By Lauren Phipps, Director & Senior Analyst, Circular Economy 

It’s been quite a year for the circular economy, which has started to move from the margins to the mainstream, and stakeholders representing each link of the value chain are not only taking note, but taking action. At least a little bit.

It’s impossible to avoid bad news these days. But the progress I’ve seen on circularity in 2018 leaves me on a hopeful note. So, before we jump into a new year, let’s revisit three of my favorite circular economy stories from the year.

1. Big companies began to align on and commit to confronting plastics pollution. Public awareness of — and outrage against — plastics pollution grew significantly in 2018, quickly elevating the conversation around single-use plastics on a global scale. And that was just the start. (If you need a refresher on the fundamentals of the war on plastics, I encourage you to revisit Joel Makower’s two-part series on the global plastics problem and potential solutions.)

In November, more than 275 brands, retailers, recyclers, governments and NGOs announced a shared vision to close the loop on plastics pollution, and made tangible, time-bound commitments to ground aspiration in action. Signatories of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment — which are collectively responsible for producing 20 percent of all plastic packaging globally — formally endorsed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s framework of a circular economy for plastics.

Time will tell if and how signatories achieve these ambitious goals, as well as what will happen if they don’t meet the 2025 target. Still, the global commitment offers a welcome, promising vision for eliminating plastic waste and transforming an aspirational circular economy for plastics into a functioning, closed-loop system.

2. Apparel brands experimented with recommerce. In October, the world's largest online thrift store, thredUP, announced a program to partner with apparel companies on its secondhand retail platform. While nothing is inherently new about selling used clothes, the announcement highlights a growing trend within the apparel industry: turning to third-party recommerce partners to tap into secondary markets.

Resale apparel — a $20 billion industry — is projected to grow 15 percent annually over the next five years, significantly outpacing traditional retail, with only 2 percent projected annual growth, according to thredUp's 2018 Resale Report.

Third parties offer brands the logistics, renewal, repair and recommerce expertise to quickly ramp up resale models at scale, unlocking a low-risk, high-reward market for their goods and offers a straightforward path into a more circular business model. Given that secondhand clothing sales exist regardless of whether brands approve, the opportunity is obvious: Brands can make a margin on selling the same garment multiple times while maintaining brand and quality control.

Yerdle Recommerce’s "white label" service for companies like Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and REI; The Renewal Workshop’s partnership with North Face, prAna and icebreaker; and The RealReal’s collaboration with Stella McCartney are just a few examples that picked up speed in 2018.

While only a handful of companies are embracing recommerce so far, given the significant environmental impact of fashion in general, and fast fashion in particular, the environmental implications of even an incremental increase in apparel reuse would be significant.

3. Repair inched towards commercial viability. Product repair and life extension is a bit of an ugly stepsister for circularity in consumer electronics. While independent repair is common within categories such as home appliance and automobiles, it is actively thwarted in some consumer electronics.

It’s no secret that manufacturers have an incentive to push new products rather than prolonging the life of existing ones. Some OEMs have more innocent approaches such as upgrade programs, complex product design or proprietary repair tools. Others employ more aggressive tactics like criminalizing and voiding warranties when unauthorized individuals make repairs, and more questionably, actively lobbying against legislation that might increase product reparability. But some companies are beginning to rethink this linear model.

In October, telecommunications company Motorola began selling replacement parts, tools and instructions directly to customers for all of its recent phones. In a partnership with iFixit, a wiki-based site that teaches people how to fix almost anything, Motorola’s new repair product line was seen as a big win for the "right to repair" movement that asserts companies should be legally obligated to offer the tools, parts, schematics and diagnostics necessary to fix things that customers own. While customers may buy products with less frequency, Motorola is betting that increased repair options will build brand loyalty.

Thanks for reading in 2018, the inaugural year of this newsletter. Circular Weekly is taking a break next week, but it will return to your inbox on January 4 to kick off a new year of circular stories, news, analysis and puns. I look forward to continuing to guide you through the ever-evolving and rapidly expanding circular economy landscape in the year to come, and to watching how it continues to unfold and progress.

Before you go: Our speaker nomination period for Circularity 19, June 18-20, 2019, in Minneapolis closes today. Nominate a speaker or session before it’s too late, and join us this spring in the Twin Cities.

Questions or thoughts? Send me a note at [email protected] to suggest a story or topic we should cover in the new year.

Bryce Hannibal
Awareness of organizational food waste and the water-energy-food nexus can help us appreciate holiday meals.

Church Eliminates bill with Vista Solar and SunPower

Sponsored by Vista Solar

Abundant Life Church invested in a solar system from Vista Solar and SunPower to save money on their electric bill and move towards a sustainable source of energy. Because of this, the church could allocate more of their funds towards programs for their congregation and focus on their mission. Read the full story here.

Circling Back: Other 2018 Favorites
Lauren Phipps
The impacts of losing food across the value chain are massive. Could improving packaging — even if it's plastic — be the answer?
Lauren Phipps
As the renewables market accelerates, can we find a way to make PV cells sustainable?
Lauren Phipps
Skip the buzzwords and focus on how circularity can improve products and the entire customer experience.
Lauren Phipps
Meet Loop Industries and its radical approach to reinventing plastics.
Stay in the Loop
Nicole Lederer
The legislation sows the seeds for monetizing a new agricultural product, carbon capture and storage.
Susan Gladwin
Facing each other in a suburban shopping mall, the two innovative retailers share everything and nothing.
Christie Merino
Increased scrutiny and monitoring of abuses is on the menu at a growing number of companies.

Annabelle Candy’s Savings from Vista Solar and SunPower

Sponsored by Vista Solar

Annabelle Candy uses a large amount of electricity in their operations. To reinvest in their company and employees, the company worked with Vista Solar and SunPower to install over 430kW of solar on their facility. Read the full story here.

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