Advancing Toward a Circular New York

By Kirstie Dabbs – Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

New York City’s latest OneNYC 2050 strategy outlines an ambitious sustainability agenda that includes goals to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050.

New Yorkers who track city- and state-wide environmental goals and regulations are likely aware of the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency in achieving this climate strategy, but those actions alone won’t fulfill New York’s ambitions.

A circular economy must also be adopted in order to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while also conserving resources. Although the OneNYC strategy does make note of this shift, many New Yorkers remain unfamiliar with even the concept of the circular economy, let alone its principles, practices and potential impact.

What is the Circular Economy?

Also known as circularity, the circular economy calls for a reshaping of our systems of production and consumption, and an inherently different relationship with our resources.

Rather than following our current “linear” economic model that extracts resources to make products that are used and disposed of before the end of their useful life, a circular economy follows three core principles to extend the value of existing resources and reduce the need to extract new resources:

  • Design out waste.
  • Keep products and materials in use.
  • Regenerate natural systems.

These three principles — as put forth by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — create opportunities to reduce and potentially eliminate waste,  from the design phase all the way to a product’s end of life.

Materials Matter

In the design phase, the choice of materials plays a critical role in either facilitating or preventing recirculation of materials down the line. By choosing to manufacture products with recycled materials, companies will drive demand for more post-consumer feedstock, further reducing waste to landfill which is aligned with the City’s waste-reduction goal.

Companies can also choose to manufacture products using responsibly sourced bio-based materials, which enable circularity because they biodegrade at the end of life with the appropriate infrastructure in place.

WinCup and Eco-Products are examples of companies leading the way toward biodegradable paper and plastic cup alternatives. The regenerative process of biodegradation is in line with the third principle of circularity and supports New York City’s waste goals in bypassing the landfill altogether and heading directly to the compost pile.

Durable Design Increases Product Lifespan and Reduces Consumer Demand

In addition to applying material design principles to divert material from landfill, companies can deploy design and marketing strategies to keep their products in use longer.

Designing durable products and those that can be easily repaired not only leads to longer product lives, but also reduces waste and demand for new products. Creating products that will be loved or liked longer – such as “slow” fashion that won’t go out of style – is another tactic to extend the emotional use of a product.

Finally, companies such as Loop that combine durability with reuse offer a solution to the packaging waste dilemma by keeping long-lasting packaging in circulation.

According to a 2019 report from the European Climate Foundation, by recirculating existing products and materials, the demand for new materials will decrease, reducing environmental degradation and product-related carbon emissions.

How Will the Circular Economy Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The same report also notes that in order to meet the carbon reduction targets outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we “cannot focus only on…renewables and energy efficiency” but must also ”address how we manufacture and use products, which comprises the remaining half of GHG emissions.”

A recent press release from the World Economic Forum (WEF) summarized it succinctly: If we don’t link the circular economy to climate change, “we’re not just neglecting half of the problem, we’re also neglecting half of the solution.”

New York’s Steps to Advance the Circular Economy

Although the principles of circularity can be applied to an individual’s or organization’s behavior, to fully achieve a circular economy the economic system as a whole must fully adopt these principles.

According to a recent report by Closed Loop Partners — an investment company dedicated to financing innovations required for a circular economy — the four key drivers currently advancing circularity in North America are investment, innovation, policy and partnership. All are important and increasing; we are seeing the private and public sectors collaborating to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered by circularity while executing this environmental imperative.

The New New York Circular City Initiative

Closed Loop Partners, along with several other private and public organizations, have come together to found the New York Circular City Initiative, officially launching this month.

One of several partners participating in the initiative is the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and Chief Strategy Officer Ana Arino spoke last year of how the NYCEDC is well-positioned to inspire and implement city-wide changes leading to a circular economy through levers such as real estate assets; programs to support circular innovation; its intersectional position between the private and public sectors; and public-facing awareness campaigns.

