What is the Circular Economy?

We are hearing more about the circular or closed loop economy – also called holistic sustainability – but what exactly is it?

Wikipedia describes it as ‘an industrial system in which the potential use of goods and materials is optimised and their elements returned to the system at the end of their viable life cycles. Supply chain sustainability and produce life cycle sustainability are integral to the circular economy.

Cradle to Grave or Cradle to Cradle?

In the early 2000’s, we talked a lot about cradle to grave, but now discussions are around how to design products and services with a cradle to cradle lifecycle.  This means that every component not required during production (offcuts) or left at the end of the product lifecycle can be reused either for its original purpose, or for something else

I have been tying to think of examples to describe how this process works, and I keep coming back to my mother as one of the original circular economy proponents.  Nothing ever came into our house with just one purpose – the Sunday roast became mince for Monday, Tuesday and even Wednesday supper.  Left over vegetables were whizzed up into interesting concoctions of soup. 

No scrap left unused!

I think though the best example came from our clothes.  Mum was a skilled and very creative seamstress.  Many of our clothes she made herself, with offcuts being used to make matching costumes for our dolls and toys.  As there were six of us, my mother was adept at altering and mending clothes for each of us in turn.  As the youngest, by the time they reached me, they were often more patches than not, so I did get more new clothes than most of my siblings

Even when we had finished with them, our clothes were rarely thrown out.  My mother helped found a local group called ‘Fair Exchange’ where good quality clothes could be taken along and exchanged for others more suitable.  This was the forerunner of the charity shops that proliferate our high streets, but money rarely changed hands and it enabled communities to share clothes and save money

A patchwork of history

When we were no longer living at home, my mother continued to make use of our old clothes.  They were refashioned into cushions, bags and even a variety of patchwork quilts.  The one she made for her bed contained material from my bridesmaid dresses, left over pieces from dresses and skirts we wore as children and shirt material from my father and brothers.  It was a real trip down memory lane and in latter years, when she was unwell and stuck in bed, we would pick out a square here and there and try to remember the outfit it came from

Every scrap of material found a new purpose when it no longer served its original use.  Small offcuts and really old clothing was used as cloths or as covers when decorating was taking place.  My mother hated waste, and I think if she were here today, she would be demanding more action to move towards a truly circular economy where precious resources aren’t wasted.

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