaimed and repurposed then they will avoid ever ending up in a landfill. This principle can also be embraced by the use of waste itself as a resource. For example, there are innovative technologies implementing this strategy with industrial waste becoming a valuable input to another process.

  1. Regenerate natural systems

In nature, there is no waste or landfill – all elements play a continuous role and are reused in the biosphere in different ways. Instead of simply trying to do less harm, we should actively try to do good by safely returning biological ingredients or ‘nutrients’ to ecosystems with the goal of enhancing our natural resources.

In essence – it’s all about closing the loop. Transitioning from a linear to a circular economy requires a collaborative effort from all sectors. Businesses can significantly contribute to the transition by developing and adopting a circular design that promotes product reuse, and recycling, and serving as trendsetters of innovative circular economy business models.

As far as the future of fashion, we can look to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative as a pioneer in circular redesign. The initiative drives collaborations across the fashion industry, including brands, cities, philanthropists, NGOs and innovators to build a framework for a new textiles economy, aligned with the principles of the circular economy, to benefit business, society and the environment.

Written by - Alex Lilienfeld

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