The vision of the New York Circular City Initiative is “to help create a city where no waste is sent to landfill, environmental pollution is minimized, and thousands of good jobs are created through the intelligent use of products and raw materials.” Through engagement in this collaborative effort, the City is taking an important step toward circularity, that, if scaled, has the potential to make significant and lasting changes in the local economy—and beyond.

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Kirstie Dabbs is pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainability with focus on Circular Value Chain Management at Bard College.  She is currently an analyst-intern at G&A Institute working on GRI Data Partner assignments and G&A research projects. In her role as an Associate Consultant for Red Queen Group in NYC she provides organization analyses and support for not-for-profits undergoing strategic or management transitions.

 

Profile:  https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll/kirstie-dabbs.html

 

This article was originally published on the GreenHomeNYC blog on September 28, 2020.

 

Is There a Trend of Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry?

By Reilly Sakai – Sustainability Analyst at G&A Institute

Despite being identified by some as one of the top contributors to impact on society’s environmental and social issues, on close inspection we could say that the fashion industry continues in 2020 to lag behind other sectors when it comes to a close review of the industry’s sustainability efforts.

The positives: Some major apparel industry players have or are attempting to create strategies and initiatives to reduce plastic and improve the sustainability of their supply chain.

However, in reviewing industry performance overall, it can be difficult to parse through which initiatives are actually making a difference — and which are simply an example of greenwashing, especially given the lower rate of disclosure of ESG emissions by prominent companies’ reporting.

Solutions? What Steps To Be Taken?

So, we can ask, what steps must be taken now — both at the company and the consumer level?

We can ask this question: Is it possible for an industry that so depends on continuous consumption of its products (clothing) to become more sustainable?

The fashion industry is reported to be responsible for more carbon emission than all international flights and maritime shipping combined — “producing 10 percent of all humanity’s carbon emissions” (source: UNEP, 2018).

The apparel industry is also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply — after fruit and vegetable farming, which can be very intensive in terms of water use (source: Thomas Insights, 2019).

And, among the challenges, it’s reported that up to 85% of textiles end up in landfills rather than being recycled or upcycled (UNECE, 2018).

Between 2000 and 2015, clothing sales increased from 50 billion units to over 100 billion units, while utilization of clothing (the average number of times a garment is worn) dropped 36% during the same timeframe (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

These figures are nothing to scoff at as various sectors and industries move toward less water use; less waste to landfill; more recycling and re-use, among many measures adopted throughout industries.

Is the Fashion Industry Drive to Sustainability Slowing Down?

And yet, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from the year 2019, sustainability efforts in the industry appear to be slowing down rather than accelerating to address these issues.

In GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database, there are currently 248 organizations that fall in the textiles & apparel sector worldwide. Put that in perspective of the total 14,476 organizations in the database.

That’s less than 2% of reporting organizations in the textile & apparel sector. In the sector, there are just 80 GRI Standards industry reports, vs 4,089 GRI Standards reports in the database as a whole.

Given the rate at which the global fashion industry has been growing (before the coronavirus emergency) – more people, more apparel, more income, etc) — we might conclude that companies in the industry have simply not been doing enough to offset their well-charted detrimental environmental impacts.

So what to do now? We know that the fashion industry is important in terms of global economic impact and employment, and creativity – while also being a top contributor to waste, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and an array of other negative environmental factors.

Incentives For Changing – Lacking

Today, there aren’t major economic or societal incentives in place for apparel companies to make real changes.

It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, not to mention considerable investment, to switch factories in which clothes are produced and polluting or violating human rights and so on (to address key ESG issues).

And it’s also quite difficult to have real transparency at every level of the apparel and footwear global supply chain to help to ensure a more sustainable production process.

Consumer Tastes – May Make a Difference. Maybe.

Moreover, while many consumers are now starting to buy what they believe to be the more sustainable products in many categories including fashion, very few consumers are apparently willing to pay more for them — or have the time or means to investigate every company’s sustainability initiatives and track record before making their purchase (Source: Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2019).

