By Jen Elks
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.
Plastics and packaging*
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.
Cleaning up our mess
In late 2017, Lonely Whale — along with Dell, General Motors, Interface,Humanscale, Bureo and Herman Miller, to name a few — launched NextWave Plastics, 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 Commitment 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 Waste and Quantis’ Global Plastics Leak Project (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.
A new model for CPG packaging
One of my favorite new initiatives to date is Loop, an online shopping platform through which dozens of trusted brands — including The Body Shop, Clorox, Danone, Nestlé, P&G and 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.
In the meantime …
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 brands — 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 cleanups 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.
While we wait for the system overhaul, it helps to think we can do our part by wearing clothes by companies including adidas, G-Star Raw, Girlfriend Collective, H&M, Outerknown, Thread andUnifi, to name a few — which are already giving plastic pollution a purpose.
Speaking of clothing, we’ve arrived at my second reason for optimism …
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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.
Textile recycling 2.0
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 Ambercycle and Carbios, 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 chemical recycling technology 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 Award — 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 solution.
Repair and resell
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 FISHER and The North Face 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 Patagonia, Levi Strauss and P&G have worked to do; while resellers such as Savers and campaigns such as NYC’s #WearNext are working to show people the value of donating, over tossing, the duds we no longer want.
Closing clothing loops
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 asTonlé 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 program 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 packaging and textile 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.
Jennifer Elks is the Managing Editor at Sustainable Brands, with over 10+ years of editorial, community relations and sustainability experience toward highlighting the now-constant stream of developments and innovations in the sustainable business space. Jen is inspired and encouraged by the daily news from organizations of all sizes that are focusing their ingenuity and buying power to create a healthier, more resource-efficient and equitable world.