Circular Economy vs Linear Economy Models: an expert weighs in

In our modern, fast paced world, the way we produce, consume and discard goods has a profound impact on the planet and the economy. The global economy has undergone significant transformations over the last two years and two contrasting approaches have emerged: the linear economy and the circular economy.  In this blog, Jody Jones (our Senior Carbon and Environment Consultant) delves into the key differences between these two models and explores why the circular economy method is gaining momentum as a sustainable solution to our global challenges.

Linear economy: the traditional model

The linear economy, often referred to as the ‘take-make-dispose’ model, has been the dominant approach for centuries. It utilises a straightforward system: raw materials are extracted, processed into products, consumed and ultimately discarded as waste. This one-way flow of resources has been the driving force behind economic growth but creates numerous issues, such as resource depletion, pollution and the accumulation of waste in landfills.  

One industry which typically follows the linear economy system is the traditional fast-fashion retailer. These companies produce inexpensive clothing, not designed for longevity and therefore only worn for a short period of time before being discarded.

Spotlight: how fast fashion sustains the linear economy

Due to its use of mostly oil-based synthetic fibres, the fast fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all annual global carbon emissions. This is a startling statistic, made even more worrying when we consider the seemingly unstoppable growth trajectory of the fast fashion industry, with clothing sales doubling from 2000 to 2015. Unfortunately, with the cheap price of fast fashion clothing and the speed with which goods can land on consumers doorsteps, luring new customers, the growth shows no sign of stopping.  If this trajectory continues, then fast fashion emissions are expected to grow by 50% by 2030. 

As the industry grows, contrastingly the average number of times an item of clothing is worn is decreasing, with a 36% decrease experienced since the start of the millennium. The relationship between these two statistics is the embodiment of fast fashion and highlights key flaws of the linear economy.

Graph between 2000 to 2015. Clothing sales doubled within this time, whilst world GDP increased and average number of times an item is worn decreased.

Graphic by Crystal Fang for Earth.org, data source: Ellen MacCarthur Foundation. See also “The 10 Essential Fast Fashion Statistics”.

In the UK alone, around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste end up in household black bins every year and are then sent to landfill or incinerators while less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is currently recycled into new clothing at the end of its life. 

Infinite opportunities remain mostly untapped within this textile waste, and likewise within the waste off all other industries. Could adoption of the circular economy unlock a treasure trove of financial and environmental gains for businesses of the future?

Circular economy: a sustainable alternative

The circular economy offers a radical departure from the linear model. It aims to create a closed-loop system where products, materials, and resources are continuously reused, remanufactured, or recycled. The core principles of the circular economy include designing products for durability, optimizing resource use and reducing waste generation. In addition to the obvious environmental benefits of a circular economy, it also brings financial savings through businesses using less resources and requiring less waste disposal services. Circular economy further drives innovation, as businesses are required to ‘think outside the box’ and design products and business models focused on durability and recyclability. 

The benefits of a circular economy are clear, but the lack of businesses adopting this methodology indicates barriers that are preventing the transition, so what are they? 

Firstly, the move from linear to circular is a costly one. Whilst financial benefits will be reaped once the system is fully implemented, the high initial investment in new processes and technologies serves as a significant deterrent. In addition to this, businesses struggle with the complexity of their supply chain, which typically can be tricky to track and manage, and doing so requires dedicated resource which many companies simply cannot afford. Businesses will also find that they are limited by the resources and infrastructure that is available to them, with recycled materials and technology for recycling limited in certain regions. Finally, whilst some businesses may internally make the decision to move to a circular economy, they will likely face pushback and barriers from their consumers, with a cultural shift in consumer behaviour being required first. 

Spotlight: Circular economy through the lens of fashion

The fashion industry is slow to join the ‘Circular Economy party’, predominantly due to clothes historically being perceived as having no value beyond disposal.  However, a recent shift in consumer attitude towards sustainability could be the catalyst to move away from the linear model.  This shift is evident in the recent boom in the second hand clothing market, showing that some consumers are becoming more influenced by how their purchases impact on the environment. Fashion retailers are beginning to respond to consumer demand, and specifically, in 2016 ‘H and M’ announced it’s ambition to transition to a circular economy. 

The H and M group recognised that the linear model implemented by themselves and the majority of all fashion brands was a wasteful and environmentally damaging system that needed to change. In response, they designed a three-system approach that covers their products, services and supply chain. In summary, they committed to produce products that were designed to last and manufactured using safe, recycled and sustainably sourced materials. They also created a global textile collection programme called ‘Looop’, whereby customers can take their old clothes to the store to be shredded and then re-used to create new clothes, thus preventing textile waste from landfill, and cutting back on the need for new cotton plants to be grown. Finally, they also engage with their customers, providing handy advice on their website on how customers can repair their own clothes or customize them. Through these steps H and M, aim to eliminate waste and pollution, continually circulate products and regenerate nature. They have become role models in their field and demonstrated that whilst the shift from linear to circular involves considerable effort from all areas of the business, the rewards both financially and environmentally are plentiful. 

Linear vs circular economy in summary

The choice between a linear and circular economy has far-reaching consequences for our planet’s health and the prosperity of future generations. While the linear economy has been the norm for centuries, it is increasingly clear that the circular economy offers a more sustainable, efficient and resilient path forward. Embracing circular principles is not just an environmental imperative: it’s a strategic advantage for businesses and societies as they navigate the challenges of the 21st century.  The shift towards a circular economy represents a promising and necessary evolution in our quest to a more sustainable and prosperous world.  

How Energise can help your business transition towards a circular model

Ready to get started on your own sustainability journey? We offer a range of carbon and environment solutions to help you move towards a circular economy, such as Life Cycle Assessments and Supply Chain Engagement 

Get in touch at sustainability@energise.com and one of our team will advise which sustainability solution is best for you plus walk you through the next steps.

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Written By    Jody Jones

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