Since it’s so much quicker and cheaper to do, companies instead may turn to marketing messaging that tells their customers that they are working towards a more sustainable future — without actually doing much or even anything in reality.

What Leading Companies Are Doing – the Positives

There is good news.  The “we are sustainable” message has begun to sell well and customers have been moving to certain apparel brands that are promoting a sustainable vision — without the buyer being able to (at point-of-sale) fact-check a company’s claims. That is the reality of at-market sales.

We can begin by taking a look at Everlane, which touts “radical transparency,” but doesn’t actually divulge the name of the factories in which its garments are produced.  So we don’t know what is going on there.

Patagonia, on the other hand, is considered best-in-class, offering repair and buyback programs in order to promote a circular economy, and has a multitude of policies and systems in place to ensure they’re doing everything they can to protect the environment and people who work at or interact with the company.

Nike, similarly, has done a lot to improve their supply chains over many years, using innovation as a driver for sustainability.

Rather than increasing factory audits to ensure that workers are wearing protective gear, Nike engineered a non-toxic glue so protective gear is no longer needed.\

Nike’s flyknit sneaker vastly reduced the amount of material needed to construct a shoe, meaning lower costs and less waste.

Other brands, from Adidas to Puma, have followed suit.

On the luxury end, Eileen Fisher has been a staple of sustainable clothing for decades, sourcing environmentally friendly materials, offering a buyback program, upcycling old materials into new garments, and sharing the wealth with all of her employees by offering a comprehensive ESOP.

Looking to the Future to Protect the Planet

With our Planet Earth’s environmental situation growing ever more dire, it is critical for the fashion industry — now! —  to encourage and make major changes — but convincing individual corporate leadership that this is a worthwhile investment is no small feat.

Because of the higher costs typically associated with implementing sustainability initiatives (or at least the perception of higher cost), overhauling a company’s entire supply chain is quite challenging.

Many fashion companies do not find it feasible in this competitive pricing environment to raise their prices or cut into their margins, especially when they continue to see the industry growing at such a swift pace year-over-year.

Perhaps more and more companies will consider Nike’s successful approach. That is, increasing spending in R&D as opposed to marketing, which has major potential to decrease costs and increase margins in the long-term, while improving their ESG efforts at the same time.

In my opinion, it’s going to probably take some form of public sector intervention or a mass consumer revolution or some similar dramatic action to influence the bulk of the fashion industry to move toward a truly sustainable future – and one of those things might happen sooner than later.

The leaders in corporate sustainability in the industry will be the major beneficiaries when the tide turns.

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Reilly SakaiReilly Sakai is a sustainability analyst at G&A Institute; she began her work with us as one of our outstanding analyst-interns in grad school. She is completing her MBA program in Fashion & Luxury at NYU Stern School of Business, where she is specializing in Sustainable Business & Innovation, and, Management of Technology & Operations. She has been working with NYU’s Center for Sustainable Business on an independent study that explores environmental sustainability in apparel manufacturing.

Cradle-to-Cradle Case History: Shaw Industries

Guest Commentary by Jennifer Moore – at the Conference Board

Content originally prepared for Certification in Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Strategies – on-line courseware by G&A Institute **

The early 21st century ushered in a new wave of heightened concern about resource scarcity and climate change. Consequently, consumers have been more concerned about the sustainability of the products they purchase and the effects they are having on the environment.

Businesses have also taken on the challenge of incorporating sustainability strategies into their business models. Many more companies are now integrating sustainability practices through product stewardship and their R&D activities.

These companies are focusing on life cycle assessments of their products and are aiming to achieve Cradle-to-Cradle status. As defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Cradle-to- Cradle school of thought is an important branch within the circular economy concept.

Cradle-to-Cradle focuses on products that have a positive impact and reduce the negative impacts on commerce through production efficiency (see footnote 1).

