Why the circular economy could be a remedy for climate change
Reusing, remanufacturing and sharing—Impact Zero founder Erin Andrews gives the argument for why businesses, not just people, need to change.
Erin Andrews, Contributor | Opinion
I started my environmental journey in 2015 as a 3rd-year university student. Concerned about animal rights and eager to reduce my carbon footprint, I went vegan.
As many often do, I started learning about environmentalism out of pure interest and curiosity. Although overwhelmed and confused by it all, I started to recognize the need for fundamental changes in how we operate as a society. I learned about the harmful effects of animal agriculture, air travel, ongoing Indigenous rights violations due to our fossil fuel dependency, water scarcity, and eventually single-use plastics and overconsumption.
It became obvious to me that in order to reduce our environmental impact, we needed to stop doing things and buying stuff. Right? After all, that was part of the reason why I went vegan.
The answer is yes, kind of. It’s only a yes if our economic model and governance structures remain the same. Today, if you need to buy a phone, someone needs to make a phone—and if someone needs to make a phone, they need to take the raw materials from nature to do it. Once that phone breaks, you will likely throw it away, keep it in a junk drawer or sell it if you can find a buyer.
This linear relationship between resource extraction, consumption and disposal is all part of a linear economy. The more we make, the more we take and the more we throw away. With every product we make, we release more emissions and strip more biodiversity from natural spaces. If we wanted to reduce our environmental impact in a linear economy, we would need to essentially stop consuming at the rate we do today. But what if there was another way where we can all thrive together?
To really demonstrate just how damaging a linear economy is, here are a few staggering facts. Lake Ontario is as polluted as some of the worst areas of the ocean, with up to 3.4 million pieces of microplastics per 2.6 square kilometres found in an area sampled near Toronto. Based on current disposal rates, Ontario’s available landfills are expected to be full in 12 years by 2032. Even though Canada is the world’s 10th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, we have been slow to adopt other forms of low-carbon energy and cut our transportation emissions. While it is important for us to demand systemic change, we also have the responsibility as citizens to make better choices on an individual level.
It’s scary stuff. When I started my activist journey, I tried to convince people to change their behaviour. My first business, Hera & Co, had a mission to make zero-waste living as easy as possible. I hand-delivered orders to my customers via Toronto’s transit system. I remember thinking: “Why wouldn’t people want to choose this option? It’s so easy!” I realized that this model was expensive to operate, and not financially sustainable at the scale of my small business. It also meant that my services weren’t accessible to everyone.
This triggered another thought: What if, instead of fighting a disposable system with my one small online shop, we worked collectively to change how things work?
This idea already had a name—the circular economy. This solution doesn’t require convincing millions of people to change how they live. Even better, it reduces costs for consumers while increasing business revenue potential.
The circular economy requires a total system overhaul. It’s where infrastructure and businesses allow us to share, repair, reuse, remanufacture, redesign and generally extend the life cycle of the products we put so much effort into making.
In a circular economy, the goal is not to just keep stuff around, but to keep products, parts and materials in productive use at their highest value for as long as possible.
For this to actually happen, businesses need to design products differently to extend their functioning life before their inevitable breakdown. The goal is to keep products in circulation for as long as possible in their highest value-form, only breaking them down once absolutely necessary.
In a circular economy, this is how a phone would be handled:
On the product level, the phone would be leased from a company rather than owned by an individual. That way, once the consumer is done with it, they’d return the phone to the company for someone else to use.
On the parts level, the phone would be designed in a way that makes it modular—the seller could physically remove the broken camera piece to replace it with a new camera piece, instead of buying a whole new phone.
On the material level, it would be made from reused parts. After salvaging useful parts, it would be properly recycled at the end of its life.
In practice, this would look different depending on the type of product. To make this a reality across industries, businesses need innovative and effective product design. Additionally, they need to focus on service design and implement reverse logistics, technological solutions and more frequent customer communication.
In a circular economy, consumers could easily share things with people they don’t know through businesses that can ensure quality control and data privacy when dealing with electronics. Consumers wouldn’t have to buy products they only use once a year. Businesses would be incentivized to design and build products to last because their revenue would be determined by usage, not units. Profit and economic growth would not depend on finite natural resource extraction, but on unlimited services and value creation.
A circular economy requires a whole mindset shift. We need to start changing the way we do business, while simultaneously building scalable systems in our cities to help people adapt to these new habits.
My environmental journey started with veganism in university. Fast forward to 2020, I am now the founder of the Impact Zero Foundation where I work with a network of passionate businesses to change the entire economic system of Toronto and beyond.
At Impact Zero, we are creating a circular connections platform where businesses can buy and sell materials from one another. Our second project is circular economy education, where we work with businesses to not just teach them about the circular economy, but to embrace it.
Between 2015 and now, I went from being someone who was largely unaware of the sustainability issues entrenched in our economy to building organizations that work on these issues collaboratively. If we can push forward the circular economy, I’m confident that we will be able to see change in time for our Paris Climate Agreement deadline of 2030.
There are incredibly passionate and educated individuals working on these issues, including Indigenous leaders who have been advocating for the land for generations. I encourage you to learn from them and use your individual power to amplify their voices, as well as help us educate and change the system.
Note: We can’t do this work without the members of our Impact Zero Network. If you’d like to be part of the solution, please reach out and we’d love to have you join us!