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How COVID-19 forever changed the way we eat and shop

Reworking our hyper globalized economy will not be easy.

How COVID-19 forever changed the way we eat and shop
[Photo Source: Rido/Adobe Stock]
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Made in the USA. Buy American. Shop local.

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As proud American consumers, these are the tenets we live by—right?

Apparently not.

Sure, around 70% of Americans prefer products made in the U.S. But if you’re like most, the items around your home are well-traveled.

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The device you’re currently reading this on was most certainly not made in America. That IKEA living room set? With IKEA’s lone U.S. plant shuttered, it probably arrived from overseas. Even your meals have been on a road trip. Though some ingredients might come from U.S. farms, a good amount crosses borders before making it to your plate. Could you imagine explaining that to our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

Of course, this is a byproduct of globalization. Ever since humans took to the sea centuries ago, we’ve been on a never-ending quest to source goods from beyond the boundaries of home. Nevertheless, the miles on every product we purchase come at the expense of one of our most precious resources: our planet.

This is why many businesses are reevaluating how we create, sell, and consume—a process that’s accelerating rapidly due to COVID-19. And at the heart of this new worldview is a local production ideology called the “circular economy.”

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Generally, global supply chains work 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 sell (and sometimes ship) them to a consumer. Once the consumer is done using that product, it ends up in a landfill. The consumer purchases a replacement, and the cycle begins anew.

The circular economy is the name given to a new supply chain that disrupts this linear thinking. With this new approach to manufacturing, production and consumption create a closed loop. Instead of sourcing raw materials, manufacturers source their goods from products destined for landfills and “upcycle” them into new goods. Once consumers are done with these products, they’re once again diverted from landfills and back to manufacturers to be turned into new goods.

Manufacturers no longer have to scour the globe to find their raw goods, meaning the new economy is about to get much more local. Although many circular economy headlines revolve around large corporations (like Apple or Walmart), the true circular process is being tested on a local scale. Consider Fleet Farming, a nonprofit organization from Orlando, Florida. It was launched to combat one of the most eye-opening statistics of the global economy: the fact that produce travels many miles to get to our plates and that the food supply chain itself is responsible for 18% of global carbon emissions.

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The team recognized that the principles of the circular economy could be applied to the food chain and launched a small experiment in the Parramore neighborhood, an underserved community in West Orlando that also happens to be a food desert. Instead of finding ways to bring food into Parramore, Fleet Farming decided to develop an abundant yet underutilized resource right outside residents’ doors: their lawns.

The U.S. is home to 40 million acres of lawns and gardens that consume as much as 60% of potable water. Fleet Farming wanted to see what would happen if it used this green real estate in Parramore for edible crops, so volunteers built lawn gardens for local residents. Today, Parramore is home to roughly 115,000 square feet of converted lawn space that feeds more than 5,100 local residents.

The model is now a true circular economy, as each new garden is planted using seeds harvested from existing gardens. Similarly, produce not kept by residents is sold to local restaurants to fund the program. In short, food that used to travel across borders now travels just a handful of feet from ground to table.

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Although the idea of the circular economy might seem new to some, it’s been bubbling for years. Consider apparel: “Fast fashion” was once all the rage, but some manufacturers went the exact opposite direction. Take Patagonia’s famous Black Friday ad, which featured an image of a Patagonia jacket accompanied by the headline: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The remainder of the ad explained that consumers should reuse, repair, and recycle gear as opposed to purchasing something new that holiday season.

Why would Patagonia run an ad asking people not to purchase its products? It’s simple: It knows the future of our planet is circular.

With COVID-19 sparking substantial changes across organizations of all shapes and sizes, all companies must rethink operations. Businesses rely on overseas materials and manufacturers face unprecedented lead times and shortages. Likewise, consumers are more conscious about where their dollars go not only due to financial concerns, but also out of a desire to support businesses acting ethically.

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Reworking our hyper globalized economy will not be easy. But if micro experiments like Fleet Farming’s are any indication, the circular economy is the clear path forward. If one nonprofit can impact food security for thousands and eliminate unnecessary carbon emissions, imagine the change that can come from larger systems: new sustainable supply chains, new local jobs, a reversal of the damage done to our planet.

If your business isn’t already thinking about the ways in which you can become more circular, I have one piece of advice: Think local.


Duncan Wardle is the former Head of Innovation & Creativity at Disney. He founded iD8 & innov8 to help organizations embed a culture of innovation.