Ken Pucker offers a welcome and much-needed critique of the naive enthusiasm that currently surrounds the circular economy (CE). If anything, his critique doesn’t go far enough.

Let us first remind ourselves that CE is a rebranding of the two environmental strategies of reuse and recycling. These practices are as old as the modern environmental movement itself. More than 50 years of experience and research in reuse and recycling already exist, but CE enthusiasts are either unaware of that fact or don’t credit any of it. Consequently, lessons from past failures are not being learned.

I am glad Pucker reminds us that fashion’s jejune version of CE is yet another promise of decoupling environmental impact from economic growth (called “eco-efficiency”) by relying entirely on market mechanisms (called “win-win”). Eco-efficiency and win-win have been the prevailing corporate sustainability paradigms ever since the CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development popularized them at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. By pretty much any measure, however, the global environment continues to degrade. For example, annual global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels have increased by more than 60 percent since the Earth Summit and are still rising. It is high time to admit that relying entirely on eco-efficiency has failed us. In addition, the track record of win-win has been so dismal that even corporate sustainability professionals and scholars are now pleading with us to abandon it. It is thus unclear to me how a company could still issue the dual goals of doubling revenues and halving CO2 emissions while keeping a straight face.

Even Pucker’s two examples of circularity successes look more like failures upon closer inspection. The US recycling rate of PET bottles, called the “superstar of plastic recycling” by Plastics News, hovers around 20 percent—meaning that four out of five PET bottles never get a second life and end up incinerated, in landfills, or in the environment. The US recycling rate of aluminum cans, which media company GreenBiz calls “America’s most successful recycling story,” has dropped from more than 60 percent in the 1990s to 45 percent today. If these are aspirational numbers for the fashion industry, it’s because circularity is all but nonexistent there.

Read the full article about the fashion industry's sustainability by Roland Geyer at Stanford Social Innovation Review.