Making the Most of Your Circular Economy Investment: It All Starts with Consumers “Getting 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 (Sprout Social). 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” (Truth about Global Brands 2018, McCann Worldgroup Truth Central).

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.

Director, Social Purpose, Golin
Executive Director, Social Purpose, Golin