Building a More Sustainable Future: Going Green with a Circular Supply Chain

Building a circular supply chain enables a more sustainable business model that is better for companies, customers and the environment

Building a More Sustainable Future: Going Green with a Circular Supply Chain
waste in a landfill RyersonClark/iStock

Today, we face a serious waste problem with potentially devastating effects on the environment. While technology contributes to the problem in the form of e-waste, it also holds the potential of solving it by bringing together buyers and sellers to advance the reuse of products rather than throwing them out.

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The cost of cheap electronics and clothes is damage to the planet

Many toxic elements go into commonly used electronics, including mercury and PVCs. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017, already three years ago there were “44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste” produced around the globe, and that amount is expected to multiply within the next few years, as people continue to upgrade to the latest phone or device and dispose of the old one. 

While there are many electronics recycling programs, most e-waste doesn’t get processed properly. The Global E-waste Monitor 2017 found only 20% of e-waste “was recycled through appropriate channels.”

That means the overwhelming majority of e-waste does not meet the standards required for the safety of those who handle the materials and the environment. This fact was corroborated by data on “e-Dumping” that occurred for electronics that were sent for recycling as visualized in an online map by Basel Action Network (BAN)  in partnership with MIT's Senseable City Labs.

But even nontoxic elements are taking a toll on our environment. Back in 2008, Drapers,  a UK-based fashion business journal, reported, “throwaway fashion grows to 30% of landfill waste.”

That percentage represented a huge increase from the 7% measured by the Environment Select Committee five years earlier. They blamed “the rise of cheap throwaway fashion chains,” and pointed out that the difficulty in recycling “textile waste” contributed to the challenge of managing its growth. 

According to the U.S. EPA textile waste occupies nearly 6.1% of all landfill space. The difficulty in recycling it, translates into just 15% of it being reused. 

Given that the 15%  is estimated to generate “approximately 3.8 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste (PCTW) each year,” of the remaining 85% that languishes in landfills exceed 21.5 billion pounds -- an astronomical amount of waste. 

How do we arrive at such massive amounts of textile waste? Trust Clothes reports this startling statistic:

 “The average US citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually.”

The drain on the planet is not just due to what is thrown out but also to using up energy and water to constantly turn out new clothes as people keep buying what’s in fashion this year.  

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Technology helps make us aware of the problem, and now it’s time to use technology to help solve it.

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Shifting the supply chain paradigm to promote sustainability 

As a society, we now have the means to enable a more sustainable future by reducing waste through shared resources. The concept of a “sharing community” is among the innovations that offer a potential solution for supply chain problems.  

When asked about Gartner’s key market trends for 2019,  Mark McArthur, Managing Director of The Alpega Group in North America, answered with one word “Sustainability.”

It’s not enough for a company to say it donates to save the rainforest, it must review its own processes and packaging to make them more sustainable. Breaking out of the limits of the linear approach plays a big part in that.

McArthur explained: “The move towards a circular supply chain is here, and it’s intentionally lessening the burden of logistics and supply chains on the environment.”

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How apps can promote a sharing economy

One app that mitigates e-waste is MyGizmo from Trayak. It functions as a platform to bring together buyers and sellers.

The site's motto is "Go Green. Make Green. Save Green."  This is its explanation of how it works: "MyGizmo gives you the ability to leverage your social network to BUY, SELL, or TRADE different gizmos in a friendly and exciting way. From smartphones and smart watches to their chargers and headphones, this application will help you manage your electronics and ultimately, reduce your electronic waste."

MyGizmo doesn't spare the exclamation points in describing the benefits:

Find a new home for your used devices! Convert your old electronics sitting in the back of your drawer into cash!  Compete with your friends to earn rewards and keep these gizmos out of our landfills!

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It boasts that users of the app have succeeded in sparing the planet 1500 pounds of electronic waste. 

Now thrift shopping accessible to all with a smartphone

Another notable company is thredUP, the innovative retailer that brings thrift shopping online. 

In a blog post, it explained the need to bring sustainability to the clothing industry: 

Here’s the facts:

-Fashion will drain a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

-26 billion pounds of textiles are dumped into global landfills each year.

-A single T-shirt takes 700 gallons of water to produce.

Here’s what we can do:

-Consume less.

-Reuse more.

-Choose used.

 

As thredUp explained in the video above, “There's a textile crisis, in fact, fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world."

So how does thredUp contribute to reducing fashion waste? It takes delivery of the clothes in good condition that people are getting rid of to resell to others.

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That way everyone wins. The sellers get some money back on their clothing purchases and can feel good that they aren’t throwing them out. Those who want to be thrifty and help conserve resources get access to used clothing and can see the inventory online without having to travel to a shop. Best of all: we all win in reducing waste and conserving precious resources.

In September 2019, thredUP celebrated its tenth anniversary and shared some interesting figures. It said it processes 1.22 items per second and had 3.1 million items available for sale at any given moment.

Earlier in 2019, thredUp released its Annual Resale Report that offered the latest insight into the resale industry.  Under the heading “The Innovation & Technology That Created a Resale Revolution,” it lists the four components involved in the business:

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1.   Unlocking an endless supply chain

Innovations like the thredUP Clean Out Kit make it easy to sell from home, attracting millions to participate in resale for the first time. 

2.    Creating value with data science

Sophisticated algorithms assign resale value at scale. thredUP uses millions of historical data points to instantly determine what something is worth.

3.    Massive volume & scale with automation

Resellers must be efficient when photographing, listing, and storing infinite SKUs. thredUP automates the processing of up to 100K one-of-a-kind items a day.

4.    Technology to shop from anywhere

Mobile apps and personalization have made buying used clothes as easy as buying new. Convenience and trust have attracted a new generation of secondhand shoppers. 

The annual report also shared the latest news on the sale resale industry, including the fact that in 2018 56 million women bought secondhand products. That represents a very marked increase from the year before when it was 44 million. So the circular economy based on consumers selling on rather than throwing out is growing.  

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The circular economy for a sustainable future

The Global E-waste Monitor 2017 put it this way, “it is necessary to overcome the inefficient ‘take-make-dispose’ economic model and adopt the circular economy system which aims to keep the value in products for as long as possible and eliminate waste.” 

The way forward is not limited to just the standard 3 Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle. We also need to find ways for “repairing, redistributing, refurbishing, remanufacturing prior to recycling of materials.” 

 As  McArthur, observed: “digitalization of logistics and supply chains isn’t the future; it’s already here. Organizations that don’t embrace current and emerging technologies across their transportation, warehousing and supply chain operations won’t be able to compete.”

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