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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: 7 Companies Making the Circular Economy a Reality

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you an easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

The future is uncertain. As the global population is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050, tensions over resources like food, water and energy are likely to swell along with it. Meanwhile, earth has reached what scientists deem the climate tipping point -- and evidence suggests the carbon concentrations in our atmosphere may be permanent.

As these chilling realities set in, thought leaders the world over begin to examine new economic models that can offer solutions. One such model, known as the circular economy, is particularly promising. For business, the circular economy is a system in which there is no waste -- only promise. Waste generated during manufacturing and at end of useful life is recaptured and made into new products. Those products can then be recycled again, keeping the circle in motion and eliminating the need for virgin feedstocks.

A true circular economy is still a long way off. But forward-thinking companies are inching closer to making it a reality. Read on for seven case studies that are sure to inspire.

1. Interface

In 1994, global carpet manufacturer Interface set a bold target: to eliminate its negative impact on the environment by 2020. The company gave itself over 20 years to accomplish this feat, which may have left some skeptical that execs would stick to the task. But heading into the final leg of its journey, Interface is poised to meet the target on time.

Part of Interface's Mission Zero initiative involves "designing and manufacturing sustainable closed loop products." In 2007, it became the first carpet manufacturer to implement a process for the “clean separation” of carpet fiber from backing. The process, fittingly dubbed ReEntry, allows for the maximum recycling of post-consumer material with minimal contamination. The recycled Nylon fibers then return to Interface's supply chain and become new products. A similar process dubbed Cool Blue allows for the closed-loop recycling of carpet backing. And the company also utilizes bio-based materials to clean up its supply chain.

With the zero-impact target well within reach, Interface isn't resting on its laurels. The company now has its sights set on carbon negative products and operations. Through programs like Cool Carpet and Climate Take Back, Interface plans to make sure its products leave the world better than they found it, and helps customers do the same.

"Last December, delegates to the COP21 climate talk in Paris reached a significant turning point in the effort to limit carbon emissions. However, there’s far to go, and we’re committed to get there," the company says on its website. Now that's something we can get behind.

2. Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss & Co. is no stranger to sustainability. From utilizing sustainable raw materials to reducing water waste, the company keeps its green cred sky-high. Now, it's inching ever closer to a closed-loop supply chain.

Earlier this year, the retailer partnered with textile technology startup Evrnu to create a pair of its iconic 511 jeans from post-consumer cotton waste. The pilot pair was made from approximately five T-shirts, the companies said. The emerging alternative recycling technology is a “game-changer,” Evrnu founder Stacy Flynn told 3p.

“We can take your old jeans, break them down to the molecular level, [and] build them back up into beautiful sweaters that feel good and hold color beautifully,” she explained. “When you are done with that sweater and it’s been reused and recycled, we can break it down again and convert it back into premium jeans.” Evernu hopes the product can be on store shelves by next year.

Levi Strauss and its retail chain Levi’s also help customers reduce their own footprints by accepting clothing and shoes of all brands for recycling. Through its recycling partner I:CO, clothing is sorted for resale, reuse and recycling — ensuring nothing goes to waste.

3. Nike

Nike certainly has come a long way. Only a few decades ago, the company was up to its ears in boycotts, protests and bad media attention amid child labor and sweatshop allegations. In 1998, then-CEO Phil Knight promised change. And the footwear and apparel giant delivered.

In 2005, Nike was the first company in its industry to demonstrate transparency, when it published a complete list of its contract factories. In the same year, it also published its first version of a CSR report — detailing pay scales and working conditions in its factories and admitting continued problems, 3p's Andrea Newell reported last year.

Now, the company continues to increase the sustainability of its supply chain. That includes huge strides in waste reduction. A whopping 71 percent of Nike footwear is made with materials recycled from its own manufacturing process. And the brand recovered 92 percent of its trash last year.

“By creating low-impact and regenerative materials, we can continue to move toward a high-performance, closed-loop model that uses reclaimed materials from the start,” Mark Parker, Nike’s president and CEO, wrote in its 2015 CSR report. “Coupled with smarter designs, we can create products that maximize performance, lighten our environmental impact and can be disassembled and easily reused.”

4. Dell

It's hard to cover the circular economy without mentioning Dell. The electronics company is outspoken about its quest for a closed-loop supply chain, and each year it only grows closer to this goal.

Last year, the company took another significant step forward with its OptiPlex 3030 All-in-One computer. The model contains at least 10 percent repurposed plastic from recycled electronics and set a new closed-loop standard for the industry.

A few months later, the company announced it would do even more to boost plastics recycling and the reclamation of carbon fiber materials. The revamp includes 35 products and will recapture millions of pounds of plastic and carbon fiber material, Dell said. The company already recycles plastic components from over 30 flat panel-monitor models and three desktop models.

5. Patagonia

On Black Friday in 2011, Patagonia caught shoppers' attention with a compelling message: "Don't buy this jacket." It seems an odd thing to say about one of your best-selling items on the most lucrative shopping day of the year. But for Patagonia, the message is more of the same.

Since its founding, Patagonia encouraged customers to repair their worn garments to extend their life, shop used instead of buying new, and think twice before heading to the store at all.

The company now boasts the largest garment-repair facility in North America, in Reno, Nevada. It also provides instructions on repairing Patagonia gear for customers who want to take on the task themselves, and collects and resells unwanted garments through its Worn Wear program.

6. H&M

Once lambasted as one of the worst offenders in the fast-fashion industry, H&M is making moves to clean up its act. Last year, 3p Editor-in-Chief Jen Boynton headed to Stockholm to check out the company's operations and was pleasantly surprised by what she found.

In addition to spearheading efforts with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to create the Higg index and set strong standards across the industry, H&M is taking things into its own hands. The company says it is actively seeking a closed-loop system where the inputs — cloth fibers – come from a renewable source, aka old clothes.

H&M collected 20,000 tons of clothes through an in-store recycling partnership with I:CO. For World Recycle Week this year, the retailer launched a social media campaign to encourage customers to recycle more clothing at their local H&M store.

The apparel giant's quest for a more sustainable supply chain came to a head in April, with the launch of its Conscious Exclusive collection. The ultra-luxe collection, made in collaboration with Conscious Commerce co-founders Olivia Wilde and Barbara Burchfield, is made entirely from sustainable materials. From cat-eye sunglasses made from plastic bags to a pair of high-fashion flats made of eucalyptus bark, the products are beautiful and prove that closed-loop duds can be high on style. The collection follows a line of jeans made from recycled cotton debuted by H&M in 2015.

7. TerraCycle

Almost everyone knows they should recycle that plastic bottle or aluminum can rather than toss it in the trash. But some materials are tougher to recycle, meaning their recovery rates remain abysmally low. One company, TerraCycle, is out to change that by making it easier for people and businesses to recapture hard-to-recycle material and put it to good use.

Through its brigade programs, TerraCycle collects hard-to-recycle waste ranging from office staples like energy bar wrappers and snack food bags to niche items like juice pouches and instrument strings. It even has a brigade for cigarette butts, which remain America's most littered item and have few recycling options.

The company partners with other conscious firms, such as Clif Bar and Colgate, to make the programs free for the user. Folks who recycle through TerraCycle can even earn rewards, which translate into money for their school or a favorite nonprofit. The company also offers paid bulk recycling solutions for businesses that recapture "almost every form of waste."

Image credits: 1) and 7) Brian Ach/Getty Images for H&M (used with permission); 2) Interface; 3) Evernu; 4) Nike; 5) Dell; 6) Flickr/Hajime NAKANO; 8) TerraCycle

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni