• Tue. May 28th, 2024

Business Opportunities In The Circular Economy

Founder & Head Coach/CEO, The Funds2Orgs Group.

There’s been a lot of discussion these days about sustainability. Of course, that’s a great thing because we have a severe global problem. By 2060, if we do nothing as a global community, the cost to GDP of our collective inaction will be $44 trillion. We know we have a challenge, and business leaders are the foundation of action—if every corporation and company understands the opportunity.

As the founder of a for-profit social enterprise that focuses on shoe drive fundraising, I’ve been in the secondhand market for decades and am confident in assessing a business opportunity when it’s in sight. I propose that we could make a real difference if businesses in advanced countries forged global partnerships with those in more impoverished countries to ship high-quality goods that would otherwise be discarded or wasted.

As cofounder of vintage giant Beyond Retro, Steven Bethell recently said in an article, “There’s no waste—just opportunity.” He’s right, and every business leader needs to understand the opportunity that’s presented to save the planet and lives while also making a profit.

The following are considerations to keep in mind.

60% of small businesses with a robust digital footprint stated that sustainability was at the core of their operations.

• Holon IQ says 83 companies are global climate tech unicorns worth over $1 billion each.

• According to Smithsonian Magazine, 85% of plastic waste in the U.S. went to landfills in 2021.

Think of all the products made with plastics, including shoes, toothbrushes, tires, tape and clothing with synthetic fibers. So much of it goes into landfills needlessly. As we transition to full recyclability and net zero, we can support businesses in the Global North and Global South in a robust circular economy that’s a win for everyone and not just a few.

An Opportunity In The Secondhand Market

I attended the WEAR Conference not too long ago with my team and heard that 40% of what gets sent to the secondhand market is wasted. It’s such a significant number, and working in this market, I realize that if people get secondhand merchandise that isn’t sellable, it’s a significant problem for those trying to make a living through their secondhand-market business.

All that said, in my view, that 40% statistic is potentially being misinterpreted and mainly focuses on what’s happening in one market in Ghana. It’s necessary to be specific. And companies need to view the market depending on where they do business.

For example, in the United States, there’s a boom in the secondhand market, and many things aren’t going to waste when they’re recycled. Consumers in our country are buying used clothing, bags, shoes, books, furniture, etc., and I believe this movement will only grow.

The Microenterprise Perspective

Those of us who live and do business in the U.S. are fortunate—we have the economic, social and technological expertise to do better. For instance, we can rid our clothes of synthetic materials and recycle more. Still, we have a lot of work to do. According to a published report by Garson & Shaw, only 15% of post-consumer clothing gets reused or recycled in the U.S. Garson & Shaw’s CEO stated that we’ll become more sustainable only when the fashion industry manufactures fewer clothes.

In my experience working for years in the Global South, if we want to do right by everyone on the planet, we have an opportunity to save lives (and yes, even eradicate poverty). Microenterprise operations in developing nations are life-saving. I can’t stress that enough. Unfortunately, due to systemic poverty and lack of quality education, jobs and opportunities, many people have to create their own work to sustain their families.

That’s where the secondhand and reuse market comes into play. The United Nations has reported that over 330 million children and their families live in extreme poverty. If advanced countries created commercial global partnerships to ship 85% of high-quality merchandise into those countries—instead of donating or discarding them—it would make a tremendous difference. Every business can help ensure an improved global commerce environment, sustainable jobs, increased tax revenue, and the literal saving of lives.

Market leaders and ethical companies must realize there’s an enormous opportunity to give a hand-up to people in other countries to escape poverty. The reality is that many businesses, including mine, are ethical operators who insist on high-quality products for their global partnerships. That element must be non-negotiable. Every company must focus on sending high-quality items to their international partners and customers in the reuse market.

Microenterprise: The Lifeblood Of Sustainable Practices

The microenterprise mindset could ensure every American company makes the switch as we shift to making a profit with purpose and sustainable living. At times, business leaders might say they’re not in the clothing or retail business, so it’s not on them to become eco-friendly. Worse, sometimes leaders get pushed to market their brands as environmentally conscious when they’re not. The truth is we all have an obligation now to think globally and sustainably.

Every company can become sustainable, and every business can look to serve as a center to recycle textiles like shoes and clothing, office goods, books, etc. All it takes is a willingness to shift thinking of how a business operates beyond profit and with society in mind. In turn, the return on investment can create new jobs, products, services and revenue lines. When leaders think of the microenterprise world, the narrative shifts. We move from a waste mentality to ensuring that everything leads to sustainable growth.

Moving forward, every business leader and manager needs to look at their digital and physical carbon footprint and discarded office or work items as valuable and renewable resources. This means that everything—and I mean everything (e.g., paper, hardware, furniture, logistics, etc.)—is an opportunity to recycle and repurpose commercially. Moreover, depending on how you view the possibility, partnering with others means creating a fundamentally new way of operating.

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