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To say that we’re living in unprecedented times is already a cliché at this point. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it exposed how deeply flawed the global economy is, with its continued reliance on intertwined supply chains that are completely unsustainable. The World Economic Forum points out that the situation has forced everyone to reflect on the way we consume things, in particular, to rethink how we produce, distribute, and purchase products. The pandemic has given us a vital opportunity to reassess our relationship with the environment, talks of a “new normal” shouldn’t just center on crucial health and safety practices, but should also encompass our transition to a circular economy, where products and services are designed with their end of life in mind.

To the uninitiated, a circular economy is an alternative economic model where zero-waste management is prioritised. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation notes that this system has the capacity to eliminate waste, keep materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. It’s a massive departure from the linear economy we are used to, which operates on a single-use model. Before Brexit, the United Kingdom already had measures and regulations in place to promote such sustainability within the economy. In addition, The Guardian notes that the UK aims to meet its circular economy target by boosting nationwide capacity for collections of compostable packaging and organic waste by 2023.

Transitioning to this approach would entail doing away with long-held norms. It may also take a considerable amount of time, but if implemented properly, it can contribute to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and may even reduce the effects of climate change. Given that most industries were affected by COVID-19, let’s take a look at how adopting a circular economy can impact various sectors:

Transportation

The transport sector has visible adverse impacts on the environment, with or without the effect of a global pandemic. The World Resources Institute reveals that emissions from the transport sector are a significant contributor to climate change, clocking in at around 14% of annual emissions (including non-CO2 gases), and almost a quarter of CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. What’s more, at a time when global emissions need to go down, transport emissions continue to rise. Supposed improvements in vehicle efficiency do not compensate for the overall volume of travel. But this can be mitigated if the transport sector shifted to a circular economy. For instance, if regions adopted something like the Virgin Hyperloop, which is deemed as the world’s most energy-efficient mode of transportation, it can result in a reduction of local greenhouse gas emissions by up to 150,000 tons (300 million pounds) annually. That’s not all, it has the potential to deliver the creation of 1.8 million new jobs, and $36 billion (GBP 28.3 billion) in economic impact across the region. The International Labour Organisation echoed this sentiment, pointing out that transforming the transport sector could open up millions of new jobs and help countries move to greener, healthier economies.

Tourism

The tourism industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. In fact, it is estimated that there will be a 78% decline in international tourism arrivals for the year, depending on how fast a country’s response to the pandemic was. The impact of this loss is expected to be “catastrophic”, especially for countries where the government is heavily reliant on tourism to stay afloat. While things are looking up for some areas, like Southern Europe, these are likely short-term responses to the pandemic that may only do more harm than good.

The concept of sustainable travel hasn’t yet reached global awareness, yet there are companies already on the ground assisting countries in managing their environmental resources and heritage responsibly, whilst maintaining much needed socio-economic growth. The Travel Foundation is one such company; delivering training and advice to those working in travel and tourism on how best to manage their resources. From Turkey to Jamaica, The Travel Foundation works with small-scale suppliers to facilitate economic growth. In Turkey for example, a five year project connected small, local suppliers to large hotel chains in the Fethiye area. Working with farmers, wholesalers and hotels, their aim was to prove that fresh fruit and vegetables could be sourced locally in a commercially viable way.

Another project focusses on the managing boating practices to raise awareness on the effects of marine tourism; it has led to the set-up a sustainable fund (sourced from tourist donations) to assist in marine conservation practices, as well as the development of the area’s first ever sustainable boating guidelines to be used by local boat operators.

Sustainable tourism has a long way to go to deliver much needed consumer awareness, but with on the ground companies, like The Travel Foundation, the behind the scenes work has already begun to create long-lasting impact on the preservation of local environments.

Fashion

The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the global fashion industry. The apparel sector in the UK is predicted to become the worst hit with a decline in spending by a fifth, or 20.6% less than the usual. Meanwhile, garment factories in countries like Bangladesh were locked down, resulting in the loss of business to the tune of an astounding $2.67 billion, and loss of livelihood of almost 2 million workers. Vogue highlights how a shift to a circular economy can help fashion-centric businesses to recuperate. The edit highlights how damaging fast fashion has become to our environment, with an astounding 50 million tons of clothing discarded every year. The problem doesn’t just lie in quality of products, but rather their inherent value; it is ultimately far easier on our conscience to dispose of a t-shirt that cost £3, than one which costs £50. Unlike many recyclable waste streams, cheap fashion cannot “go away”, the synthetic materials do not biodegrade, and more often than not the cost of reprocessing cheap materials far outweighs the ease of landfill.

There are, however, multiple solutions to the fast fashion problem. Many outlets, including H&M and Primark have introduced textile bank schemes to allow customers to bring any unwanted clothes for recycling, sometimes with a reward as well. The industry itself is also shifting, with awareness spreading from high fashion brands to fast fashion. Textile companies like Evrnu have begun exploring the possibilities of bio-based materials such as rayon, whilst researchers have also begin exploring the possibilities of lab-grown cotton as an alternative to the water dependent organic. These new systems are opening up a new world of sustainability in fashion; alongside customer awareness and pressure, the industry is pushing the pedal towards a circular economy faster than other polluting sectors.

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