As more companies commit to innovative circular economy and sustainability strategies and investments, there is an increased need to learn the best practices for successfully communicating these decisions externally. This publication, Messaging the Circular Economy, showcases (1) tactics companies are taking to educate customers on their circular products, ambitions, or service offerings, and the opportunity the circular economy represents in the United States; (2) perspective pieces from nonprofit organizations, communications and advisory firms, academia, and trade associations on how to communicate to external stakeholders about circularity; and (3) research on what messages resonate with which audiences.
This publication covers approaches from a wide range of businesses, from internationally headquartered to U.S.-headquartered, publicly traded to privately held, business-facing to consumer-facing, and across industries, from consumer electronics to apparel.
Communicating business relevance, shared responsibility, and corporate priorities about extending the useful life of products and services involves many tactics, exemplified and explained in the chapters to come. We’ll see details of video campaigns, graphics, white papers, and playbooks, as well as the value in transparency regarding lessons learned and approach rationale.
This publication fills the gap in the literature on how companies can most effectively communicate about their circular ambitions, products, and service offerings. Businesses that want to understand how best to communicate such priorities can reference the examples and research insights featured in this report.
We hope you enjoy it!
Senior Director, Sustainability and Circular Economy Program
Corporate Citizenship Center, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Associate Manager, Sustainability and Circular Economy Program
Corporate Citizenship Center, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
- Best BuyBest Buy and HP: Closing the Loop
- BramblesShare and Reuse: The Brambles|CHEP Approach to Messaging the Circular Economy
- DSMMake Your Communications Meaningful
- EnerkemThe 90% Transformation
- IKEAIKEA U.S. Introduces National Mattress Recycling Program
- RabobankRabobank and the Circular Economy: Future-Proofing (Y)our Business
- Rubicon GlobalDon’t Talk in Circles: Keep It Simple, Attainable, and Consistent
- Loyola University ChicagoCommunicating Your Circular Economy Message
- NYU Stern Center for Sustainable BusinessCommunicating to the Consumer Is About Value, Not Geometry
- University of MichiganDo’s and Don’ts: Communicating to Customers About Your Circular Products and Services
- The Wharton School, University of PennsylvaniaThe Circular Economy: From Concept to Business Reality
Chapter 1: Corporate Case Studies
At Best Buy, we aspire to drive forward the circular economy by maximizing the value of the resources in consumer electronics. We do this by reducing product damage prior to customer use, extending the useful life of products through our repair and trade-in programs, and recycling to the highest-value commodity at a product’s end of life.
Best Buy has been collecting consumers’ used electronics since 2009 through our in-store recycling program. The program is both solving a customer need and keeping potentially harmful materials out of landfills. We have collected more than 1.7 billion pounds of electronics and appliances, and we are on track to meet our goal of collecting 2 billion pounds by 2020. However, we still wanted to innovate and move the industry forward.
When we began brainstorming with HP about the idea of creating a printer using plastic from our recycling program—creating a closed loop—we knew it would be a challenge. It took several years for both companies to bring the strategic vision to life by building the process and developing the new products.
In the end, we made history. Plastic from old printers and other electronics that our customers recycle at Best Buy is separated, shredded, melted, and put directly back into the manufacturing of three new HP printers. The HP ENVY Photo 6200, 7100, and 7800 are the world’s first in-class printers made from recycled printers and other electronics—more than 10% by weight. This was a very exciting partnership for both companies, built on sustainability, and we subsequently rolled out an external communication plan aimed at educating consumers about the benefits of the circular economy.
Our communications strategy, developed in concert with HP, centered around a video aimed at translating the concept of closed-loop recycling. We chose to produce a video as an engaging way to reach a wide variety of audiences from consumers to sustainability experts.
- Employee training: As our customers’ trusted advisors, it is essential for our store employees to be able to speak about the use of closed-loop plastic in the new HP printers. Further, we wanted our employees to be knowledgeable about our contribution to the circular economy and to feel proud of our commitment to sustainability. We embedded the video within an e-learning created especially for this project on our award-winning training platform, The Learning Network.
- Consumer website: BestBuy.com is an important tool for our customers not only for purchasing products but also for conducting research. We added information on the closed-loop plastic on the product pages, in addition to placing the new video on our page dedicated to recycling (BestBuy.com/Recycling).
- Corporate news site: Our external news site is where we keep news media, customers, and other stakeholders informed about company news, new products, and human interest stories. We posted a blog in September to support the product launch of the HP ENVY Photo 6200, 7100, and 7800 printers, and again in April to introduce the closed-loop video.
- Social media: Since videos are highly effective in the social media space, we utilized Twitter to share the closed-loop video through our public relations handle, @BBYNews, and our corporate responsibility-focused handle, @BestBuyCSR. The video was also shared from HP’s handle, @HPSustainable.
The idea of the circular economy will only grow and continue to become more mainstream, and we know there is a big opportunity to educate consumers about how Best Buy plays a role. We plan to increase our circular economy messaging in order to educate consumers, starting with a new blog series focusing on aspects of the circular economy.
CHEP’s parent company, Brambles, helps move more goods to more people in more places than any other organization on earth. Given that, we have the opportunity to make a real contribution to a smarter, more sustainable future.
Our business model has long focused on sharing and reusing finite resources. Brambles customers use our pallets, crates, and containers over and over again. Our circular business model defines how we do things and who we are.
It also defines how we approach communications. While our audiences are diverse (investors, customers, industry groups, employees, etc.), we “share and reuse” key messaging, modifying as necessary for each unique story and audience.
The Challenge: Bring the circular economy to life
Making the circular economy real requires relevant facts, presented in a compelling manner. For this case study, we’ll focus on reaching customers, specifically in our CHEP USA pallet business.
The Solution: Build a compelling story and share it, again and again
To develop effective, consistent circular economy messaging, we talked with stakeholders and compiled proof points. We asked smart questions and listened to the answers.
For example, what do our customers know about CHEP’s role in the circular economy? What do they want or need to know? Why should our work matter to them?
The answers helped us frame communications for many venues, including launch materials for the CHEP CarbonNeutral® half pallet.
The basic fact here is foundational: CHEP innovations help customers become a part of the circular economy. The CHEP CarbonNeutral® half pallet is the first-ever CarbonNeutral®-certified pooled platform in North America. It won the Industrial Pack “Environmental Initiative of the Year” Award in 2018.
We launched the CarbonNeutral half pallet at a retailer-manufacturer session at the Food Marketing institute-Grocery Manufacturers Association Trading Partner Alliance Supply Chain Conference in Orlando, Florida, knowing the timing and locale would help us reach targeted customers.
In keeping with our business model, we “shared and reused” the platform’s circular economy messaging in printed and posted materials and in meetings with customers. CHEP leaders consistently did—and still do—refer to the CarbonNeutral® half pallet as a “sustainability game-changer that protects our planet without compromising profit.”
Environmental impact and third-party credibility drove the message home. We aligned ourselves with the foremost circular economy experts, including the , , and the . We answered the “Why should they care?” question and kept the story top of mind, weaving CHEP’s circular economy messaging throughout:
- Press releases on the and the
- An on the CHEP sustainability website, with graphics illustrating how CHEP brings sustainability full circle
- posts and
Beyond the half pallet, we communicate CHEP’s circular economy story with and other communication tools, proven to attract and customer engagement. We also stay front and center, participating in events such as Sustainable Brands, Sustainability in Packaging, and the Global Organic Produce Expo.
The Results: When customers talk about the circular economy, they talk about CHEP
Today, CHEP customers point to their partnership with us as a proof point that they are supporting the circular economy:
- Kroger features CHEP in its (page 80). Kroger also named CHEP and IFCO as of the company’s 2020 Zero Waste Strategy.
- Walmart Canada participated in highlighting how CHEP is moving them closer to zero waste.
- , , and other customers also share their CHEP sustainability success stories.
At Sustainable Brands 2018, CHEP presented two sessions on the circular economy; both were standing room only. During that same week, our celebration of World Environment Day achieved a nearly 8% engagement on LinkedIn for CHEP North America (2% is best practice).
