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Reevaluating Sustainability: Thriving in the New Circular Economy

A popular definition of sustainability is the capacity to endure into the future. The circular economy provides a framework for not only enduring, but thriving into the future.

Sustainability measures often evoke austere images of making do with less. However, we can look to Europe for laying the groundwork for the new circular economy, a working model that has its roots in the cradle-to-cradle philosophy first introduced by the German chemist, Michael Braungart and American architect, Bill McDonough. A popular definition of sustainability is the capacity to endure into the future. The circular economy provides a framework for not only enduring, but thriving into the future.

Current manufacturing systems are based on a linear “take, make, waste" model. We extract resources from the earth to create material goods that are ultimately discarded. The circular economy is based on a “take, make, re-make and restore" model. In real terms, the concept of disposable waste is a false one. Nothing ever exits the system and in a circular economy everything has its place in nature. Lead is a neurotoxin in drinking water, but a useful metal when used as a soldering agent.

Some business leaders equate sustainability measures with profit erosion. In reality, the more waste a business creates, whether it be in operational processes, procurement or disposal and clean up, the more money a business is hemorrhaging. In the consumer goods sector alone, about 80 percent of the $3.2 trillion value of goods created annually is deemed waste.

In a circular economy, material goods are designed for upcycle or easy dismantling for the next use. For instance, mining gold ore from the earth yields a value of $210 per ton. Mining gold from old circuit boards yields a value of $7,560 per ton, plus an additional value of $20,000 per ton in rare earth minerals.

In simple terms, sustainability is about reducing expenses—including future expenses whether they be from a force majeure associated with volatile climate patterns, runaway medical costs, or ocean cleanup. In a recent study, The Carbon Disclosure Project surveyed 500 large businesses and determined that 60 percent of the costs used to implement sustainability upgrades were recouped within three years and ultimately provided an average business return of 33 percent.

Twenty-five years ago, Rainbow Light commissioned an environmental impact study to establish best practices for reducing its packaging footprint. By upcycling existing plastic, Rainbow Light discovered it could reduce carbon emissions seven-fold over any other alternative. Strides made by sustainability packaging experts in Europe, ultimately led to the development of EcoGuard bottles, made from 100 percent recycled and 100 percent recyclable plastic. With EcoGuard packaging technology, Rainbow Light now keeps approximately 10 million bottles from entering the waste-stream every year. And when managed right, plastic is virtually infinitely recyclable. Converting to EcoGuard packaging is not only good for the earth, it’s good for the brand. Employees, trade partners and consumers alike are galvanized by long-term thinking and doing the right thing for the health of the planet and the health of us all.

Best Practices for Thriving in the New Economy

Just like any process improvement, when putting sustainable systems in place, setting the vision and documenting the path and milestones for getting there are essential for enduring gains. As the great business thinker, Peter Drucker, said, what gets measured, gets managed.

The circular economy is influenced by nature’s design. Nature, including human nature, flows along the path of least resistance. With that in mind, it’s important to implement operational defaults where the optimal way is also the easiest way. For instance, in early versions of Rainbow Light’s EcoGuard bottles, upcycling the bottle was slowed because the only available labeling material had to be separated during the reclamation process. So we developed an up-cyclable plastic sleeve that leverages the path of least resistance ensuring that the easiest way is also the best way for the environment.

Another example might be installing motion sensor lighting or better yet, skylights. When Rainbow Light relocated its headquarters to launch a LEED certified pilot neighborhood project in Santa Cruz, costs for energy and water went down, while the work quality for the employees was enhanced by natural lighting, pure indoor air quality and a rooftop botanical garden that keeps the building cool in summer and warm in winter. What’s best for the environment is more often than not best for people and productivity, too.

Be sure to engage the entire supply chain when implementing environmental sustainability measures. When Rainbow Light made a commitment to Non-GMO verification several years ago, it created a ripple effect that touched a worldwide supply chain. It meant walking away from some suppliers and working hand-in-hand with others. Now we work with more than 80 suppliers that have painstakingly documented more than 200 ingredients. The net result has improved the health of the entire industry.

As natural products industry business leaders, it is incumbent upon us to attend to protection and preservation of our precious planetary resources, as a vital component of the work we do.  Our businesses provide a platform with many touch points to engage and galvanize, from our end consumers to our employees and investors. 

Our trade customers and consumers are predisposed to sustainability choices and are looking to reward companies who share this commitment. Sustainable choices therefore support not only our planetary “balance sheet" but top-line growth of our brand and consumer franchises as well.

By sharing our best practices, we can further enhance the positive impact our industry can have on the planet. With that said, Rainbow Light has set up a microsite to provide operational information and direct access to its packaging suppliers so other conscious companies can evaluate sustainable packaging options.

Linda Kahler is principal and founder of Opal Lane LLC, a new model consultancy based in Santa Cruz, California. Previously, Kahler served as chief strategy officer of Wellnext®, a Florida-based LLC encompassing manufacturing facilities and a portfolio of more than a dozen brands, which it curates across health, wellness and fitness categories, channels and consumer segments. During her time at Wellnext, Kahler created the company’s brand platform and strategy. She currently serves as advisory consultant to Wellnext through Opal Lane. Much of Kahler’s recognition in the industry is a result of her 30 years of leadership at Rainbow Light®.

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