How we can transform society with sustainable commerce
The natural world is a boundless source of wisdom that we can learn from and be inspired by. While it may seem that we have lost touch with some of these lessons over time, it is never too late to reconnect and rekindle our connection to the earth. By embracing the teachings of nature, we can discover new ways of living that prioritize sustainability, harmony, and balance.
An excellent example of this is the circularity and connectedness of all living processes in the world’s ecosystems. In nature, balance reigns supreme. It creates no waste, and everything has a purpose, from the tiniest insect to the largest mammal – even after they die, their bodies provide nutrients to the soil, which nourish new growth.
Humans have taken their own approach: we take, make, and dispose of the world around us. This way of consuming things has created undesired consequences. Our world is struggling to keep up with the amount of plastic that we create, and it’s causing our landfills to overflow. We’re also producing too much single-use plastic, which is thrown away after only one use. These plastics tend to be made of oils and toxic chemicals that take hundreds and hundreds of years to decompose.
We’re eating into a limited amount of resources and creating an amount of waste that we can’t keep up with long-term. What if we took a page out of nature’s book, and tried creating systems founded in circularity? Transitioning from our current system of overconsumption to a circular one offers a promising opportunity to build a sustainable future for our planet and all living beings.
Let’s explore how moving toward a circular economy could transform our society’s cycles of consumption!
What does “circular economy” mean?
Think about how we currently produce, buy, and dispose of physical products. It usually happens in a very linear way, where the end of a product’s life is in no way connected to the beginning of another. Something is made, we buy it, and after we use it, we throw it away.
Consider the life cycle of a smartphone, for example. The inner metals of the phone are mined, and the microchips are produced. Various raw materials are shipped around the world to a factory for the assembly of the phone. Then, the phone is marketed, sold, and used for a period of time. Once it has stopped working, or is begging to be replaced by a newer phone model, the old phone is thrown away.
The circular economy model challenges this linear idea by arguing that each step of the consumption process can be redesigned to keep resources in use for as long as possible. The idea is to create an economic system that designs out waste and pollution, while at the same time creating a positive impact in people’s lives and on our planet.
What are the principles of a circular economy?
In a circular economy model, products are designed to be reused, repaired, or recycled instead of heading to the landfill after use. Products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible by promoting the sharing, repairing, and recycling of products. This means more thoughtful planning and design of products before we start creating them, and even before we start gathering the natural resources required to construct them.
The circular economy model reduces waste while also encouraging other sustainable changes. For example, in a circular system, everything is powered by renewable energy sources like wind and solar to reduce negative impact. Decisions are made with natural habitats and ecosystems in mind. All of this is part of a circular system where people live in harmony with the natural world.
Achieving this harmony requires a redesign of traditional business models under capitalism, which is one of the main culprits to blame for why circularity hasn’t caught on yet! Most businesses today focus solely on making as much money as possible and earning as much profit as possible. In a circular economy, businesses focus more on creating community, providing services, repairing products, and connecting people (rather than money only).
All of this forethought, planning, and redesign will surely require collaboration and innovation among private businesses, public organizations, and community members. A truly sustainable model of commerce includes social and environmental justice efforts that prevent the negative impacts traditionally associated with doing business to fall on the most vulnerable populations (which happens under capitalism all of the time). People are a huge part of the environment, too, and the circular model advocates for the inclusion of diverse stakeholders when it comes to doing sustainable business.
What is the Triple Bottom Line (TBL)?
The concept of the triple bottom line is a powerful reminder that businesses can be a force for good in the world, and is an underlying principle of circularity that can help guide company decisions. By considering not just financial profits, but also the social and environmental impact of their operations, companies have the potential to create positive change on multiple fronts.
This approach encourages businesses to prioritize people and the planet alongside profit, leading to more ethical and sustainable practices that benefit society as a whole. The triple bottom line represents a hopeful shift towards a future where economic growth is not at the expense of the planet and its people. By embracing this framework, we can work towards a better world for generations to come.
The original circular model
Indigenous communities have practiced sustainable resource management for generations, and have developed a deep understanding of the connectedness of all living beings and the importance of living in harmony with nature. They view the earth and its resources as sacred, and recognize the need to use them in a way that ensures their availability for future generations. These principles align with the circular economy's values of regenerating natural systems, reducing waste, and promoting the responsible use of resources.
Moreover, traditional indigenous communities place a strong emphasis on community and sharing resources, which is a key principle of the circular economy. Rather than focusing solely on individual gain, they recognize the importance of collaboration and sharing resources for the benefit of all. To transform our society, we must learn from these indigenous principles and incorporate them into the circular approach, fostering a deeper understanding of our relationship with the environment and promoting a more sustainable future for all people.
How can we move towards circularity?
Rethink the way we view ownership
Instead of viewing ownership as possessing and consuming goods, we can shift our perspective to a more sustainable and mindful approach. Imagine if we viewed ownership as a responsibility to take care of resources and assets in order to share them with others and future generations. A fundamental change in the way we think about products, items, and consumerism can lead to a more collaborative and community-oriented mindset that values the long-term use and preservation of resources over short-term ownership.
What if we could access washing machines and refrigerators on-demand through sharing, renting, or leasing models? Large appliance companies could lease these technologies to us, and “buy back” the appliance at the end of its life. The materials could then be completely recycled into new products, and even new appliances. This would reduce the need for individual ownership and production, leading to a more efficient use of resources and less waste. Plus, it would save individuals money in the long run, as they wouldn't have to spend large sums on buying and maintaining these appliances!
To rid ourselves of our obsession with consumption, ownership, and material things, we’ll need innovative solutions and entrepreneurs that aren’t scared to challenge the status quo. It means rethinking the systems we’ve always had, and trying something new.
Rather than producing goods en masse and hoping they sell, demand-based production involves producing goods in response to actual consumer demand. Right now, many manufacturers start mass producing plastic products based on trends rather than actual demand. The extra products mean more wasted resources, and more waste going to landfills. This is especially a problem in the fashion industry, which is responsible for 20% of global wastewater and 20% of global annual emissions.
Demand-based production can save companies money in the long run by reducing inefficient use of resources, while also encouraging companies to create products that are high-quality and durable, rather than disposable and short-lived.
The circular economy won’t be achieved with several manufacturers altering their way of doing business. The groups that design and run our infrastructure and our economies will need to come together to create interconnected and interdependent systems of commerce and consumption for all of this to work. Perhaps the biggest challenge in achieving a truly circular economy, in conjunction with a mindset shift, will be convincing corporations to set aside the endless pursuit of profit competition for the greater good.
Shifting our focus toward systemic change
If we can create technical cycles to look more like biological ones, we’re on the right path. For too long, the responsibility of reducing waste has fallen largely on the consumer. We do what we can to produce as little negative impact as possible, denying single-use plastics and creating our own little systems of reuse and reduction.
It’s time that we start tackling the bigger challenge of integrating circular systems into our daily lives and processes so that these habits can become way easier for more people to adopt – and that’s through redesigning business models for circularity. We’ll need big corporations and institutions to get on board to accomplish that.
It won’t be easy to design out waste and create regenerative, circular processes in all areas right away. But little by little, as the next generation of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and activists start learning about circularity, we’ll get there!
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