Some of the most important results of a strategic communications campaign are lessons learned. Based on our experience, new communication tactics for next year will include:
- Targeted LinkedIn campaigns to reach specific decision makers and sustainability influencers
- An employee advocacy program
- A thought leadership ambassador program
- More customer storytelling/third-party endorsement.
Messaging the circular economy is like gathering in a circle around a campfire. The audience is there, eager for a good tale. It’s up to us to share a terrific story and tell it again and again.
As single-use plastics and the great garbage patch in the Pacific are grabbing headlines in the media, eco-innovation is gaining broader traction among businesses and consumers alike. Interest in and demand for circular products are increasing exponentially with each passing day that these eye-catching headlines appear.
believes in doing well by doing good. Since its founding more than 100 years ago as a government-owned coal company, “Dutch State Mines” has transformed into a purpose-led, science-based company driving economic prosperity, environmental progress, and social advances with a mission to “Do Something Meaningful.”
For the transition to the circular economy, DSM’s communications objective is simple: create internal engagement and external awareness for us as a leader in driving the transition.
Our message from the outset is clear: shifting to the circular economy is not just a moral or environmental imperative, it’s also a ripe business opportunity. The model provides an abundance of opportunities and future-proofs our business, ensuring this company with a 106-year history continues to thrive, as does the environment we live in.
The keystone of our circular economy communications strategy was the development and roll-
- Reduce the use of critical resources.
- Replace scarce, hazardous, and potentially harmful resources.
- Extend the lifetime of products.
- Enable recycling with smart and safe materials.
- Recover waste streams.
Raising awareness of the circular economy agenda is important to our strategy, but far more important is showcasing the practical, real-life examples that serve as proof points for our key message. Our flagship example is:
- We are redesigning everyday products from scratch, using the lowest possible diversity of ingredients that have been thoroughly tested for their impact on health and the environment.
- In the United States, 85% of carpet ends up as waste, making it one of the greatest single contributors to the country’s landfills.
- Because products are made of one material, significantly less energy is required during production and, just as important, the material retains its value as it’s recycled again and again and again.
- In 2018, Auping and Niaga® entered into a partnership to introduce fully recyclable mattresses.
There is a continuous stream of new innovations and solutions being brought to market, including Decovery, Veramaris, and Ecopaxx, to name a few.
A challenge we continue to encounter is the confusion that the circular economy is just another term for sustainability. Visualization through graphics and video content are critical to conveying the full breadth of the system.
Instinctively, we link our desired outcomes to business strategy—designing our communications to contribute to the ways in which the business is ultimately judged—such as reputation or organic sales growth. Our external communications key performance indicators are simple and straightforward, and help maintain the focus on relentless execution. We measure:
- Earned media placements
- Trade media placements
- External speaking opportunities
- Award applications
- Opinion pieces
- Social media engagement and reach
However, at DSM, we dare to lead, and we dare to listen. Challenged by questions from our leadership team and swayed by influencers in the customer experience field, we recognize that the number of events, tweets, or emails delivered is a measure of output. We are learning to measure outcomes, not just outputs—in other words, measuring what the communications have changed. Being busy isn’t the aim, being effective is. Ultimately, we needed to ask ourselves, are we impacting behavior?
In addition to measuring what works, we also seek to understand why it worked—qualitative assessments combined with data provide richness and lessons learned for future campaigns. For example, it is important to know whether the content, the visual format, or simply when it was distributed made a campaign work well.
Lastly, the success of our CE communications plans is not be deemed the sole responsibility of the communications team. Seeking contributions and collaboration across business groups and functional departments helped ensure that strategies resonate both inside and outside of the organization and remain on-message for where the audience is.
A Mounting Challenge
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, about 258 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated in the United States in 2014. That’s about five pounds of trash per person per day.
In a world in which we face ever-tighter constraints on so many of our resources—water, energy, clean air, arable land—trash is, unfortunately, not viewed by the mainstream as a resource. The result is the national garbage crisis the country currently faces. We’re utilizing valuable land and exporting waste from urban infrastructure to bury this resource indefinitely.
But what if there was another way instead of the current "take, make, and dispose” industrial model? Not only to make smarter use of the waste we’ve already landfilled, but also to keep the trash from getting there in the first place. A more sustainable solution. An environmentally sound and smart circular economy approach where waste becomes a valuable and renewable resource.
The good news is that there is at least one solution that can change the landscape for the better—in fact, 90% better.
Enerkem is a Montreal-based biofuels and chemicals producer that has developed an award-winning and game-changing technology that converts non-recyclable and non-crop-based waste into ethanol, with the lowest cost to produce compared to other ethanol production methods. Our company’s technology produces renewable, non-toxic, water-soluble, highly biodegradable, and clean-burning fuel and chemicals, such as cleaning solvents, glues, paints, and textiles.
From the company’s founding, we have always had the vision that Enerkem could help communities all around the world to achieve 90% waste diversion. In the years since opening the world’s first commercial-scale waste-to-biofuels facility in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2014, we have continued to pursue significant milestones across the globe toward the 90% goal, demonstrating the company’s ongoing growth and innovation.
In line with our company’s target, in 2018, Enerkem formally launched the 90% Transformation Vision, a multisectoral communications effort that engages business, government, communities, and everyday citizens to realize the full potential of a true circular economy. Our campaign simply yet effectively demonstrates how the targets can be reached. .
Beginning a Movement
Our 90% Transformation campaign was created to easily illustrate how garbage can (and should) be seen as a resource and not a waste, one that communities large and small can leverage to tackle a number of challenges. Coupled with social media, the video and accompanying messaging was developed in a way that could engage and mobilize municipal leaders, elected officials, and everyday citizens who want to solve waste challenges in their communities while simultaneously driving pro-environmental benefits.
The campaign has reached more than 34 million people globally, including 14 million people in the United States, garnering positive reaction throughout. The highly shareable and accessible video has been an easy way to simply explain a seemingly complex issue and showcase a tangible and proven solution.
A number of municipalities have already begun to scratch the surface of more sustainable ways to handle their landfill waste. Some of the nation’s smartest cities—Los Angeles; New York;, Minneapolis; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Portland; and many more—have set ambitious recycling and zero-waste-to-landfill goals, which has led them to explore the smartest technologies that can not only keep waste from reaching landfills in the first place, but can create new, valuable materials out of the things we discard every day.
Transforming the Future
With our one-of-a-kind technology and our 90% Transformation campaign, we are showcasing our model to audiences far and wide, reaching city leaders, communities, investors, and private sector influencers alike who are keen to join this movement and share their voice.
Considering the benefits of reducing emissions through clean fuels, recycling carbon, creating long-term local jobs, and cutting pollution, it’s time for more cities—for every city—to start turning their mountains of waste to their advantage and plug into a smarter, more sustainable circular economy. And it’s on us and other forward-thinking leaders in sustainable business to continue to spread the word and help turn our trash into treasure.
An estimated 18 million mattresses with box springs are disposed of in the United States each year, resulting in approximately 50,000 mattresses a day ending up in landfills across America. Some of these mattresses are illegally dumped, adding to landfill waste.
At a minimum, 80% of a mattress can be recycled. The fabric and foam can be turned into carpet underlay, and the felt and cotton can be recycled into new felt and insulation. The wood gets recycled into biofuel or other recycled wood products, while the plastic and steel can be recycled or turned into new products.
In keeping with our People and Planet Positive sustainability strategy, IKEA is committed to taking a lead in turning waste into resources. We are committed to securing recycled materials while ensuring key parts of our product range are easily recycled, all contributing to a closed-loop society.
As part of our goal to send zero waste to landfill, we introduced a mattress recycling program in the fall of 2017. By recycling mattresses, we can conserve resources such as steel, foam, and wood that can be used in new products.
Our goal in introducing this program was to recycle all used mattresses within our operations. This includes old mattresses of any brand that are picked up when a new IKEA mattress is delivered, as well as all mattresses that are returned by customers at IKEA stores.
