As long as humans exist as we do today, there will continue to be a tradeoff between the environment and ourselves. Humans strain the Earth’s natural resources, causing immense amounts of pollution, deforestation, water contamination and, ultimately, climate change. Humans and our linear business models are a part of the problem. We can and should strive to be more sustainable and implement a circular economy, moving away from a linear business model that takes natural resources to make disposable products that are used and then thrown away. 

Switching to a circular economy is taking resources but designing them so they can be easily repaired, repurposed after their lifespan for something else or taken apart to produce more of that same good. The purpose of a circular economy is to take as few raw, natural resources as possible and to make as little waste as possible. 

Though people might conflate this with the recycling of single-use plastics in order to make themselves feel better, this in fact is not similar at all, but another representation of a linear business model. Plastic straws and small plastic items are made from synthetic chemicals produced from fossil fuels, then used once for a brief period time, thrown away, sometimes on the side of the road, even if people try to recycle them, a lot of recycling facilities don’t have the machinery to actually break down these smaller plastic products. 

Even if the plastic products could be recycled, only 8% of them actually are. Therefore, we must switch from single-use products, especially plastic ones; and with that, move away from a linear economy to a circular one. The new “R” in reduce, reuse, recycle is REFUSE. 

However, even if companies and people switch to a circular economy, it still has its limitations. For example, if you consider the iconic benefit corporation Patagonia and how they take customers’ old clothing and either repair and return the clothing or reuse it, these actions still have environmental costs: the greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping, the plastic bags that they use to ship clothing and even the energy needed to repair it. 

Similarly, Tesla’s electric cars produce half the amount of carbon dioxide on average compared to traditional combustion engine cars annually — but they still produce 4,450 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. The environmental footprint could be worse if you are powering that electric car with coal or natural gas. Companies such as Tesla and Patagonia are doing better than most in making their business models more compatible with sustainability, but they are still not perfect, and never will be. 

In the United States, we are nowhere near a circular economy. After decades of taking, making, wasting and then shipping it to China, the U.S.’s trash and recycling is here to stay. Many municipalities have the question of how to deal with mass quantities of waste. Facing expensive recycling costs, most have ended up incinerating it or putting it in a landfill, further adding to the 262.4 million tons of waste that the U.S. produced in 2015 alone contributing to climate change. 

Moreover, even if it does end up at a recycling facility, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association, 25% of the “recyclables” are contaminated. Though recycling seems productive in theory, it has some fundamental problems and the financial incentives for municipalities to do it are not yet there. 

Admittedly, if you use renewable energies, such as solar energy, the equipment and the battery technology used to store the energy also releases greenhouse gas emissions in its production. According to one estimate though, after using a solar panel for only six months, the emissions are outweighed. A similar situation is created with wind energy, but also has the added environmental impact of harming the natural environment by killing birds and insects. Solar and wind energy rely on the weather, as well, which makes using them an even bigger tradeoff for businesses and societies as they decide how or when to transition to solar or other renewable energy sources. 

This may not seem like a lot, but even a cloudy day can reduce the efficiency of solar panels by 10% to 25%. However, solar panels aren’t that efficient to begin with; on average 17% to 19% of the light energy they receive is turned into electricity. With that in mind, solar panels have increased efficiency by about 5% to 7% in the past decade and there are hybrid solar panels that get energy from both sun and rain. 

On the other side, there are many companies or industries that are responsible for a large portion of our environmental footprint due to the consumerism culture they have co-created within the U.S. and the world. For example, the fast fashion industry as a business model is antithetical to environmental sustainability. The raw materials used for their products are shipped all over the world, dyed in different places, assembled in others and typically, at the end, these pieces of clothing aren’t durable products; one study even found that the majority of fast fashion clothing only lasts ten wears.

Further, the fast fashion industry has perpetuated a consumerist culture where people, especially in the U.S., buy products they don’t need. A lot of the clothing produced today is synthetic, and when cleaned in a machine washer and dryer, the clothing breaks down into microplastics. These microscopic particles pollute waterways and can then find their way into our bodies through drinking water, the food we eat or even the air we breathe. One estimate by the journal Environment Science & Technology says we are consuming about 74,000 to 121,000 microplastic particles annually. 

Uprooting these mindsets and ways of doing business is essential in order to make space for a culture that views and respects natural resources as they exist. For me, I am finding guidance from indigenous communities. Their societies worked for nature long before it became popular to be an environmentalist or to be interested in business sustainability. Indigenous communities have built languages and words that signify concepts that do not exist in a lot of people’s minds. For example, in Bangladesh, the Supreme Court ruled in July that all waterways will have personhood — meaning they have rights and legal protections from “pollution, illegal dredging and human intrusion.” 

This is a big step for the Rights of Nature movement, which is an international organization backed by indigenous or aboriginal communities all over the world from Cameroon to Ecuador, in response to our climate crisis to ensure that the Earth has legal rights that can be defended in court. For Bangladesh, personhood means that the world’s largest delta has legal protection from human exploitation. 

Moving forward, in order to rectify the capitalistic and consumeristic systems in the U.S. and the rest of the world, we need to have a cultural shift in how we interact with businesses, government, people and, most importantly, the environment. In a lot of ways, humans are still operating in an anthropocentric narrative, believing we are the most superior beings and that the planet exists for us. As long as we live in a world, country or community where people and corporations are given rights for economic transformation while waterways or forests are not — like Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has suggested — it will be virtually impossible for businesses and humans to be thoroughly aligned with the Earth.

Carson Blodgett can be reached at cjblodge@umich.edu. 

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