Made in the U.S.A. isn’t what it used to be.
Sure, even though Consumer Reports shows 8 out of 10 Americans claiming a preference for products Made in the U.S.A., if you’re like most, chances are the items around your home are very, very well-travelled.
For instance, the laptop or phone you’re currently reading this on was most certainly not made in the U.S.A. The car in your driveway? There’s a 73% chance it was imported from another country. That IKEA living room set? 80% chance that it came from overseas (a number likely to rise even higher after IKEA closed their lone U.S. manufacturing plant in 2019).
Even the food on your plate has been on a road trip. Though some of it may come from U.S. farms and ranches, the average meal consumed in this country has travelled an astonishing 1,500 miles from its original source to make it to your plate.
1,500 miles! Could you imagine explaining this to our hunter-gather ancestors?
Of course, all of this is a by-product of globalization. As soon as the first ship was built centuries ago, humans have been on a never-ending quest to source goods and materials from beyond the boundaries of our home nations. And while globalization may have seemed great on the surface, the miles we added to every product we purchase has come at the expense of one of our most precious natural resources: the planet itself.
It’s no secret that our decades of global manufacturing and trade growth has created an environmental crisis on a scale never seen before. Which is why many businesses are starting to reevaluate the way we create, sell, and consume – a process that is accelerating rapidly due to the mass disruption experienced by nearly every industry on earth during this COVID-19 pandemic.
And at the heart of this new worldview is an innovative, local manufacturing ideology called the Circular Economy.
What is the Circular Economy?
The Circular Economy is the name given to a new style of supply chain – one that literally operates like a circle.
Traditionally, global supply chains have worked in a linear fashion. Raw materials are sourced from the earth and delivered to factories, which turn them into finished goods. These goods are then shipped thousands of miles to a retailer, which ultimately will sell and ship them to a consumer. And once the consumer is done using that product, it will more often than not end up in a landfill, after which the consumer purchases a new one and the process starts all over again.
Of the many issues with this linear supply chain, its contribution to global warming is arguably the most damaging. In fact, a study compiled by leading environmental organization The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that this vicious process of production and consumption leads to 45% of the world’s global carbon emissions.
The Circular Economy aims to disrupt the linear supply chain and its damage to our planet. In this new style of manufacturing, production and consumption creates a closed loop. Instead of sourcing raw materials, manufacturers in the Circular Economy source their goods from products destined for landfills and “upcycle” them into new goods. Once consumers are done with these products, they are once again are diverted away from landfills and back to manufactures to be turned into new goods yet again.
The Circular Economy is a self-sustaining production loop: raw materials to finished products to raw materials. Which means manufacturers no longer have to scour the globe to find their raw goods. And because many of their materials are now free (in the form of recycled items), and are being sourced directly from their local consumers, the idea of placing a factory halfway across the globe and shipping products thousands of miles no longer makes as much financial sense as it did during the rise of globalization.
Meaning the new economy is about to get much more local.
Testing the Circular Economy on the Local Level
While most of the Circular Economy headlines go to large corporations like Apple and Wal-Mart pledging to adopt its practices into their manufacturing, the true circular process is being designed and tested on a much smaller and more local scale.
Take Fleet Farming, a nonprofit organization here in my backyard of Orlando, Florida. This organization was started to combat one of the most eye-opening stats of the global economy: the fact that our average meal travels 1,500 miles to get to our plate, and in the process is responsible for 33% of global carbon emissions.
The team at Fleet Farming recognized that the principles of the Circular Economy could be applied to the food chain. They launched a small local experiment in the Parramore neighbourhood – an underserved community in West Orlando known as one of the nation’s many “Food Deserts,” where the nearest retailer of fresh produce is at least 5 miles away.
Instead of finding ways to bring food that’s already travelled an average of 1,500 miles a few miles further to residents of Parramore, Fleet Farming decided to develop an abundant yet underutilized source of food right outside the residents’ front doors: their lawns.
The United States is home to 40 million acres of lawns, which consume anywhere from 30-60% of local potable water to keep green. Fleet Farming wanted to see what would happen if they used this green real estate in Parramore for edible fruits and vegetables as opposed to inedible grass. Powered by volunteers from across the city pedalling bikes and carts from lawn to lawn, the team built a series of lawn gardens for local residents.
The impact has been astonishing. Once considered a food desert, Parramore is now home to over 70,000 sq. ft. of converted lawn space that has produced over 3,800 lbs of fresh produce, which feeds over 4,100 local residents. And the best part? The model is now a true Circular Economy, as each new garden is planted using seed harvested from existing gardens. Meaning this source of local food can continue in perpetuity.
Food that used travel 1,500 miles now travels but a few feet from farm to table. All thanks to an experiment in the Circular Economy.
Why the Circular Economy is About to Explode
Traditionally, the mass replacement of supply chain practices that date back hundreds (if not thousands) of years would move at a glacial pace. That is, unless an outside force caused a disruption so great that nearly every industry on earth was forced to reevaluate the way they do business.
Enter the coronavirus…
With the current global pandemic causing swift and substantial changes across businesses of all shapes and sizes, every company on earth is now rethinking their operations. Businesses that rely on overseas materials and manufacturers are facing unprecedented lead times and shortages. Consumers are becoming much more conscious about where their dollars go – not only due to financial concerns, but out of a desire to support businesses that are “doing the right thing” and acting ethically during this crisis.
The way we create, sell, and consume is changing overnight. Which is why the Circular Economy is about to explode in popularity. As businesses look for a more local, reliable, and ethical way to build their products, and shoppers look to support companies for their purpose as much as their products, the Circular Economy is poised to become the new way our world does business.
The Future of the Circular Economy
Reversing the centuries-old habits of scouring the globe for raw materials, and the 75-year rise in global manufacturing will not be easy. But if micro experiments like the one conducted by Fleet Farming is any indication, the Circular Economy is the clear path forward.
Not only has Fleet Farming created a much greater sense of food security for the residents of Parramore, it has also eliminated over 10,000 lbs of global carbon emissions to date. And this is just is one small organization running one small program! Imagine the change that can come from mass adoption of Circular Economy practices. The new sustainable supply chains. The new local jobs. The reversal in damage done to our planet.
A healthier, more connected world is just around the corner. And it’s coming faster than we think. The current global pandemic will greatly accelerate the mass adoption of the Circular Economy. And if your business isn’t already thinking about the ways in which you can become more circular, the time is now.
All you need to do to get started is to think local.
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