Through the program, all mattresses returned by customers and those removed from displays in IKEA stores are individually bagged, taped, and stored outside our buildings until they are ready to be picked up. The mattresses are transported to recyclers throughout the United States, which are secured by our national waste provider.
In addition, through our mattress removal service, we pick up customers’ used mattresses for a small fee with the purchase of a new IKEA mattress. This service is also occasionally offered for free to members of our customer loyalty program, IKEA FAMILY, at all IKEA locations. After being picked up from customers, these mattresses are transported by our home delivery transport providers to the same mattress recyclers that are contracted for our stores.
The mattresses picked up through our removal service make up a small minority of those recycled, as most come from our internal operations. The majority of the costs required to handle, store, transport, and recycle mattresses are incurred by IKEA.
Development of the mattress recycling program was a multi-year process that engaged stakeholders throughout the organization, including sales, logistics, facilities, customer service, transport, home delivery, accounting, tax, risk, legal, stores, operations, and sustainability. The core group of functions that played a critical role throughout all phases of planning and implementation were sales, facilities, customer service, stores, transport, and home delivery.
Externally, we worked closely with our national waste vendor to coordinate efforts. We also engaged with several non-governmental organizations, such as the International Sleep Products Association and the Mattress Recycling Council.
The IKEA mattress recycling program was rolled out in October 2017. Following the announcement, we received positive media coverage, and numerous cities and companies reached out to learn more about the program and how it was implemented. From an industry perspective, we were the first large retailer to introduce mattress recycling nationally.
We also integrated information about the program into our external services communications. We work within strict IKEA guidelines for communicating any message to IKEA customers. Depending on the message we are trying to convey, we know what the correct carrier should be, and in what format and size.
Unlike many other environmental initiatives, which can deliver a positive return on investment, mattress recycling comes at a high cost. Although most of the materials have a value in the secondary market, the process of separating those materials is still labor intensive. Therefore, any company willing to adopt this practice is paying for this service.
Another challenge is that many customers are looking for a place to dispose of their used mattress and would like retailers like IKEA to be drop-off locations for any type of mattress. Unfortunately, we are not set up to handle that kind of volume, nor do we have the resources or funding to accommodate products that are not official returned IKEA mattresses. There would also be additional risk if customers were to use IKEA stores to dump mattresses.
We also faced logistical challenges in select states that do not have mattress recyclers. This required us in some cases to transport mattresses to a recycler outside the state. The hope is that recyclers will recognize that there is a market potential to expand their business to neighboring states, supported by cities that want to improve their recycling programs and businesses that want to offer this service to their customers.
Less than a full year into implementation, we already estimate that we will recycle more than 40,000 mattresses through this program and expect that the total number will grow as we reach even more customers and grow the business.
We believe that taking responsibility for our waste while looking for opportunities to be more circular will have a long-term positive effect on the brand and drive other retailers to take action. We also believe that consumers want to shop with companies that are having on overall positive impact on people and the planet.
 The exception is in California, where state regulation requires the service to be offered for free.
Rabobank’s ambition is to support the global food and agricultural (F&A) sector with adopting future-proof business strategies, as the sector’s preferred financial partner. We aim to finance with impact, an ambition that is mirrored in Kickstart Food, Rabobank’s three-year action-program to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable F&A sector, which seeks to address the key theme of Waste via the circular economy; in addition to Earth, Nutrition, and Stability. In our efforts to build a better world together with our clients, the circular economy provides us an innovative and inspiring proposition to help our clients unite business value creation with smart, sustainable business models. Rabobank is committed to the circularity premise, and we have actively incorporated circular economy principles and thinking into our knowledge, network, and financial solutions.
Key to implementing the circular economy at scale is demonstrating and communicating the business case. Rabobank has published multiple white papers and articles on the impact of circular economy principles on finance. Our Rabo Research Supply Chains team has published and spoken extensively on circular and bio-based economy-related topics, including packaging and logistics, and was part of the collaboration between Rabobank and Deloitte for the 2017 Agri Meets Chemicals “From Waste to Taste” event, which focused on the future of smart packaging.
The Circular Economy Challenge, which Rabobank launched in 2014 to give innovative small-to-medium enterprises access to Rabobank’s sustainability network, has been highly successful. Over 100 companies have been part of the program since its inception. Oriënza, a producer and distributor of cleaning and maintenance products, was one of those participants. The company sought Rabobank’s help in looking for ways to extend their sustainability and circularity vision to the packaging of their products. During the six-month program, Rabobank connected Oriënza with a German supplier of recycled plastics that could be used for their packaging. The introduction proved to be a mutually beneficial one, as the German company was in turn looking for a supplier of sustainable cleaning products. It is this strong network that has also driven Rabobank to launch other successful initiatives, such as FoodBytes! FoodBytes! is a pitch-competition-meets-networking event organized by Rabobank that brings together game-changing startups that are pioneering the way toward a more sustainable food and agriculture sector with investors and industry leaders. FoodBytes! alumni include Regrained, BioFiltro, and Impact Vision.
Of course, circular economy principles do not apply only to the F&A sector, they apply to the financial system as well. Rabobank’s membership in the FinanCE working group, which brought together financial organizations wanting to do more with the circular economy and was supported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, led to the launch of the Circular Economy Finance Guidelines by Rabobank, ING, and ABN AMRO in July 2018. The guidelines, which were presented to the Dutch government and at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, aim to create a common understanding of circular economy finance with the aim of accelerating financing and investing in circular business models.
It is this same goal that has pushed DLL, Rabobank’s leasing and vendor finance arm, to also take a lead in the circular economy conversation. DLL has published targeted case studies and white papers demonstrating how it can enable its customers to shift toward the circular economy through leasing and servitization financial products. In 2016, DLL won the Circular Economy Investor Award at the World Economic Forum for its contributions to driving circular economy principles. By further collaborating with academics and DLL customers, DLL and Rabobank published an article in the Harvard Business Review using real customer examples showcasing how modular design, refurbishment capabilities, and leasing together can create the scale needed to make circular business models profitable.
As Rabobank works toward our goal of creating a better world together with our clients, we will remain committed to implementing circular economy principles within both our own way of working and that of our clients, and embrace the opportunity it holds for businesses and people alike.
The concept of a circular economy is gaining traction, yet many people still don’t understand exactly what circularity means or how to attain it. The circular economy is one that strives to extend the life of materials and extract the embedded, long-term, regenerative value—a stark contrast to the prevailing, yet unsustainable, make-take-landfill model. Our company, Rubicon Global, is a technology company rooted in the world of waste, recycling, and sustainability with a clear mission: to end waste in all of its forms.
Expounding upon the tried-and-true 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), we wanted to provide cities and businesses with a practical guide to help them break through the confusion and improve their waste programs and initiatives. The result was a six-step system we called the RUBICONMethod, which is a playbook to capitalize on the movement toward zero waste and to embrace sustainability and the circular economy.
In order to achieve a circular economy, it’s critical to simplify the process and achieve mass buy-in. The RUBICONMethod appeals to a wide range of audiences with tangible takeaways that any business can embrace and apply. The RUBICONMethod—with the acronym DIVERT—is made up of the following six steps:
- Determine the current state of the waste and recycling program, accepted materials, and local regulations, and the needs, goals, and opportunities of the program.
- Initiate a new plan for waste and recycling collection that includes optimized services and hauler schedules.
- Vocalize the program improvements to staff, vendors, and custodians; designate what to recycle through picture-based bin signage; and evangelize internal team leaders for feedback and questions.
- Eliminate food waste, disposable tableware, and non-recyclables from daily use wherever possible.
- Roll out side-by-side bin stations, color-coded bin liners (landfill, recycling, compost), and bins for donations and hard-to-recycle materials.
- Track your recycling rates and bin contamination, sustainability goals, and reporting of those results.
Rubicon has attributed a few key considerations to the successful early adoption of the RUBICONMethod, which other businesses can apply to their own efforts:
Keep It Simple
We created a six-step process because it breaks the idea of a circular economy—at times a lofty and overwhelming concept—into bite-sized pieces. Simplicity is key when communicating such a complex and potentially confusing idea.
