The Circular Economy: Why Now?

alarm clock in the grass

In our last discussion, we talked about a comprehensive approach to sustainability called the circular economy.

The circular economy takes the idea of “reduce, reuse and recycle” to a whole new level, one in which manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and customers aim to create a zero-waste supply chain.

This nifty diagram from the Carlsberg Foundation illustrates the differences between the linear economy (“take, make, use and waste”) and the restorative, multi-faceted circular economy (just look at everything possible after “use”).

Carlsberg Foundation chart
Source: Carlsberg Foundation

The Burning Question

Nifty diagrams aside, why should manufacturers, suppliers and retailers care about the circular economy at this very moment?

Is the circular economy an idea that’s merely the darling of an elite few? A concept that’s destined to be the latest business fad?

Or is there real evidence indicating that “going circular” is the wise way of the future?

Two Consequential Generations

Thought leaders have long looked to Generation Y—also known as the Millennials—to back up their purported commitment to the environment with a change in purchasing patterns. And so far, most business and media mavens would probably say that Millennials are more talk than action—that is, they are unwilling to change their buying habits and pay more for sustainable products.

Then we have the successors to the Millennials, Generation Z. Again, most experts believe that when they’re acting as consumers, Gen Z has an even greater interest in social transparency, coupled with a similar passion for the new and the unique.

Expert opinion is helpful, but what does the evidence actually suggest about the buying patterns of Gen Y and Gen Z?

Patterns Are Shifting

Well, it seems that both generations are committed to change. In a recent survey by Thredup, 25% of women are willing to ditch their fast fashion purchases in 2019, with disproportionately higher percentages of “ditchers” among the Gen Y and Gen Z cohorts. These numbers imply that the “greening of retail” will only intensify in scope and impact.

Moreover, we’re now seeing businesses who are moving closer to a circular economy, connecting with their (mostly) Gen Y and Gen Z audiences, and reaping real benefits from both:

  1. Retailers: The Real Real, H&M

  2. Brands: Stella McCartney, Nike, Patagonia