Beware of “Circular Washing”

Companies across the globe are being criticized for using the term “circular” as a way to promote themselves as environmentally friendly brands—without doing the work. Business professors Maira Babri, Hervé Corvellec and Herman Stål, writing in Social Europe this week, warn that the trendiness of the “circular economy” could make it harder to figure out who is doing work that actually benefits the environment.

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The authors worry that if widespread use of the term “circular” continues as it has, the concept of a “circular economy” will be reduced to a savvy marketing gimmick without delivering any real change to the linear status quo.

Use of the term “circular economy” has steeply risen in the past ten years as businesses have become more attuned to the opinions consumers have about the environment. But what does this term “circular economy” actually mean? Companies marketing their products often use technical business language implying that they are environmentally-friendly, but aren’t always as willing to substantiate those claims.

Google Ngram Viewer the term “circular economy”

Zeroing in on circularity

While the concept of “repair” seems concrete – the ability to fix a car or home appliance or a phone – the idea of a “circular economy” is more abstract. “Circular economy” is described as an economic system that aims to minimize waste; maximize the efficient use of resources; and promote the reuse of materials in a closed-loop system.

Through this model, resources are used in a way that allows them to be continually recycled, reused, or repurposed, minimizing the need for new resource extraction and waste generation.

“Circular washing” refers to the deceptive labeling of products or processes as circular without actually delivering the environmental benefits. It’s a tactic that increasingly being employed by businesses to mask the true ecological impacts of their operations and products.

Getting to “true” circularity

To address this issue of inflated and outright false statements being passed off by companies, environmental advocates say it is vital to establish a clear and precise definition of what circularity truly entails.

At the same time, ensuring genuine progress in minimizing the impact that production, consumption, and waste management have will take effective regulation. Governments will need to step in with thwarting misleading practices and hold businesses accountable for their environmental claims. And while the goals of reducing the consumption of resources and the generation of waste are commendable, there are many situations where circularity either isn’t possible or doesn’t outweigh the negative impacts of consumption. For example, a study of the leather industry’s practices warns of “circular washing.” While the production phase circularity efforts have positive effects, the environmental impacts associated with the upstream supply chain of leather, particularly cattle raising and slaughtering, outweigh these benefits, it concludes.

How do consumers figure out what’s circular and what isn’t? Tools like Life Cycle Assessments and Product Environmental Footprints are the most common forms of measuring the impact that products have. But these are currently voluntary, and apply to a select number of brands.

On the regulatory front, there are proposals in the EU to impose financial penalties on companies that “green wash.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. has called for public comments on its “Green Guides” which provide guidance on environmental marketing claims (though it remains more carrot than stick.)

Tactics for circular washing could easily be encompassed by these efforts. If companies are pivoting from greenwashing to circular washing there will need to be strong and comprehensive regulations in place to ensure that claims of circularity are backed by genuine action. Beyond that, more stringent monitoring is needed of materials used, transparency in manufacturing processes, and clear guidelines for measuring and verifying the environmental impact of circular practices are where a real path to “circularity” would start.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into the concept of circularity, we wrote a piece about a subscription-based shoe service called “Cyclon” by Swiss company On, which promotes a circular economy model by using worn-out shoes to make new pairs. The service aims to minimize waste and energy consumption through recycling and reducing the use of raw materials, and it highlights the challenges of addressing the disposable culture and fast fashion industry.

Other News

The Federal government warned automakers not to comply with Massachusetts right to repair law. In a surprise letter to 22 US automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), part of the Department of Transportation said the law, approved by nearly three quarters of Massachusetts voters in November 2020, conflicted with federal auto safety regulations.

Michigan’s tractor Right to Repair bill aims to restore farmers’ freedom to repair their equipment, and the recent hearing on HB 4673 suggests that the campaign is gaining momentum. Farmers in Michigan want the ability to fix their own equipment, and the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) signed between manufacturers and the American Farm Bureau Federation are seen as inadequate solutions. Repair restrictions are costing Michigan farmers $124 million annually, and the bill could help alleviate the technician shortage faced by dealerships.

Medical device trade group appeals dismissal of suit challenging a Library of Congress decision that would allow third parties to access device software for repair or maintenance saying it could “spell disaster for innovation and hurt patients in the process.”

Microsoft starts selling replacement parts for Surface devices. You can now buy replacement parts for components in some recent Surface tablets, laptops, and all-in-one PCs. Microsoft says the goal is to make it easier for “technically inclined consumers” to perform out-of-warranty repairs without taking their products to a shop or paying to ship their products to Microsoft for repairs. But only a limited number of replacement parts are available so far… and some of them are kind of expensive.

A new battery regulation from the EU requires portable devices and light means of transport (think scooters and e-bikes) to be designed with replaceable batteries, ensuring users can replace them themselves, and mandates manufacturers to make spare batteries available for 5 years at a reasonable price. While seen as a win for the right to repair, concerns remain about the affordability of repairs and the potential industry pushback and exemptions.

Maryland has passed S.B. 793, a new law that aims to protect consumers by establishing guidelines for the repair or replacement of glass on vehicles equipped with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), requiring safety glass facilities to inform customers about ADAS recalibration requirements and provide written statements ensuring the work meets or exceeds original equipment manufacturer (OEM) specifications. The law is set to go into effect on October 1, 2023.

Opinion: put reuse and repair at the front of a circular economy. “As it stands, we are consuming the Earth’s resources at a troubling and unsustainable rate,” writes Sarah Ottaway, sustainability and social value lead, at Suez. “We will not be able to achieve net zero unless we consume less. This means integrating repair and reuse practices into our daily lives – keeping resources in active use for much longer than we do currently.”

A fully functional mechanical Apple Watch, using second-hand parts, highlights the irony and e-waste concerns associated with the original smartwatch’s limited lifespan and lack of repairability. Internet tinkerer Jack Spiggle created this parody machine through a long series of alterations to both traditional watch and Apple parts.

🎧Learn more about junk hacking in our interview with Travis Goodspeed!

Millions of disposable vape batteries containing reusable lithium-ion batteries are being discarded each year in the United States. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that vapes are popular and often thrown away after the liquid runs out, resulting in significant environmental impact and fire hazards at waste processing sites. The lack of clear disposal guidelines and insufficient regulatory oversight contribute to the increasing accumulation of toxic chemicals landfills instead of being utilized for other purposes.

Kids’ headphones designed to be easily assembled, repaired, and recycled have been released from companies Batch.Works and Morrama. Replacement parts are available for wire breaks, headband adjustments, and worn-out ear cushions, encouraging a shift towards long-lasting and repairable consumer products.

Book publishers are undermining public access to e-books through a legal ruling against the Internet Archive for copyright infringement. Corporations fighting to protect their profits pose a threat to libraries and the free dissemination of knowledge. The Internet Archive, which functions as a digital library, provides free access to millions of electronic texts through controlled digital lending, but publishers argue that it infringes on their copyrights. The ruling could force the Internet Archive to remove copyrighted works from its platform, limiting public access to information.

📚 “Boot Sale Harvest” is a new book by Adrian May that explores car boot sales in the UK, revealing the hidden stories and significance behind everyday objects and their connection to people’s lives, local history, and cultural traditions in Britain, with a focus on the community fostered by these thrifty outdoor gatherings.

Fight to Repair is a reader-supported publication. Sign up to receive email updates. Also: consider becoming a paid subscriber to get exclusive access to our original reporting, podcast and live content.