– Linear growth is unsustainable. We must be like nature; cyclical and endless.
Written by Ryan Choong
“We don’t have to sacrifice a strong economy for a healthy environment” – Dennis Weaver.
…There will come a time when it is too late.
When we can no longer go back and right past wrongs for a better tomorrow. It happened with the event horizon of technology, it happened with the division of bordered countries, and it’s going to happen with the prioritisation of profit and product over people.
Problems of Consumerism and What can be Done
Consumerism isn’t inherently bad. Like the human obsession with materialism, it is no grand evil or slow corruption. At least, they shouldn’t have to be. But with the way things are now, they very much are.
Concepts like consumerism and materialism are natural because in nature, giving back what you take and utilising it to the fullest is the priority. What is used in the present can be used again and again in the future if it is able to replenish itself in an infinite cycle. But for us in the modern day, even thinking that is a wishful ideal, a fleeting dream.
And that’s the problem.
Consumerism is defined as “the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods”. But now, it is clearly no longer just an economic definition that can be found in a textbook; it’s our culture.
Our society has discarded the cyclical order of natural life for linear economic models. This increases productivity and profit, mainly for rich owners, while the lower classes are incentivised to continuously spend – often detrimentally – in hopes of keeping up with new trends in every and all markets in an effort to appear included or of higher status.
This “culture” of consumerism also severely damages the environment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation – an organisation promoting circular economy and biodiversity – has found that in the clothing industry:
“Of the 53m tonnes of fibres produced each year, less than 1%, half a million tonnes, are recycled back into production. Most fashion ends up in landfill – and much of that within a year of being made, an extraordinary waste of resources.”
There’s not much more to say after reading that, is there? If that didn’t get the point across, I’m not sure what will. And this is just within the clothing industry alone. Imagine what the waste statistics would be if we take every industry into account. Clearly, things need to change.
And thankfully, there’s much that we, as individuals and organisations, can do. We can start with personal changes like being mindful of supporting harmful businesses like the ones that greenwash, not giving into the latest trends when our current products still suffice (which they almost always do), and encouraging others to do the same.
As a group, we can recycle more, especially when clothing is concerned. Clothes are an essential and can be easily handed down, and with the help of the many green organisations, donated or repurposed. It’s just a massive shame then, that we don’t do enough of this as a whole.
And Conscious Studios is looking to change that. We sustainably upcycle denim into fashionable products and if those products are sent back to us, we repair or repurpose them, extending their lifetime.
Even then, everyone can always do more. We need to do more. Change starts in the mind of one person, but to change the world for the better, something that is sorely needed now, one person will never be enough.
We need something that encompasses all environmentalist ideas and methods while relating to the trials and tribulations we face today without disregarding the practical needs of societal operation or the individual.
We need circular economies.
The Need of a Circular Economy
A circular economy, also referred to as “circularity”, is an economic model of production and consumption which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing products for as long as possible with a focus on realistic, feasible sustainability.
Circular economies attempt to counter global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and waste. It is commonly seen as the contradiction to the traditional linear economic model we have today.
And we need a circular economy because the corporations causing the most environmental damage don’t care about anything but their bottom line. Like when glass Coke bottles were replaced with plastic because plastic is more durable, less likely to get damaged during transport, yet is more expansive and significantly harder to recycle than glass.
We need circular economies because humanity can no longer undo all the progress made with technology. Most people can’t even get through the day without internet access. Technology has become intwined with us and our evolution, its use so widespread and prevalent that anyone can easily cause harm to the environment through it. If nature is the first half of humanity, technology is the second. And through a circular economy, we can get the best of both halves without sacrificing either.
We can harmonise.
And the best part of circular economy is that it is not wishful thinking or an unachievable utopia. It’s real, practical, feasible, and possible.
However, though this is the ideal economic model, there are some serious barriers of implementation circular economies must face.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) says:
“We generate about 1.3 billion tons of trash per year, far more than we can properly process or recycle”.
and that the: “OECD has calculated that flow of materials through acquisition, transportation, processing, manufacturing use and disposal are already responsible for 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The UN International Resources Panel projects the use of natural resources to more than double by 2050”.
The WRI have also provided five reasons preventing a circular economy which I will be summarising:
- Meeting consumer expectations for convenience – Most people prioritise their own convenience over morals and will support whatever system caters to it like linear capitalism, which asks nothing from consumers beyond fast, convenient payments; as opposed to a circular economy which asks for significantly more time commitment, consistency, mindfulness, and accountability.
- Government regulations can create waste – Laws and regulations can unintentionally promote wasteful behaviour. An example is the expiration dates on food, intended to protect the consumer, but doesn’t account for how they would store or preserve the product, leading consumers to discard food after the expiration date, fearing for their wellbeing, when in reality, the food is still fine to eat, just not up to government-imposed standards.
- Many places lack proper waste infrastructure – Almost 1/3rd of plastics are not collected by a waste management system and end up in natural spaces like lands, rivers, and oceans. One study predicts that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. This problem is especially prevalent in developing countries that lack effective waste management infrastructure. More than half of plastic litter comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, so improving the waste infrastructure systems in these countries can lead to considerable change.
- Recycling technology isn’t good enough – As of now, we are severely limited in our recycling capabilities. Most plastics that are recycled are reprocessed into lower-value applications like polyester or carpet fibre, with only 2% being recycled into products of a similar quality. This is due to the difficulty in sorting and cleaning plastics based on their varying chemical compositions.
- We use the wrong business model – The world’s population is on track to exceed 9.5 billion people by 2050, with far less living in poverty like today due to the rapid industrialisation and competition in and with developing countries like China, Brazil, and India. This will mean that the growing global middle class will buy more and that will benefit all markets, but at the expense of the planet’s natural resources. And not enough is being done by the current global powers to promote circularity as a preservation measure.
So, how do we deal with these barriers?
We can forge partnerships, as suggested by the WRI. Look for innovative public-private partnerships like the ones sought by platforms like P4G and PACE. Through this, it will be easier to gather, share, and utilise resources for greener operations like developing more effective recycling technology and methods which can then be used globally.
We can continue to campaign for new government policies that support environmentalism, but as history has shown, this has skewed results. Governments are bodiless, faceless entities of power wearing politicians as masks. They have nearly no incentive to actually care about us or the world, they only act in their own interest. So, we have to make them act, or force them to, by fostering political power and support on the environmentalist side, making current governments compete to retain their dominance and inadvertently bolstering environmentalist ideals.
But these methods sound grandiose to me. Unfortunately, with the way the world works and with the prison of societal obligations, the common person – like me and probably you – have no hope in doing the above.
Which is why we need to start small. Like all change, it begins with the domino effect. So don’t wear yourself thin thinking that circularity is too hard to achieve. Start off simple first. Consistently reuse, upcycle, and recycle as much as you can instead of throwing products away. Make that your new lifestyle and as convenient as you can. Then, pass that on to friends, family, and children so they can do the same.
It may seem too small to be effective, but a small step is infinitely better than no step. We need to be the change we want to see.
For a truly green future, there needs to be a push towards sustainability and biodiversity, not just with a circular economy, but also within us – in a circular mindset and a circular global consciousness.