Cradle-to-Cradle and circular economy goes beyond the “reduce, reuse, recycle” campaign of the late Twentieth Century to focus more on the design and production of products, rather than on consumption by the consumer.

The authoritative work, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”,  authored by Michael Braungart and William McDonough called for a new era of production, wherein, companies should be focusing more on “doing more good,” rather than “doing less bad.”

The goal and focus should be on the end of the product’s lifecycle, and whether it will either be safely re-entered into the environment — or be recycled back into production.

Cradle-to-Cradle aims to achieve three things: (1) eliminate the concept of waste, (2) power with renewable energy, and (3) respect human and natural systems. (2)

This concept argues that resource consumption and economic growth should not be isolated from each other. In fact, they often go hand-in-hand. (3)

The private sector is not siloed; it has been highly influenced by the public sector and discussion forums. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), driven by public demand, have advocated for the advancement of a circular economy. The World Economic Forum, Oxfam International and the United Nations in particular have been vocal about transitioning to a circular economy.

Also, the emphasis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) released in 2016 by the United Nations is on developing a more circular economy and seeking to implement sustainable development across the UN member states. (4)

While the SDGs are driven by politics and protecting human rights, the goals cannot be achieved without businesses and were developed with input from the private sector. There is business value for companies to align their strategy with the SDGs. (5)

Many companies have recognized the benefits of aligning their goals with the SGDs and the relationship between resource consumption and economic growth.

Consumers are now expecting companies to provide products that are eco-friendly and reduce resource waste. According to a survey conducted by Nielsen in 2014, “55 percent of on-line consumers indicated they were willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact, an increase from 50% in 2010 and 45% in 2011.” (6)

The Business Community’s Embrace of Cradle-to-Cradle

Businesses across all industries are now developing their product stewardship products to meet these consumer demands. Companies cite “customer demand for solutions that address global sustainability challenges, such as climate change and resource scarcity” as primary drivers of sustainable product initiatives. (7)

For example, 3M is striving for 40 per cent of their new products to be sustainable and Kimberly-Clark is developing solutions for used diapers. One exemplary model of sustainable product stewardship is Shaw Industries’ dedication to Cradle-to-Cradle.

The Shaw Industry Model

Shaw Industries is the largest producer of carpet tile in North America. While carpet tiles can have a lifespan of 10-to-25 years, commercial owners and tenants often update their facilities more frequently than that to reflect contemporary trends, resulting in a high-waste industry.

Historically, when the time came for flooring to be removed from businesses, schools, retailers, hospitals and other properties – whether for wear-and-tear or aesthetics, it was sent to landfills.

Recognizing the opportunity to create a better solution for customers and to create a product that would help advance toward a more circular economy, Shaw developed EcoWorx-backed carpet tile, which it introduced in 2008 and continues to optimize for sustainability performance.

The world’s first Cradle-to-Cradle Certified carpet tile — EcoWorx — was designed for reuse. To create a carpet tile that could be infinitely recycled with no loss of quality meant removing PVC, phthalates and other chemicals. As a result of its meticulous design process, Shaw understands what’s in its EcoWorx products and, therefore, what’s going into the next generation of its products.

Today, with 16 years and more than 3 billion square feet of EcoWorx installed, Shaw continues to optimize the product’s performance in alignment with Cradle-to-Cradle criteria – material health, material reutilization, energy, water and social responsibility.

Most recently, Shaw worked with one of its suppliers to remove an ingredient from its latex that was added to the list of banned chemicals within version 3 of the Cradle-to-Cradle Certified Products Program Standard.

Further, the company employs sustainable manufacturing practices – making efficient use of materials and natural resources, using alternative and renewable energy sources when possible, and designing and operating its facilities and manufacturing processes in accordance with widely recognized sustainability and safety standards.

It completes the sustainable manufacturing process by delivering its products using the most efficient mode of transportation feasible while meeting customer deadlines.