Make It Attainable
The circular economy sounds great in theory, but is it actually realistic? Rubicon thinks so, and we wanted our customers and the general public to think so as well. The process includes tangible takeaways that nearly any business can apply. From using color-coded bin liners for different types of waste, to communicating waste processes with custodial staff, the RUBICONMethod is packed with practical tips and advice.
Once key messages have been established, it’s important to be consistent across multiple channels. This grants the opportunity to reach more people, and it helps to drive home the most important messages multiple times. The RUBICONMethod is part of our DNA and how we talk to customers and prospects every day.
Sustainability is a journey. Incremental steps can lead to big changes, and at Rubicon, we believe in the power of change to end waste.
Chapter 2: Perspectives from Communications Advisory Firms
Abroad, “circular economy” is a well-known term—the European Union recently adopted a set of laws called the Circular Economy Package—but it is less widely used in North America. That’s not to say that the circular economy does not exist here—many North American companies are embracing circular economy practices and principles. The challenge is trying to communicate these efforts to an audience that is less familiar with the circular economy and its growing importance.
The circular economy is about matching inputs and outputs across sectors of the economy to conserve energy, materials, and other resources. Most often, this involves connecting waste flows with processes and applications that can put that waste to new uses, helping to reduce both waste sent to landfills and the consumption of finite natural resources. Any communications and public relations strategy regarding circular economy messages needs to begin by emphasizing the importance of these two benefits. For example, Vancouver-based MGX Minerals, a client of Antenna’s, extracts lithium and other valuable minerals from oilfield wastewater. To highlight how MGX is a part of the circular economy, all messaging focused first on the extent of the problem that the company is tackling. The oil industry produces more than 800 billion gallons of wastewater annually, and the majority of that is brine, which is difficult and environmentally damaging to dispose of. MGX is able to address these waste flows while simultaneously addressing the growing demand for lithium by offering a more environmentally sustainable option for extraction. MGX shows how companies are turning waste products into assets and why that is important in reducing costs and the consumption of natural resources. MGX’s expansion into the circular economy was highlighted in an authored by MGX’s CEO, Jared Lazerson, published in Water Online, a trade magazine for the water industry with over 150,000 subscribers.
Lehigh Technologies is another one of Antenna’s clients in the circular economy space. Lehigh transforms waste tires into a highly engineered and versatile raw material called micronized rubber powder (MRP). MRP can substitute for other oil- and rubber-based materials used in manufacturing tires, plastics, asphalt, and construction materials. In developing communications for Lehigh, we once again focused on the magnitude of tire waste—more than 1 billion tires are discarded worldwide every year—and how Lehigh not only was helping to address the waste problem but was also reducing CO2 emissions and improving tire performance with its innovative technology. This messaging effectively demonstrated Lehigh’s circular value proposition and was integral in helping Lehigh win the 2015 Bloomberg New Energy Pioneers awards.
In 2017 Lehigh was acquired by the tire manufacturing giant Michelin thanks in part to Antenna’s public relationssupport. This acquisition was leveraged to explore another aspect of the circular economy: how vertical integration of the supply chain can help companies like Michelin build their own circular supply chains. Antenna placed a contributed article, “To Go Circular, First Go Vertical,” authored by Lehigh’s CEO, Alan Barton, on Triple Pundit, a daily online business publication with over 400,000 unique views per month. Using this angle, Antenna also secured a speaking position for Barton at the 2018 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Sustainability and Circular Economy Summit.
For the businesses that are helping to build a circular economy, a strategic communications and public relations strategy is essential to differentiating their business model for consumers, policymakers, and their downstream and upstream customers. Developing messaging for companies operating in the circular economy should always emphasize how their business model is reducing waste and the consumption of finite natural resources. While for some audiences the term circular economy will resonate immediately, for an audience that is less familiar with the concept, context is especially important and outlining the severity of our global waste problem will do a lot for delivering a powerful message. In order to build a more sustainable global economic system through a circular economy we need everyone on board, and effectively communicating the circular economy to all audiences is the first important step on the path forward.
As the circular economy (CE) moves from the margins to the mainstream, companies across industries are beginning to implement circular products, services, and business models. But this transformational approach remains nascent—particularly in U.S. markets—and most consumers, even the most sustainability savvy, are not yet familiar with the concept. To the extent that they are, they often mistakenly see circularity as “recycling 2.0.”
Consumers say they want to do the right thing, and 87% say they will make purchases based on a company's alignment with their own values, according to the 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study. But it’s unclear how much they walk their talk. Some of the blame goes to companies, which often fail to tell compelling stories that entice consumers to make the changes in purchasing habits needed for circular products and services to succeed in the marketplace.
Accordingly, companies must be more creative, clear, and careful in messaging circularity to engage consumers. Here are four tips to help your company get started:
1. Talk Products, Not Systems: While your company may be thinking about CE as a systems-level ambition or aspiration, consumers are engaged in a specific product or service. Start there. Focus your stories on the customer’s experience within your circular narrative, or risk getting caught up giving overly complicated explanations.
Adidas is working to transform “threat into thread,” turning marine plastics into material for shoes. The footwear and apparel company also invests in product takeback, redesign, recycling infrastructure, and decreased reliance on virgin plastics through a partnership with Parley for the Oceans. However, Adidas focuses its messaging specifically on how consumers are helping to end plastic pollution in the ocean.
2. Help Consumers Help You: In order to effectively move products and materials along a circular path, you’ll need to explain how consumers can (and must) help—and why it’s in their interest to do so. Whether you’re asking them to return products at the end of their usable life or dispose of them by recycling or composting, consumers are responsible for ensuring that materials continue to flow through industrial systems rather than ending up in a landfill (or, worse, an ocean). You can’t engage in CE without their help.
In telling the story of its Gold Level Cradle to Cradle-certified jeans that are “designed for infinite recycling,” Dutch apparel company C&A encourages customers to return used products through its “We Take It Back” program and offers a 15% voucher as an incentive to do so.
3. Emphasize Benefits: Consumers want better products and experiences; sustainability—or circularity—is an ancillary benefit. What aspect of a circular product or service benefits the consumer? Does it cost less, improve durability, perform better, or offer other benefits? Focus on the attributes that circularity creates rather than marketing the process.
Philips Lighting’s circular business model emphasizes “hassle-free savings with optimized performance.” Customers save money by paying for only the light they use, while ditching the hassle of replacing and disposing burned-out bulbs as well as navigating upgrades to the latest lighting technology. The shift from selling lighting to offering lighting as a service highlights convenience and an improved consumer experience.
4. Don’t Do It: Ultimately, the concept of the circular economy is still in its early days and it may not yet make sense to use this term in public-facing communications. While it may be tempting to adopt the latest buzzwords, it could add unnecessary market confusion and stoke further misunderstanding about what CE is and isn’t.
Despite Apple’s groundbreaking goal to use only recycled or renewable materials in its products, the company doesn’t refer to circularity in its marketing or sustainability report. Instead, Apple talks about product recycling, takeback, and durability, and emphasizes “mining less from the earth and more from old devices.”
The dynamic CE landscape and marketplace is evolving quickly, and so, too, should your messaging. Start by using the circular economy framework as an internal tool to think about optimizing material flows, design, and production systems. Make sure your company can answer the question, “What happens to products next?” before touting closed-loop solutions. That is, if it only has one more life, is it truly circular?
In the end, circularity is a business framework and not a marketing vehicle—at least, not yet. Focus first on building a circular story before communicating about it.
Consumers make purchasing decisions swiftly. Every time they touch a screen, they absorb cues from brands, peers, or like-minded influencers on a product's key attributes—cost, performance, taste, durability—then make decisions based on what matters most to them.
The speed with which customers make decisions creates challenges for social purpose and sustainability communications professionals. The issues and ideas we work with every day are complex, scientific concepts that are hard to translate for the average person. Their impact can’t be summed up in a single Instagram post or tweet. And the reality is, if people don’t understand how sustainability directly impacts them, they’ll dismiss it.
However, the good news is that in the past few years, brands have quickly adopted sustainable alternatives for their products and supply chains, and increasingly savvy consumers are putting more pressure than ever on brands to commit to making the world a better place. Sustainability has become a business driver.
