The Circular Economy: Bringing Consumerism and Sustainability Together

Press a button. Get Doritos delivered right to your door.

When Amazon released its Dash Button last year around April 1, many thought it was a joke. More than just the timing, it almost poked fun at how ingrained Amazon is in our daily lives. But it was real, and now you can get everything from potato chips to detergent simply by clicking a button on the wall … no computer required.

The Dash Button is just one of the latest examples of technology making consumption easier and easier. As Amazon and Google promise near instant delivery on millions of products, more of us use our phones to make purchases anytime from anywhere.

So consumerism is not just alive and well: It’s thriving. And it’s expanding into places and times traditionally off-limits: We spent over $1.7 billion online this past Thanksgiving Day alone. And despite slower growth, 2015 ended the biggest year in retail ever.

But today’s consumers are different.

They want to buy things, but they are also very sensitive to the environmental impact of their purchases. A recent Nielsen study found that three in four millennials would be willing to pay more for goods that are sustainable.  They want less packaging waste – Amazon has received over 33 million comments, ratings, and photographs on how to improve packaging alone! More recently, they want to make sure all the stuff they are ordering doesn’t end up in a landfill.

Simply put, they want to reconcile their growing appetite for consumption with their strong belief in sustainability. That’s where the “circular economy” comes in.

The Circular Economy: More Stuff, Less Waste

The circular economy is just a new term for an old concept: Nothing should go to waste. All materials should either be reused, returned to the supply stream or repurposed for new products and services – and there are many ways to promote this line of thinking.

Reuse and repair of products already in circulation is one great way. Patagonia and L.L. Bean both have well-known programs that repair products purchased by their customers, encouraging extended product use and reducing demand for new items. Madewell, a clothing retailer that specializes in denim, allows customers to bring in their old jeans to be repurposed into housing insulation. Even IKEA has developed circular stores, where customers can repair or trade in old household furnishings for a store credit.

Recycling also plays a critical role. It helps build more sustainable supply chains by looping products back into the materials stream and transforming them for new uses. Best Buy and Apple both provide robust recycling options to divert e-waste from landfills, breaking down laptops, iPhones, and other consumer electronics into their component parts to be resold or reconstructed into other goods.

 A Secondary Market Means a Second Home

Others have gone beyond the “three R’s” of sustainability, using market forces to find a good home for unwanted goods. Yerdle has been gaining momentum as an online marketplace where consumers can swap goods online in exchange for Yerdle dollars. Peerby has tapped into the sharing economy by allowing users to share items with their neighbors. ThredUp and Poshmark are part of a wave of online consignment stores where you can buy and sell secondhand clothing at a big discount.

All of these examples bring value to products that might have otherwise gone to landfill, but waste isn’t just limited to end-of-life products. In fact, some of the largest sources of waste are largely invisible to consumers. Take the retail returns process. Every year, over 10 billion items are returned, and many of them end up in landfills, creating over four billion pounds of waste in the U.S. alone.

Building robust secondary markets for used and returned goods has the potential to satisfy the desire of consumers for new merchandise while creating more value from products already in circulation. If we build on this practice on a much larger scale, we can achieve the goal of reducing waste and protecting the environment, while still indulging our consumer needs.

So yes, we love our stuff, and we often want it without ever having to leave the comfort of our own homes. But we also care deeply about the world we live in. So we need to make sure that our love of stuff doesn’t damage the planet we love.

Should we consume less? Absolutely. But that won’t be enough, which is why it’s so important for forward-thinking companies to continue to innovate around principles that enable a circular economy. This will allow us to have our consumerism cake and eat it, too. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get it with just the easy press of a Dash Button.

Adam Vitarello is president of Optoro





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