From Linear to Circular: What it Means
Any kind of goal requires movement from A to B. And if it is a worthy goal that movement is difficult. Think of a race or a desire to learn a new skill or craft. There are hours and hours of learning and growing, of commitment and sacrifice that go into achieving that goal.
Our goal at The Renewal Workshop to transform our economy from linear to circular is no different. In fact, we have a goal that not only includes ourselves but the entire apparel industry - a $5 trillion global industry That's what you call a BIG goal.
What does it mean to be a circular business?
Before we could even begin to wrap our brains around such a gargantuan goal, we first had to define what we mean when we say that The Renewal Workshop is a circular business. In the most general terms, being circular describes operating in a way in which the outputs of any process can be made to be used again as the inputs in the same system; every element is kept in the circle as much as possible. This differs from being linear where inputs are gathered, utilized and combined, and then discarded as outputs. We see plenty of circular systems in nature, like the water and nutrient cycle, but so many human systems are linear, following the pattern of make, use, dispose.
So what actually is a circular business?
A circular business
Closes the loop
Extends service life
Can be challenging and full of surprises
Operates for the benefit of all stakeholders
Is Inclusive of the needs and insights of all stakeholders
A circular business is not
A path to quick profit at the expense of others
Hollow words communicated to you without action
Driven by the need for the next bigger and better thing
Taking action towards our circular goal
How are The Renewal Workshop’s operations circular, and how does that help us achieve our broader goals?
Since 2014 we have been researching, prototyping and testing the required steps needed to move the linear economy towards circular. There are three key things to making the circular shift. Two we knew from the beginning, the third was a surprise.
Reducing Risk for Brands
The first thing we had to put into place was a process that reduces risk for the apparel brands being asked to change their behavior. Having worked inside apparel brands we knew that you can’t just walk into the next board meeting and say – “OK folks we are going to make money from our old products and reduce our reliance on generating new garments and we will be okay financially.”
Companies don’t like random risk, but they are ok with a calculated risk that shows results.
Therefore, we had to demonstrate what would happen to a company that started engaging in the circular economy through Product Life Extension* as a business practice.
What we have seen at The Renewal Workshop is that 80% of the garments thought of as waste by the brands are products that can be used in the circular economy for a second sale. This second sale as Renewed Apparel is the first step in changing a brand’s behavior and de-risking their shift towards circular. This new sale means that an apparel brand can now enter the recommerce marketplace and provide their existing and new customers Renewed products. Apparel brands can act like car and electronic companies, selling both new and Renewed products. This new sale shows a brand that they can generate revenue in a new way, increasing their brand value and offering customers a new type of product. This is also where consumers are shaping the future and helping brands make better choices and offering Renewed options.
This shift also means that protecting the environment by not polluting through incineration or sending apparel to landfill is a good and right choice ethically and financially. What used to be at odds is now connected, it all comes full circle.
The second key required to move from Linear to Circular was developing a system for textile recycling. This started with collecting and sorting these materials correctly and with the end use in mind.
Recycling is a simple equation. Known content of the material you are recycling, plus the cost of the recycling process must be less than the price the recycled material can get sold as.
Known Content +$ to recycle < $ it can be sold for
Textiles are tricky because they are often made of blended materials that the available recycling technologies can't easily or economically process.
At The Renewal Workshop we aggregate apparel that cannot be renewed into our Resource Recovery** stream. We organize the products by material content. Then working with the Global Textile Recyclers Map that we created, we are able to determine the feasibility and costs of turning a garment into a new fiber, that in turn would become a new garment.
To get this linear system to circular, we had to invest in understanding the flows of materials for recycling as well as testing how to move those materials through that process. The entry point for brands to begin a transition to circular was Product Life Extension. Next, we had to create the path for Resource Recovery.
The Value of Data
The last key to making the system circular was the surprise. The value of the original data about a garment became a huge part of making the renewal system work.
The information about garments or home goods products helps ensure success for those product in their next use. That next use could be resale, deconstruction for components or recycling. The data plays a critical role. For example – to resell a product, there must be something on the product that tells us what it is, its name, its selling features, its original price and its content, just to name a few vital pieces of information.
Each season an apparel brand can create and make between 10 and 2,000 different styles, and some brands have 4 – 6 seasons a year, so the variety of product types gets big, fast. If the product can tell us its information, then the cost to extend its life decreases substantially and allows a circular economy to be a profitable option. Some companies are starting by putting style numbers on the actual product, and there are some exciting technologies using RFID and other printing techniques to be able to scan the product to access data lookups.
We had no idea how much information - or the absence of it - would shape the transition from linear to circular. Now we know and we are working with our brand partners to guide them through the process of thinking about how to design their work in the linear model to help prepare their future selves in the circular model. This is one of the discoveries our early and most patient customers who have been on this journey with us have helped us understand.
As we said at the beginning, big goals are hard. They require hours and hours of learning and growing, of commitment and sacrifice. They involve people from different perspectives and different skills working together towards a shared vision that is bigger and scarier than anything they might tackle alone. They are also how you change the world and we believe the world needs this change and we're ready to help make it.
*Product Life Extension – Extend the working lifecycle of products and components by repairing, remanufacturing and reselling.
** Resource Recovery – Recover materials, resources and energy from disposed products or by-products.