Talking Circular (Without Talking in Circles)

October 31, 2018
Director & Senior Analyst, Circular Economy, GreenBiz Group, Inc.

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.