What have long-lasting products got to do with the circular economy?
What would it take to transform our throwaway economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated?
Not too long ago, the circular economy was a fairly niche concept that you’d only hear spoken about in sustainability circles. But as awareness of the climate crisis has grown, it’s becoming increasingly common to see businesses using terms like ‘circular’ or ‘closed-loop’.
This might bring to mind material reuse, perhaps endless recycling systems to keep making new products. That’s not wholly inaccurate, but the wider concept of the circular economy is much bigger. And although it may not be immediately obvious how, product durability plays a very important role.
Circularity at all levels
To explain how having a ‘buy-for-life’ approach fits into the circular economy, let’s first take a look at what it exactly means. Most businesses today use a linear economy model, which takes a natural resource and turns it into a product that will ultimately become waste. In other words, a ‘take, make, waste’ approach.
The circular economy, on the other hand, isn’t a one-way stream to landfill. Instead, products are reused, repaired, refurbished and recycled, in order to keep all resources in use for as long as possible. By keeping products and their parts in a closed loop, circular businesses want to eliminate waste and keep the extraction of new materials to a minimum. In turn, this reduces pollution and carbon emissions.
It’s not just about capturing and recycling waste. The fundamental principle of the circular economy is to make the best, most productive use of all resources. That means keeping products going for longer, before they get broken down into their component parts - and then making the best use of those too.
Take your smartphone, for instance. Instead of leaving it in a drawer when it develops a fault, a circular economy approach would be:
- Firstly, to repair the phone and keep it for longer
- Failing that, refurbish the phone before reselling or donating it
- If that’s not possible, the component parts could be taken apart and used in making similar phones
- As a last resort, divide up the individual materials and recycle them.
Read: Your phone is going to die. Is there another way?
Extending product life cycles
When you think of the circular economy as making the maximum productive use of all materials, designing for durability is a no-brainer. If that phone lasted two or three times longer, with repairs made easy, then far less energy would be expended on making new phones and recycling old ones.
When designing products for a circular economy, there are a few elements to consider. Pure durability is important - products last longer when made from hardwearing materials, and when common failure points are made stronger. But very few products truly last forever, and manufacturers should design for the end of a product’s life too.
The Teracube 2e comes with a 4 year care warranty, and is designed to be easily repaired.
The key to this is allowing products to be easily taken apart. For instance, instead of glueing or soldering in a smartphone’s components (as many are today), they could be screwed or clipped together instead. This makes repairs simple, and also allows different parts to be more easily reused or recycled.
In a circular economy, repair should always be the easy, economical option versus buying new. Circular businesses should provide spare parts at fair prices, and provide freely-available repair information too.
Unfortunately, not many products these days are built to last, and a lot of are built to fail. Repairs are often difficult and expensive. Sometimes, the shady tactic of planned obsolescence is at play, which is when things are actually designed to break after a certain amount of time. More often, product quality simply gets degraded in the interests of cost-cutting, stretching profit margins at the expense of longevity.
Read: What is planned obsolescence, and what can you do about it?
But is circularity profitable?
So if circularity so often goes ignored in favor of generating profits, does this mean that a circular economy is not lucrative? Although setting up these systems requires an initial outlay, the circular economy in fact presents huge opportunities - particularly as we look into the not-too-distant future.
In the same way that green energy is now looking like a more secure long-term investment than fossil fuels, we’re starting to realize that our other natural resources are finite. Mining waste streams for raw materials has great potential. It's estimated that in the US alone, $60 million worth of gold and silver is thrown away every year in the form of discarded mobile phones.
What’s more, it should be more efficient to reuse product parts instead of constantly making things from scratch. If manufacturers collected 50% of used phones in Europe alone for recycling or refurbishment, they could save $1 billion in materials and energy consumption. That’s not even including profits from resale. If phones were actually designed to be disassembled and repaired, this could be even greater.
Read: Why are long-lived electricals so rare?
Brave Soles is a true circular brand. Their sandals and bags are made from upcycled leather sourced from furniture cutoffs and overstock leather or recycled inner tube material from tires.
Durability: just one part of the solution
So where does Buy Me Once fit into all of this? Making products that last a really long time is an important part of circular economy solutions, but it’s just one part of the puzzle. Without repair, reuse and recycling, durable products only extend the linear model.
But when people talk about the circular economy, the part about extending product life cycles is often overlooked. Instead of dealing with the waste we generate through imperfect means (such as recycling), we should be focusing more on not wasting anything at all. That means keeping our products in use for longer.
We approach longevity from multiple angles. As well as finding stuff that’s tough, we also search for brands that offer their own repair services, or who take back products that have reached the end of their lives. By offering long-lived items, our conscious shoppers buy less - and throw away less too.
Read: The Buy Me Once research process
You are here.
Whilst it’s clear that significant change must come about through government legislation and green policies, changing consumer mindsets is important too. In the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled, whilst usage has dropped by 40%. Unless we can kick our addiction to constant newness, and instead value what we own already, a truly sustainable future will be out of our reach.
Above all, what can’t continue is a ‘business as usual’ approach. Despite the increasing urgency of climate change, bold new policies have been few and far between. Moving towards a circular future won’t be easy. But if governments, businesses and consumers are willing to change, we can start to build an economy that better serves us and the world we live in.