Circular Thinking: The brands turning waste into something meaningful

Jul 12, 2019

In the first article of a two-part series, GDR’s John O’Sullivan highlights the sustainably-focused brands who are turning upcycled waste into products that are useful and, in some cases, even premium.

As brands and retailers search for new ways to prove their sustainability credentials, at GDR we’ve noticed a significant uptick recently in the number of companies finding new and innovative ways to upcycle the by-products, off-cuts and waste of their production processes.

Taking inspiration from the circular economy, brands are turning their waste into products and value-added accessories that both signal their commitment to sustainability and underline the quality of the ingredients and materials they use.

In this blog I’ll focus on the three different approaches brands are taking, highlighting those that are repurposing their own waste, those that are collaborating to give extra life to ‘imperfect’ ingredients, and those who are seeking out discarded produce and waste to create products with added meaning.


Getting value from your waste

Ace Hotel Retired Collection


One of the best examples we’ve seen – both in terms of the quality of the output and the longevity of the commitment – comes from premium US kitchen and bathroom brand Kohler, which has set up a lab with the specific purpose of converting its industrial waste into useful new products. The website for the Kohler WasteLAB in Wisconsin begs the question: “What if waste, bound for the landfill, has hidden value we haven’t explored? The WasteLAB is where we ask, “What if?” and experiment until we find answers, until we turn waste into something meaningful.”

At the lab, waste dust, sand, glaze, enamel powder and pottery dry cull are currently being transformed into beautiful decorative tiles that are being sold for a premium price by Ann Sacks. Scientists are also exploring other potential use cases for the regenerated materials. [In part two of this series we talk to Theresa Millard, sustainability and stewardship project manager at Kohler, to find out more about the project.]

Kohler isn’t the only brand creating a premium output from its waste. Back in 2014 French fashion and luxury goods brand Hermès launched the Petit H sub-brand, which sells unique accessories using the off-cuts from its production processes. The brand champions these products at in-store pop-ups, known as Petit H Studio, and has previously offered monthly subscription boxes featuring the whimsical items.

Elsewhere, trendy hospitality brand Ace Hotel has created luxury travel products out of its recycled linens, while at zero-waste Parisian cocktail bar Bisou any of the locally-sourced ingredients that don’t go into its cocktails are transformed into an edible garnish. Also using waste to create sustainable packaging solutions are the Saltwater Brewery in Florida, which turns the waste from its brewing process into fully biodegradable and digestible ring holders, and Wine Matters, which uses the skin of discarded grapes to create wine bottle labels and bottle stands.


Sustainable partnerships

Kellogg’s x Seven Bro7hers


Other brands and retailers are looking beyond their own production processes to create partnerships that make the most of waste materials.

British supermarket Marks & Spencer, for example, is working with Suffolk-based brewery Adnams to convert bread off-cuts from its sandwiches into beer. Each batch of beer contains 700kg of surplus bread instead of the traditional malted barley and the process is said to produce fewer carbon emissions. The collaboration is called Used Our Loaf, playing on the dual meaning of “loaf” in England (it means both bread and head) to underline the thoughtful nature of the product.

This same zero-waste, low-impact approach is the driving force behind Hyke Gin from Foxhole Spirits, which is made using surplus grapes from British supermarket Tesco. There is nothing wrong with the quality of the grapes, but they have fallen off the vine during packaging and are thus not suitable to be sold as fresh produce.

Similarly, the Kellogg’s cereal factory in Manchester has partnered with a brewery in nearby Salford to put any “imperfect” grains and oats to good use. The Seven Bro7hers Brewery creates beer inspired by the characteristics of each of the cereal products in them. Rather than shying away from the ingredients being upcycled waste, Seven Bro7hers celebrates it very boldly in the product names and packaging. The brews include Throw Away IPA, which uses waste Corn Flakes, Sling It Out Stout using Coco Pops and Cast Off Pale Ale featuring Rice Krispies.


Seeking out meaning

William Grant & Sons Discarded


Previously brands may have shied away from associating their products with waste or supposedly “imperfect” materials, but many are now actually seeking out these ingredients to lower their emissions and to add extra meaning to their products.

Elvis and Kresse is a handbag company famous for turning old firehoses into luxury products. It now does the same with Burberry leather off-cuts and donates 50% of its profits to charities. Taking a similar approach, Toast Beer is made using surplus bread from artisan bakeries and sandwich manufacturers to tackle food waste.

Finally, Discarded is a sweet vermouth from William Grant & Sons that is infused with cascara, a deep red berry of the coffee plant leftover from coffee production. Billions of tonnes of cascara are thrown away globally each year. While promoting the sustainable properties of the beverage, William Grant was also keen to highlight that quality has not been impaired in any way. “Cascara is deep, complex, rich and fruity in flavour, which makes the vermouth more accessible and versatile in mixology,” the brand ambassador behind the concept commented at launch.


Brands are starting to wake-up to the role that waste can play in making their logistics more efficient and in helping to promote their commitment to sustainability. Click here to read part two of this series, a fascinating interview with Theresa Millard, sustainability and stewardship project manager at Kohler.

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