This inflection point is the opportunity for brands and organizations to speak to consumers about some of the most pressing topics in sustainability—one of which, today, is the circular economy. Circular economy and closed-loop thinking are already two jargon-filled monikers that leave people wondering what they are and how they apply to them. It’s all about translating for people in the right way, taking them along the journey, and reinforcing why the circular economy matters.
Start by grounding your messages in a few realities about the expectations of today’s consumers:
1. People want to know that companies stand for something beyond profit and are helping solve today’s most complex issues—in fact, 81% said they want brands to take a stand on a current social issue (). They reward—or retaliate against—brands accordingly.
2. More specifically, people expect companies and brands to take a stand on the most pressing environmental issues, including waste. In a global study that asked which initiatives should a brand focus on to make the world a better place, 83% of people said “be more environmentally sustainable” ().
The combination of these high expectations—and shrinking attention spans—means that messages that are anything other than simple, authentic, and brave are lost on consumers.
The following guideposts can help brands, companies, and organizations map messages and communications about their circular economy efforts to resonate with today’s consumers:
1. Focus on the Emotion of “Why”: Leading with the “why” of investing in the circular economy in emotive, human language—the world’s precious oceans, the direct impact on future generations, protecting whales and ocean wildlife—will give people both an emotional and rational story to remember at the point of purchase, instead of technical jargon they will soon forget.
2. Choose Your Words Wisely: Simple language within a context that people can understand and relate to is essential. Consumers will understand the “why” if it’s conveyed in simple, direct language free of jargon. Brands should consider where and how they can replace the term “circular economy” with the simplest of terms, such as “The opposite of take, make, and dispose.”
There’s a major difference in saying:
- “Our commitment to the circular economy means looking beyond the current linear economy model that is destructive to the planet.” and
- “We’re on a mission to change the way we make and use products so we create less waste—all in the name of keeping our oceans safe and clean for you and future generations.”
3. Honesty Beats Perfection: It’s no secret that solving the world’s waste problem is complex, and people understand that. No brand is perfect or has cracked the code on issues of plastic waste and recycling. Honesty always beats perfection when communicating an organization’s work to infuse circular practices into products or operations. In fact, the opposite of perfection—bringing people along for the journey—shows that a brand is transparent, brave, and perhaps a little bit vulnerable, which are all essential in the process of effecting positive change and earning consumer trust.
These guideposts are applicable for all organizations, whether they’re one of the world’s most beloved consumer brands or a startup aiming to solve the world’s ocean waste problem. They can also be applied to communicating on a variety of issues related to an organization’s social purpose and sustainability efforts.
The bottom line is that simplicity, honesty, and an emotive “why,” paired with a communications strategy that reaches people in the right place and at the right time, goes a long way in connecting the dots between an organization’s efforts to advance the circular economy and today’s consumers.
Chapter 3: Perspectives from Academia
The circular economy is an effort to reconceptualize material and energy flows through our economy. Rather than materials and energy flowing in a linear fashion from acquisition to disposal, the circular economy seeks to keep those materials and energy circulating in the economy through continued use and reuse, which will reduce both the need for raw materials and the accumulation of waste. Accenture Strategy estimated the global implication of this ideal model could be up to $4.5 trillion of economic growth.
There are multiple levels to the circular economy. At the micro level, the focus is on self-contained efforts, such as waste reduction, product design and development, or energy efficiency. At the meso level, the focus is on working with others, such as closed-loop supply chains, business model innovation, consumer engagement, valorization of waste, or product life extension. At the macro level, the focus is on working within systems, particularly natural systems, including co-evolving to become an active participant in a dynamic, healthy ecosystem. Companies can have circular economy initiatives at multiple levels.
How does a company communicate its circular economy message? First, develop a communications strategy. A survey of companies, innovators, and academics associated with the circular economy revealed that while 83% of companies said they were engaged in the circular economy, only 37% had both an internal and an external communications strategy and a full 29% had no communications strategy at all. Your circular economy message needs to be strategically communicated both internally and externally. Messages can be communicated through the same channels used for corporate social responsibility and sustainability (e.g., Environmental Leader, Corporate Knights, Grist) or can utilize any number of external communication channels that are focused exclusively on the circular economy (i.e., GreenBiz Circular Weekly).
Second, ensure the communications message is transparent, consistent, and persuasive. Your circular economy message should include the following elements:
- Real-life examples that demonstrate practical application of elements of the circular economy.
- Stories of collaboration, co-creation, co-development, and societal transition that inspire and motivate your audience. Stories are very compelling, and visual elements are particularly persuasive behavior change techniques for novel concepts such as the circular economy. Use stories to share your successes, but don’t be afraid to share your failures as well. Sharing your lessons learned through both successes and failures can help further advance the transition toward a circular economy.
- Educational messages that inform consumers of their new role in the circular economy—rental, repair, return, re-buy, retain, resell, remunerate, and shared reuse—while communicating that recycling is the last option.
- Statistics that reflect the outcome of your circular project.
- Calls to action that challenge consumers, government, and industry to embrace the circular economy.
A memorable example is Patagonia’s 2011 Black Friday full-page ad in The New York Times that stated simply, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The ad displayed an image of the R2 jacket and provided a brief educational message that read as a story of collaboration between the company and the customer, statistics on the environmental impact of the jacket, and a call to consumers to reduce, repair, reuse, and recycle items instead of discarding them in favor of new items.
Finally, continue to engage and communicate with stakeholders regarding your circular economy message. Communications that engage stakeholders, respond to their concerns, and communicate in an open, honest, and transparent manner will contribute to a strong public image as a credible company.
 Landrum, N. (2017). Stages of corporate sustainability: Integrating the strong sustainability worldview. Organization & Environment. DOI: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1086026617717456
 Perella, M. (2015). Communicating the circle: Are circular economy communication strategies starting to connect? White paper. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from
 Perella, M. (2015). Communicating the circle: Are circular economy communication strategies starting to connect? White paper. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from http://www.gocircular.com/uploads/5/0/6/3/50632287/communicating_the_circle.pdf
 Chamberlin, L. (2018). Working paper: Designing communications for a circular economy: Information design and narratives for social change. Paper presented at the 24th International Sustainable Development Research Society Conference, June 13-15, 2018, Messina, Italy. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from https://isdrs2018.exordo.com/files/papers/755/final_draft/5b_Chamberlin_Paper_Final_Revised.pdf
 Chamberlin, L. (2018). Working paper: Designing communications for a circular economy: Information design and narratives for social change. Paper presented at the 24th International Sustainable Development Research Society Conference, June 13-15, 2018, Messina, Italy. Retrieved August 22, 2018, from https://isdrs2018.exordo.com/files/papers/755/final_draft/5b_Chamberlin_Paper_Final_Revised.pdf
The concept of the circular economy is not new. However, as companies integrate circular concepts into new products, services and business models, they are facing the relatively new challenge of communicating circularity to their consumers. That only 42% of companies currently market their circular products and services, as such, suggests that most companies either have not started to consider or are still figuring out how to address this challenge. Nevertheless, the circular economy represents a $4.5 trillion opportunity. Moreover, consumers are a critical link in many of the business models leveraging circularity (i.e., recycling, leasing, sharing, etc.). Therefore, engaging the consumer and enabling their participation, is a key success factor for driving a more circular economy. As companies consider this challenge, a lot can be gained by reviewing the lessons learned from messaging sustainability.
- Keep your lead message focused on consumer value. Consumers need their business case for action. Products that deliver for the environment but are supported by messages focusing exclusively on environmental outcomes have consistently fallen flat in the marketplace. Therefore, when communicating about your company’s circular products and services, communicate how your company’s circular innovation delivers its core service and the functional, emotional and societal benefits it delivers for consumers. On its website, Via, the carpooling service available in New York, Washington, DC and Chicago, IL, advertises that it will get you where you want to go quickly and conveniently, and in a way that will allow you to interact with fellow passengers, and save you money and greenhouse gas emissions.
