Butterflies, Potential Energy and the Circular Economy - Clothing as a Resource

As we head into the final semester of middle school, I am tutoring my son for a physics final and I am reminded of the terminology and concepts that I worked through when I was in high school so many years ago. Yes, I actually thought physics was interesting. The laws of nature, explained in strict mechanical terms, seemed clear and certain. One of my favorite terms to this day is “potential energy”. As defined by the basic texts, including Wikipedia, the term means energy that is the stored energy of an object. It is the energy by virtue of an object’s position relative to other objects.

I was reminded of this notion when reading a recent article about the circular economy and the potential that resides in the reclamation and reuse of our resources. According to the author, the diagram for this new means of recovering and restoring the resources that we have ignored or discarded can be illustrated in the form of a butterfly. The butterfly diagram, introduced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, attempts to represent a new model for proper management and reuse of our resources. In brief, we cannot continue to consume and discard at the present rate, especially with anticipated population growth. The model needs to be different and reclamation and reuse of our resources are critical to our efforts to manage our growth and enter the next revolution of our economy.

Back to the future. It is time to rethink our clothing, shoes and accessories as a natural and sustainable resource. As we have recently been instructed, clothing manufacturing is resource intensive and can be damaging to our environment. Among the statistics often quoted, we have learned that it takes around 700 gallons of water to make a cotton shirt, and 2,600 gallons to make a pair of jeans — most of them to grow the cotton. On average, every dollar you spend on clothes and shoes costs about 23 gallons of water.

With that said, the highest and best use of this resource is reuse. Indeed, reuse unlocks the potential energy that resides in our clothing and other stuff. Not only do we continue the useful life of this material, but we are creating an environmental and social win that is unparalleled in recycling. Nothing compares to the reuse of an article of clothing. No additional energy is expended to create something anew, no resources are devoted to remanufacturing and the potential social, human and emotional energy that resides in our clothing creates a powerful bond to connect individuals across communities and cultures. Reuse is powerful resource management that includes a human dimension.

It is time we begin thinking about our clothing as a resource. The potential energy that we unlock through reuse is powerful, human and real. And who does not admire the glorious butterfly!?

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