Small Businesses Must Lead the Way to a Circular Economy

When we think about system change in society it comes from the top down. Individuals like you and me may even feel a little powerless.

Governments and large corporations are the ones that need to stand up and be accountable. They have the power and money to make real system change, right? 

Yes, independents can lobby and change their habits to kick the higher ups into action and it feels like we are moving towards a tipping point in this respect. The world’s consumer choices are changing and the effects are starting to unfold. We’re in the middle of another revolution. 

Borden dairy is one of the first high profile cases of a major corporation going out of business. The former leading dairy producer saw the costly effects of reduced sales as growing numbers of people opt for more sustainable milk options. Some of the team at One Tree have even been trying to make their own oat milk…

The linear economy that we currently live in, where everything is disposable, comes with severe costs to the environment and the margins of business. Fast disposable products disregard environmental costs but also lead to a race to the bottom in price and quality. The small margins that currently build our economy means that a small shift in consumer habits has dramatic effects for even the largest corporations.

Generational shifts look set to rethink the way we run our economy with environmental and ethical costs taking on a higher value. 53% of Millennials are more likely to forgo a brand in order to buy products that are environmentally friendly compared to 34% Baby Boomers. With Gen-Z starting to have more spending power you can expect consumer choices to grow more green credentials.

Not everyone is stopping there though, circular products are not coming from the giant manufacturers and retailers.

In fact, small independent companies have the ability to innovate, create and pivot towards a circular economy far more easily than a cumbersome organisation. When a company finds success, business processes become ingrained in the fabric of a company and innovation is stifled. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right?

Just like the life of a linear product, business model life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter. What small independent businesses bring to the mix is innovation and there is no reason this shouldn’t be to create circular products.

One Tree is fostering some inspiring projects whether it is Fish & Pips redesigning chalet holidays or Ski Physio altering business practices. Another founding partner, The Boot Lab, is leading the way in designing circular ski equipment. The team is starting with the very core of the business, the footbed.

“In our ski boot fitting shop a big part is a custom made footbeds. We make a lot of footbeds, which up until this point have been made from plastic.” explains Gavin Fernie-Jones, owner of The Boot Lab.

“They are thermo molded so there have been a lot of complicated things to do in this project. Plastic is this incredible material and to find another product out there that can do the same is incredibly difficult.

It started with the most simple part of it and that’s removing the plastic bags that these products came in. We said to the manufacturer, we don’t need that plastic bag. We’re looking at 10,000 bags that havent been delivered to us.” He continued.

For small businesses small changes can be easy to implement. Reducing plastic waste was a small but simple step in rethinking a product. Furthermore, the drive to spend time creating a new product is unlocking a route to anyone innovating circular products.

“We started [making footbeds] by getting in lots of different types of cork and just moulding and playing around. Various different types of cork, different thickness and density.

Using our machines and our knowledge we just tried to make some footbeds. First it was just stuff to go in our own trainers. Which is great, I can now make a fully working cork footbed for my trainer or ski boot. It’s a really nice thing to do, crafting a footbed out of something rather than moulding plastic.

Eventually, the aim is once you’re done with the footbed it can be chucked on your compost heap, that’s the final stage.

We chose cork because it fits into the regenerative idea. Cork trees live for about 200 hundred years and are harvested every 12 years, then the cork regrows.

It still has a problem with the amount of energy that is used into turning that cork into a product we can use. But at least it comes from a tree that’s going to keep regenerating and sequestering carbon. Plus cork is lightweight and farmed in Portugal so there is a considerably lower transportation energy cost.”

Global footbed supplier Sidas are now taking note of these demands, developing a low-energy, biodegradable product, realizing they may lose sales if they fail to make changes. 

This isn’t really a story about skiing, footbeds or bootfitting. It is a story showing that you don’t need to be an international manufacturer or leading product designer to rethink the world. In one way, it is about independent people and businesses having the freedom to innovate. In another, it is about taking things back a step, using your own skills and knowledge to build and create.