- Incorporate messaging on circularity to engage and capture the imagination of the consumer. In 2015, Intermarche (a French retailer) earned a Gold medal in the Positive Change Effie Awards for its campaign promoting ‘Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables’. Offering a 30% discount on ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables that normally would be thrown away, Intermarche took aim at reducing food waste in response to the European Union declaring 2014 ‘the Year Against Food Waste’. The pilot campaign was successful enough that Intermarche expanded its second campaign to all 1,800 of its stores. Since that time, ugly fruits and vegetables has become a global trend, with product offerings in more than 15 grocery chains across the US, and in retail outlets in more than 20 other countries around the world. Though reducing food waste through ugly produce is not, by itself, a circular innovation, the broader uptake by the consumer is illustrative of what can happen when messaging on key themes of circularity (i.e., resource efficiency and waste reduction / elimination) engages and motivates consumer action.
- Keep the messaging on circularity clear and concise. The language of sustainability (and circularity) can be rather complex and technical, and can be too technical and complex for the typical consumer to correctly digest and interpret. A Cone Communications study found that more than 50% of US consumers incorrectly concluded that commonly used marketing terms like ‘green’ and ‘environmentally-friendly’ means that a product has either a neutral or positive impact on the environment. Therefore, keep circular jargon out of the discussion. International Flavors and Fragrances, for example, refers to regenerative products that are driven by circular concepts. Similarly, messaging for Nike’s Grind products includes ‘regenerating existing products…to deliver performance that never quits’.
- Finally, be transparent in your communication to build consumer trust. Consumer demands for transparency and honesty in corporate communications are rapidly accelerating, and advances in digital and mobile technology provide companies unprecedented opportunities to show to the consumer, and not just message to the consumer, how circularity delivers value. Whether it is HarvestMark, whose solutions allow consumers to trace fruit and vegetables back to the source, or the radical transparency displayed by Everlane, who openly shares its costs to produce its products, companies are engaging the consumer and growing brand trust by being transparent and honest.
 World Business Council for Sustainable Development and The Boston Consulting Group. 2018. The New Big Circle: Achieving Growth and Business Model Innovation Through Circular Economy Implementation:
 Lacy, Peter and Jakob Rutqvist. 2015. Waste to Wealth – The Circular Economy Advantage. New York/London: Palgrave Macmillan.
 Keeble, Justin, and K. Eckerle. 2013. Engaging Tomorrow’s Consumer. World Economic Forum. Futerra and BSR. 2015. Selling Sustainability: Primer for Marketers.
 Cone Communications, Consumers still purchasing, but may not be ‘buying’ companies’ environmental claims, 27 March 2012; accessed at: .
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12 Additional resources include: BBMG and GlobeScan. 2015. Five human aspirations & the future of brands. . .
Until recently, we have lived in a linear economic system that operates under a “take, make, and dispose” philosophy, which ends in waste. In contrast, circular economies develop services and products that are guided by three main principles: design out waste and pollution, extend the life cycle of materials and products, and regenerate ecosystems.
There is a huge opportunity for businesses to better communicate these new concepts and engage consumers in recognizing and changing their purchase patterns for more sustainable consumption. Furthermore, timely and on-point messaging keeps customers engaged with your company’s brands.
This list of do’s and don’ts is a starting point for companies looking to improve communications regarding circular economy and sustainability—or companies that are communicating about their circular ambitions, products, and services to their customers for the first time.
Help consumers understand their new role in the circular economy and provide incentives to take on that new role.
A circular economy requires a significant shift in a consumer’s mind to increase their level of participation and to adopt new behaviors such as returning products, paying for access rather than ownership, and reusing materials. To support this behavior change, companies need to explicitly communicate their expectations of consumers after the product’s or service’s use phase. It should also be convenient or beneficial for consumers to take those actions after the use phase.
An Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that the number-one factor driving consumers’ willingness to resell, donate, or recycle goods was convenience. Consumers cared less about getting the most money for their electronics or clothing than the ease of the take-back program. The circular economy can increase the touch points associated with the customer experience.
Support new behavior by communicating with your customers through the use phase.
Email marketing, brand-specific apps, and social media have made communicating with consumers after the point of sale easier than ever. Brands can support consumers’ behavior changes by communicating with them at key moments during the product or service life cycle.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that customers prefer to from their product reminding them that it needs service or repair, rather than a call from a retailer. Rather than sending a message from your marketing team, frame your message so that it comes from the product directly. This builds connections between your customers and your products—and when customers care about their belongings more, they tend to keep them longer.
Don’t lose your customer to language.
Don’t get bogged down in sustainability jargon and lose people to facts. Social marketing research shows that people their behavior as a result of the presentation of information, but that a blend of rational and is more effective. are better served building strong brands through cultural appeal and emotion-based campaigns.
WRAP found that certain words had negative connotations to consumers. A “leasing service” was associated with lower income, but framing that exact same service as a club that customers paid to gain access to generated a much more positive response.
Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.
Very few brands are encouraging their customers to consume less or more consciously, but if circular marketers aren’t going to be the ones to do it, who will? Until your company is completely circular or we live in a completely circular economy, the onus is on the most responsibly minded business leaders to speak up about the elephant in the room. We have a consumption problem, and unless we drastically change how we make, produce, and dispose of our products, we aren’t going to be able to sustain our projected consumption levels in the upcoming decades.
Make and talk about your kick-ass product or service.
At the end of the day, it isn’t consumers’ responsibility to support and grow a circular economy. A circular economy needs to support consumers who are just trying to live their lives. Despite shoppers’ most noble intentions, research shows that price, quality, and social value are the three primary drivers dictating purchase. There is no replacement for a good product or service, and companies offering the best are the ones that will win in the market. Make an amazing product and service that just so happens to be circular in nature, and the clicks and buys will follow.
Using every possible resource is what circular economy means to me and to many of the corporate partners I’ve collaborated with. The amount of waste that goes into landfills is minimized when products are designed to use recycled materials and with the use of less packaging. Companies are positioned to save millions of dollars in the next decade by practicing circular economy principles.
Communication is in the fabric of efficient circular economy distributions. Effective communication in the supply chain and to the consumer is crucial for a successful sustainability plan that optimizes resources and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers are well informed when it comes to price but often not when it comes to the processing and the content of a product. Wharton IGEL’s sustainability partners do a great job educating their customers on the content and the process of producing a service or a product that saves energy, reduces waste, and also saves money. A key way of messaging the circular economy comes from translating the product design to the consumer and communicating how each design component preserves resources and offers the best outcome for an equitable world.
Wharton IGEL’s Corporate Partners have published sustainability reports and carbon disclosure projects that are available to the public. These are great ways to message circular economy principles based on actual accomplishments and not on speculation. Companies have a unique opportunity to impact the use of valuable resources by taking the lead in setting sustainability goals. These strategies have reaped many rewards on the balance sheet, as well as a true demonstration of ethical corporate social/environmental responsibility.
Many of IGEL’s partners focus on the 2025 Sustainability Goals to communicate best strategic practices. For example, Veolia uses waste as a key commodity. It has made great strides in retrieving and reusing plastics in its bioplastics markets, in advanced technologies that convert wastewater into drinking water, in new concepts that turn biogas into electricity, and in an extensive furniture recycling platform throughout Europe.
Design is at the cornerstone of Dow’s circular economy practices. These tactics have added greatly to the realization of Dow’s manufacturing goals, which could generate about 1 trillion dollars a year by 2025. The goals focus also on the reuse of waste that creates new designs in packaging that optimizes the life cycle of a product. The redirecting of sustainable packaging materials has resulted in a large reduction in cost and has increased better communications in messaging the circular economy movement.
As noted by Nate Morris, founder and CEO of Rubicon Global, “The circular economy laid the foundation for building a company that is reinventing the waste industry—our business model is circular by design.” Rubicon educates its employees and clients about the value of the waste supply chain and the value of recovery, recycling, and reuse.
For more insights about business sustainability leadership and the circular economy, note that Wharton IGEL has published several research reports in Knowledge@Wharton that feature these strategic sustainability opportunities.
