What a circular economy means for sustainable retail

Finding circular solutions can help businesses grow, but it takes more than just creating a recyclable or reusable product. While wealth‘s Global Sustainability Forum last week, industry experts agreed that one of the keys to success is finding channels through which these products are actually reused.

For Levi Strauss & Co., a circular economy looks like clothes that can be worn again and again – and reused once a customer is done with them.

“Design is our first indication of our intent, and to design a product that we have the opportunity to put back into the circular economy after someone has liked it and use it is really our goal,” said Jeffrey Hogue , Chief Sustainability Officer for Levi Strauss & Co.

Hogue pointed to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which defines circular economies in fashion as products that are durable but also “can be deconstructed and separated and put into new fiber streams”. These products should also be made without toxic chemicals and dyes, and preferably made from materials that are recycled or renewable.

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Additionally, Hogue said it’s important for companies to design timeless garments that can be worn season after season, year after year.

Hogue noted that Levi Strauss & Co. recently relaunched its iconic 501 jean as a circular garment, one meant to be worn for as long as possible and recycled when it’s time to get rid of it.

But developing a recyclable product is moot unless someone is waiting in the wings to recycle that product.

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Monique Oxender, chief sustainability officer at Keurig Dr Pepper, said the infrastructure for recycling in North America is “feeling behind”.

“You can design for an infrastructure that is in the works or is being developed. But the reality is, to have a financially viable circular solution, someone has to be at the back door of the recycling and processing plants to buy that material to be reused for their next life, whatever that might be, and they have to be buy it consistently,” she said.

Hogue added that his company struggles to find raw materials for its clothes as it competes with other clothing companies.

“It’s a big dilemma, and a lot of these technologies are very capital intensive and require a lot of investment,” he explained. “And there is no collection to take the materials to their recycling facilities.”

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William McDonough, CEO of McDonough Innovation, said it depends on the vocabulary we use to talk about these products. He suggested redefining our use of these terms might help shed light on solutions.

“There are two types of products; Consumer Goods and Products as a Service. So to your question about consuming too much? Well, we don’t actually consume these things. They don’t use up a washing machine,” he said. “You use it. Even our language about consumption refers to things we cannot consume.”

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