Shaw has committed itself to embracing Cradle-to-Cradle practices and has lead the way in carpet reclamation in the flooring industry. Today, 65 percent of its products – commercial and residential – are Cradle-to-Cradle Certified, with a goal of designing 100% to Cradle-to-Cradle principles by 2030.

Not only is Shaw committed to upcycling within its own operations, it also looks for opportunities in other industries.

For example, the company converts plastic drink bottles into residential carpet through a joint venture with DAK Americas: The Clear Path Recycling Center in Fayetteville, NC produces 100 million pounds of clear flake each year, recycling approximately three billion plastic drink bottles annually.

Furthermore, in 2016 alone, Shaw supplied more than 200 million pounds of post-industrial waste to other businesses for a variety of recycled content needs. For instance, the wood flour – waste fiber from hardwood flooring operations – is used by a major producer of composite decking and the minimal waste from its resilient manufacturing facility is used to make garden hoses.

The Future for Cradle-to-Cradle in Industry

Today, sustainable leadership companies, like Shaw, can strive to achieve cradle-to-cradle production through the certified program by the Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

The Institute examines certifiable products in five (5) quality categories – (1) material health, (2) material reutilization, (3) renewable energy and carbon management, (4) water stewardship, and (5) social fairness. (Footnote 8)

Sustainability managers must partner with their design and strategy teams to develop sustainable solutions to the products and services their company offers. Not only are these products essential ecologically and socially, they are also drivers of revenue growth.

If managers are concerned about getting [internal] corporate buy-in to fund ESG R&D, they are able to present the business case of how other companies — especially like Shaw Industries with the illustrations here in this case study — have seen Cradle-to-Cradle’s positive impact on their revenue. (9)

According to The Conference Board, “revenues from sustainable products and services grew at six times the rate of overall company revenues.”

In order to address Earth’s ecological crisis, companies must lead the way by ensuring they are designing eco-friendly products and services that respects the finite resources available on the planet. Sustainability managers can look to Shaw as one company that is leading by example.

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Jennifer Moore is Manager, Executive Programs, Sustainability & EHS at the Conference Board. She engages with senior executives from Fortune 250 companies to understand their needs and help solve their business issues. She oversees and executes all aspects of 15 roundtables per year.

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**  Information about the G&A Institute on-line course:

http://learning.ga-institute.com/courses/course-v1:GovernanceandAccountabilityInstitute+CCRSS+2016/about

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Footnotes:

(1) Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Cradle to Cradle in a Circular Economy – Products and Systems. Retrieved March 5, 2017. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/schools-of-thought/cradle2cradle

(2)  Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Cradle to Cradle in a Circular Economy – Products and Systems. Retrieved March 5, 2017. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/schools-of-thought/cradle2cradle

(3) Strahel, W. (2015). The Performance Economy. Palgrave MacMillan: 2006

(4) United Nations. United Nations Economic and Social Council. Millennium Development Goals and post-2015. Development Agenda. Retrieved March 5, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/ecosoc/about/mdg.shtml.

(5)  Yosie, T. Is There Business Value in the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Retrieved March 5, 2017. http://tcbblogs.org/givingthoughts/2017/02/07/is-there-business-value-in-the-un-sustainable-development-goals/#sthash.L0MLUAN7.xHIHNvHZ.dpbs

(6) Singer, T. Driving Revenue Growth Through Sustainable Products and Services. New York: The Conference Board, 2015. p. 17.

(7) Singer, T. Driving Revenue Growth Through Sustainable Products and Services. New York: The Conference Board, 2015. p. 8.

(8)  C2C Product Certification Overview – Get Certified – Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Retrieved March 5, 2017. http://www.c2ccertified.org/get-certified/product-certification

(9)  Singer, T. Driving Revenue Growth Through Sustainable Products and Services. New York: The Conference Board, 2015. p. 6.

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