Chapter 4: Perspectives from Trade Associations
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and our members are committed to playing a key role in driving sustainability through chemistry and the systemic transition to a circular economy and sustainable development, in which resources and materials are continuously cycled to eliminate waste while creating value for all. Communicating those commitments is an integral component of our industry-wide sustainability initiatives, and will drive engagement, dialogue, and partnerships to help accomplish our goals.
As chemistry provides the building blocks for nearly all manufactured goods, our industry plays an integral role in reimagining the resources, products, technologies, and systems that will power a circular, sustainable economy. Progress should include not only responsible use of natural resources, but also enabling the reuse, repurposing, recycling, and recovery of the value locked in materials traditionally viewed as waste.
Communicating Public Commitments on Sustainability
For ACC and our members, our efforts to enable a circular and sustainable economy are articulated in two recent industry-wide initiatives.
Most recently, in June, ACC launched a set of , outlining the industry’s commitment to advancing safe, innovative, effective, and economically viable chemical products and technologies that are key to unlocking sustainability solutions. As part of this initiative, ACC launched a public website, , to enhance communication on the new goals and illustrate how chemistry is enhancing sustainability in nine key areas, derived from and prioritized by the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and stakeholder insights.
One key area focuses on to enhance circularity and facilitate a more circular economy, driven through collaboration with ACC’s Plastics Division. Strategic communications efforts regarding this commitment area have included the development of high-level narratives to provide a foundation for consistent communication with stakeholders in this space, including the supply chain, policymakers, consumers, and certifiers; supporting infographics and fact sheets; and featured . Highlighting our industry’s ability to contribute to the science and systems that enable circularity is a core component of our communications efforts related to sustainability.
Communicating Our Plastics Goals
Earlier this year, ACC also announced the development and communication of a core set of goals for capturing, recycling, and recovering plastics. This ambitious endeavor marked the first time that members of ACC’s Plastics Division came together to make a public commitment with measurable goals to increase the recycling and recovery of plastic packaging.
- 100% of plastics packaging is reused, recycled, or recovered by 2040.
- 100% of plastics packaging is recyclable or recoverable by 2030.
- 100% of the U.S. manufacturing sites operated by ACC’s Plastics Division members will participate in Operation Clean Sweep-Blue by 2020, with all of their manufacturing sites across North America involved by 2022.
In setting these goals, we are publicly affirming our vision of the future for safe, sanitary plastic packaging and our intention to realize that vision quickly. Plastics packaging provides important benefits, including reducing food waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and material use. In addition, the plastics industry has a long history of investing in recycling, including consumer outreach and education, providing “away from home” recycling options, research and development for new technologies, and more.
While those actions have had a positive effect, we realized we had not publicly articulated our vision for the future we want for plastics packaging where these materials are recovered and used again. These goals are a first step in that journey.
We are a data-driven industry and, going forward, we will add detail in how we will achieve those goals, including how we’ll measure and report on progress.
Making this announcement publicly was a key step for the plastics industry, and we believe that it will help to drive and align resin producers, packaging manufactures, brand owners, retailers, recyclers, and government to move recycling and recovery forward more quickly, and to work together to achieve common goals.
Communicating to Enhance Partnerships and Collaboration
Enhanced engagement and collaboration with stakeholders is also a core component of meeting our sustainability commitments and our plastics goals. In recent years, ACC’s resin producers have ramped up engagement through programs like the Recycling Partnership, which helps to increase community recycling; Materials Recovery for the Future, which is testing sorting solutions for flexible packaging; the Wrap Recycling Action Program, which partners with cities, states, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and retailers to increase plastic film recycling via store drop-off programs; and Recover More Plastics, which collects and converts non-recycled plastics into fuels and energy.
Communicating ACC’s sustainability initiative and related plastics goals are a first step in this journey. Successful communications will broaden collaboration with stakeholders to identify and drive solutions to sustainability challenges facing the world today, and facilitate the understanding of chemistry’s contributions to sustainability and circularity. Achieving a more circular economy will enable society to continue to harness plastics’ essential benefits while optimizing how we use resources and helping to protect and restore the environment for future generations. A sustainable future will require commitments from individuals, communities, governments, business, and industry. The chemical industry is committed to being part of the solution.
The Netherlands is a frontrunner on the march toward a circular economy. The Dutch government has set the goal of cutting the nation’s use of raw materials (fossil fuels, minerals, and metals) in half by 2030 and of . While launching a government program is not enough to achieve this goal, it is the first step in engaging society as a whole and moving forward in typical Dutch fashion: by consultation, discussion, and, ultimately, agreeing to work together in a way that benefits all involved.
The Dutch ambition of becoming a circular economy did not materialize out of thin air. The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country of more than 17 million people in an area slightly bigger than Maryland. It has little room for landfills and few natural resources, so recycling is part of everyday life.
In fact, the Netherlands recycles 82% of its paper and cardboard and 94% of its metal, which creates opportunities for sustainable economic development. Such success and the scarcity of raw materials in the global economy prompted the Dutch government to move ahead of the curve and develop a more sustainable strategy for economic growth.
The Dutch program is designed more to start conversations than to develop a blueprint for action. It encourages the government, citizens, companies, and academia to share their experiences with each other. If we want to alter how our economy works, we need all stakeholders to cooperate and be transparent about what is feasible and what is not. We must know what obstacles exist.
For example, Dutch officials learned during conversations with water utilities that environmental regulations forbade the utilities selling the phosphates they can mine from wastewater even though phosphates are scarce, and the use of these phosphates causes no damage to the environment or public health. As a result, the Dutch government reexamined its interpretation of the regulations to give the utilities the framework they needed to recover phosphates from wastewater and put them to good use without compromising environmental safety.
Positive communication is key when engaging all actors on how to overhaul the economy. Governments tend to stress the need for big transitions in negative terms, such as, “We have to go circular, or we’ll run out of resources soon!”
People, on the other hand, are much more receptive to positive arguments, and the case for a circular economy offers plenty. A circular economy creates jobs, reduces costs, delivers tailored products, and contributes to a cleaner environment.
The benefits of a circular economy are clear for big Dutch companies, such as DSM, Philips, and Unilever. However, the benefits can be less clear for consumers and small to medium enterprises. That’s why it’s important to communicate success stories of smaller companies that challenge the traditional production process and show tangible benefits to consumers. This gives people a better sense of what the circular economy entails and how it can benefit them.
Take, for example, the in the province of South Holland. Residual heat and CO2 from the Port of Rotterdam already heat homes and boost the productivity of greenhouses. The ambition is to extend this model to include other industries and neighborhoods. Another example is the that allows them to exchange information and highlight success stories.
Meaningful communication is fundamental to making the transition to a circular economy. A continuous exchange of information among stakeholders can guide that transition and create buy-in and adaptation. This exchange, combined with positive messaging and making sure all parties see the benefits of the transition, are the keys of the Dutch success in these first steps to a circular economy.
Chapter 5: Perspectives from International Nonprofit Organizations
Sitra is a future-oriented organization working toward the strong vision of Finland as a successful pioneer of sustainable well-being. Circular economy—an economy that decouples economic growth from the use of natural resources—is one of Sitra’s multiyear focus areas. Active stakeholder communication is an important part of Sitra’s work.
“” is a list of nearly a hundred case studies compiled by Sitra to showcase Finland’s most inspiring examples of the circular economy. Through the list, Sitra wants to help Finnish companies be among the first in the world to switch to a circular economy. Sitra is using the list as a way to challenge Finnish companies to meet the changing needs of the world. Each case study in the list briefly describes a societal and/or environmental problem, a solution, the revenue model and benefits for the company, and the benefits for the customer and/or the end user.
The examples on the list are grouped according to different circular economy business models:
- Renewability (sustainable inputs)
- Product-life extension
- Product as a service
- Sharing platform
- Resource efficiency and recycling
The first version of the list in October 2016 included 19 Finnish companies, and the first update in May 2017 increased that number to 54. The initial aim was to inspire Finnish businesses so that the list features 100 companies by the end of 2017. The second update increased the number to 97 business examples.
