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What a circular economy means for sustainable retail

October 3, 2022, 7:00 PM UTC
Finding more circular solutions could unlock $4.5 trillion in GDP growth by 2030, so how can companies redesign their business models to complete their transition to the circular economy?
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Finding circular solutions can help businesses to grow, but doing so requires more than just the creation of a recyclable or reusable product. During Fortune’s Global Sustainability Forum last week, industry experts agreed one of the keys to success is finding channels through which those products will actually be reused. 

For Levi Strauss & Co., a circular economy looks like clothing that can be worn again and again—and repurposed once a customer is finished with it.

“Design is our first indication of intent, and really designing a product where we have the ability to take it back into the circular economy after someone has loved it and use it is really what we’re aiming for,” said Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer for Levi Strauss & Co.

Hogue pointed to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which defines circular economies in fashion as products that are durable but that can also be “deconstructed and separated and brought into new fiber flows.” These products should be made without toxic chemicals and dyes as well, and preferably from materials that are recycled or renewable. 

In addition, Hogue said it’s important that companies design timeless pieces of clothing that can be worn season after season, year after year. 

Hogue noted Levi Strauss & Co. recently relaunched its iconic 501 jeans as a circular clothing item, one that is designed to be worn for as long as possible and recycled when it’s time to get rid of it. 

But creating a recyclable product is moot unless someone is waiting in the wings to recycle that product. 

Monique Oxender, chief sustainability officer at Keurig Dr Pepper, said infrastructure for recycling in North America is “woefully behind.” 

“You can design for an infrastructure that is in the works or developing. But the reality is, in order to have a financially viable circular solution, someone’s got to be at the back door of recycling and processing facilities to buy that material for reuse, for its next life, whatever that may be, and they need to be buying it consistently,” she said. 

Hogue added that his company struggles to find raw material inputs for its clothing as it competes with other apparel companies. 

“It’s a big dilemma, and a lot of these technologies are highly capital intensive and take a lot of investment,” he explained. “And collection to get the materials to their recycling facilities is not there.”

William McDonough, chief executive of McDonough Innovation, said it comes down to the vocabulary we’re using to talk about these products. He suggested reframing our use of these terms might help to illuminate solutions. 

“There’s two kinds of products; consumption products and products as a service. So to your question about consuming too much? Well, we don’t really consume these things. You don’t consume a washing machine,” he said. “You use it. So even our language about consumption is referring to things we can’t consume.” 

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