Communicating Your Circular Economy Message

October 31, 2018
LOYOLA
Professor of Sustainability Management, Loyola University Chicago

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.[1] 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.[2] 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[3]:

  • 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.[4] 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,[5] 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.


[1] Landrum, N. (2017). Stages of corporate sustainability: Integrating the strong sustainability worldview. Organization & Environment. DOI: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1086026617717456

[2] 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

 

[3] 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

[4] 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

[5] 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