The list is published at Sitra’s website and is the 7th most visited page. Prior to publications, efforts have been made for targeted press coverage in mainstream business media to stimulate societal and business conversations. As a result, the list has gained a lot of attention in Finland. It has been used to provide companies with perspectives on how business in the circular economy could be productive and profitable. New types of operating methods are needed in order to ensure that materials and value stay in circulation for as long as possible with minimal waste.
Currently, we are revising the concept and will publish an updated list by March 2019. We collect observations on interesting circular economy companies and operating models. This work will continue until autumn 2019.
The circular economy is not yet a well-known concept in the United States. However, it is the direction in which leaders should rapidly take the economy and businesses toward in order to enable future-proof sustainable growth. California, with its entrepreneurial spirit and environmental culture, would be a great place to explore circular economy models further. If new solutions, business models, and economic opportunities could be showcased there, that could really inspire the rest of the country to embrace the circular economy mindset.
The concept of the circular economy has gained significant momentum in the past couple of years. This win-win $4.5 trillion opportunity has gained attention around the world, especially within the business community. Most companies are just beginning their circular journey; few have been working toward the circular economy for more than a couple of years. Regardless, companies are now trying to find the best way to communicate about their circular activities. How do companies currently communicate about their participation in the circular economy? Are there significant differences in approach between business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies?
Communication on sustainability is well established. Whether for advertising, advocacy, or reporting and disclosure, companies are well versed in communicating their sustainability efforts. Available literature suggests that stakeholders push B2C companies to report and disclose sustainability information due to stakeholder pressures more than B2B companies. Due to fewer interactions with end-users, B2B companies more often find themselves under less scrutiny.
Communication on the circular economy is much more nascent. As part of its annual , the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) observed that 49% of 2017 sustainability reports reviewed mention the “circular economy.” Companies are increasingly communicating about the circular economy, particularly in professional or non-consumer conversations.
General consumers are not as familiar with the circular economy concept yet. Most B2C companies use accessible and commonly understood terminology to evoke the circular economy. Instead of describing a company or product as “circular,” they use words such as “leasing,” “repaired,” or “reused.” Most company homepages do not mention “circular economy.”
For example, Fairphone’s modular phone could be described as circular or at least responding to some circular principles. Instead the company describes its phone as being “built to last” or “modular.”
When B2C companies mention circular economy, it’s often in the context of broader societal trends or priorities. P&G mentions its Head & Shoulders recyclable shampoo bottle made from beach plastics throughout its sustainability report. Like Fairphone, P&G could have linked this product quite strongly to the circular economy, but it mentions “circular economy” only once in its sustainability report. In the company’s terms, it’s not a circular shampoo bottle but a recyclable shampoo bottle made with beach plastic.
B2B companies on the other hand tend to communicate in a more technical manner, addressing material efficiency, resources saved, greenhouse gas emission reductions, and so forth. Many highlight the business opportunities within the circular economy. Philips, for example, talks about “circular opportunities” and “generating circular revenue.” DSM mentions the opportunity for “increased productivity; improved sustainability and innovation” and describes circular economy as playing a “central role as a business driver.” IFF points to the “mitigation of risks” through the implementation of circular strategies. Veolia highlights circular economy-based revenue targets.
While the circular economy communications conversation is just now developing, we can anticipate that this emerging field will be elaborated on much more in the coming months and years.
Chapter 6: Research Insights
In partnership with IBM, over the past three years CCC has conducted an analysis of how a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts are viewed by users of social media. By conducting a textual analysis of how individuals speak about a company’s CSR work, particularly in relation to their general business practices, we have been able to analyze what sorts of CSR projects have the most impact on a company’s brand.
. We then track whether those snippets have anything to do with a company’s community outreach, by building dictionaries that can determine if a mention is about a company’s work in either sustainability and the circular economy, economic empowerment, disaster response, community health, philanthropy, or education.
The textual analysis tools that IBM uses can determine whether those snippets are positive, negative, or neutral. We are then able to sort which companies and which types of CSR activities elicit what type of response from social media users. A vast majority, more than 90%, of these snippets do not come from company-based URLs, and none are advertisements, so we are not looking at how companies present their own work, but how consumers are talking about them.
By analyzing 30 companies over that time frame across six different CSR initiatives (sustainability and the circular economy, economic empowerment, disaster response, community health, philanthropy, and education) we have consistently found that out of these major CSR themes, sustainability and the circular economy has the most volatile impact, both positive and negative, on a company’s brand.
The reasons for that are varied. Across all the six initiatives we’ve tracked, a company tends to do comparatively worse in areas that are within their business focus. For example, health companies tend not to get as large of a lift as other companies when engaging in community health efforts. Based on some of the responses we’ve seen in social media, most consumers believe that community work of their type is their responsibility anyway. Of course, almost every company has some type of environmental footprint, so consumers might have higher standards for what a company should be doing in the circular economy and sustainability space.
Especially for companies in the manufacturing industry that are not consumer facing, communicating about a company’s work in sustainability and the circular economy, either inside or outside the auspices of a CSR activity, tends to have more negative consumer responses than any other type of activity we’ve tracked over the past three years.
Some of this can be attributed to companies being called out for “greenwashing.” Consumers who already have a negative view of a company because of its perceived environmental impact are likely to point out what they see as hypocrisy regardless of support to the contrary. This holds even if the sustainability and circular economy work is seen as unrelated to a perceived negative impact the company has on the environment—for example, a company that has high water usage but installs solar panels doesn’t see great returns on that announcement.
But greenwashing is not the entire reason that efforts in sustainability and the circular economy are challenging for companies to communicate. Unlike most other initiatives in the CSR or corporate citizenship space, engaging in circular economy and sustainability efforts almost always requires a strong mix of internal and external efforts. When efforts are internal, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, sending less waste to landfill, or repurposing materials, it complicates what parts of a project are public facing, how they are audited, and how the audience can be educated.
In spite of the challenges to presenting these initiatives, talking about a company’s work in sustainability and the circular economy is not always a bad idea. There are ways for companies to encourage a more positive response to their work in the sustainability and circular economy space.
One of these is to promote and use goals for either sustainability or circular economy initiatives and hold onto them. While we did not have enough sources to track this outcome statistically, we saw that announcements of actual goals and then proof of meeting them tended to be more “viral” and more positive. It also allows for a variety of storytelling for consumers to react to, from hard quantitative discussion to broader qualitative analysis.
Another way is working in areas outside of the company’s main thread of business. For circular economy efforts, this may be difficult at the outset, but it is possible to frame a successful circular economy initiative as external. Showing the broader and long-term impacts of buying, selling, using, or donating manufacturing byproducts can elevate a conversation to look beyond a company’s physical footprint.
In this year’s forthcoming work, we were able to conduct a different level of analysis due to IBM’s improvements in how the analysis is conducted. Now, in addition to whether or not a mention was negative, positive, or neutral, we could also tell how strongly negative or positive it was, and how the sentiment of the individual snippet compared with the rest of the document or page.
What we found confirmed what we saw over the past three years. Sustainability and circular economy CSR efforts tended to be seen more negatively than other efforts. However, this new analysis showed that, compared with the page or document it was presented on, the corporate effort tended to be seen more positively than the surrounding material. The following table shows the average difference score of each CSR initiative type, from 1.000 (completely positive) to -1.000 (completely negative); the average score of each document that snippet came from; and the difference:
Sustainability and Circular Economy
Difference in Positivity
This means that even though individual snippets about a company’s CSR engagements may not be viewed positively, in the contexts in which they are presented, they outperform the surrounding chatter a majority of the time. In a subject area like sustainability and the circular economy, which had the second lowest document score ahead of disaster response, general conversations are often tagged as negative because users and commenters are concerned about the long-term health of the environment. Even in these contexts, when company work is talked about, it stands out in a comparatively positive light.
What we have found is that to gain more positive traction on corporate sustainability and circular economy activity, whether it is housed as a CSR initiative or not, is to make sure that there is a complete story around it. By presenting materials that offer a more complete evolution, with proof points and evidence of how the company is extending its presence in a positive and preemptive way, companies can grow the level of impact and sentiment they have in social media.