Getting into the cycle: Why accessibility is key to circularity’s success

October 04, 2021

Circular economy practices are more common than you might think. If you have ever used a milkman, shared a book with friends, bought items from a charity shop or received hand-me-downs, then you have already engaged in circularity. Simple!

However, for brands used to the linear economy system of “make/sell, use, dispose” circularity may seem antithetical to business as usual. Yet consumerism and circularity don’t need to be entirely opposing ideals.

Indeed, to reduce their environmental impact, it’s crucial that brands consider ways to embed re-use, repurposing and recycling into business models. Supermarkets, with their plethora of packaging, and the fashion industry, with its estimated global footprint of 10% of all GHG emissions, could learn a thing or two from circular principles.

Major brands are finally catching on to this. US-based industry giants, including Amazon, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Starbucks and Walmart have joined forces with sustainable product and packaging firms including Closed Loop Partners and Ball, to develop the Pathway to Circularity Recyclability Framework. The Framework aims to help companies assess packaging recyclability, and provide actions to support recyclable packaging options through a set of clear criteria. These will include information on designing for circularity, recyclability, access to circularity resources, and reassessing the fate of packaging “waste”. While the final output of the Framework remains to be seen, having accessibility as a key pillar is a promising sign.

Collaboration with technical partners plays an important role in the move to circularity. However, to make significant progress in circularity, B2C companies must also meaningfully consider the role of all consumers in disposing or recycling of products.

Selfridges has recently made some positive moves. It plans to resell and rent out wedding outfits that are pre-owned or made with upcycled materials, and offer repair services for wedding shoes and accessories. But the moves are also restrictive. To engage in circularity, consumers must fit into a certain mould, not least being customers of a designer department store.

Several British supermarkets provide examples of how greater accessibility can be achieved in circularity. Tesco recently announced its partnership with the Loop packaging re-use service, that will make a range of products, including high-profile brands (Persil, Coca-Cola, Heinz to name a few) and own-brand products eligible to be returned to store, cleaned and re-used. The products will be price-matched with the original, to make the switch to re-usable as easy and appealing as possible for consumers. Meanwhile, Aldi GB joins Sainsbury’s and Tesco in adding recycling bins for soft and flexible plastics to some of its stores, to process the hard-to-recycle packaging. While these schemes are not yet nationwide, they offer the chance for consumers to engage in circularity with relative convenience and ease in a format that is not alien – they still go to the supermarket.

For impressive circular economy industry partnerships to gain traction, barriers to access must be lowered. Brands need to make the transition of the consumer’s role from “end-user” to “one user of many” as pain-free and accessible as possible. This means investment into product and recycling partnerships, but also into scaling schemes, and educating and inspiring customers to move away from disposal.

For circularity to make the difference that it needs to, it cannot be exclusive to those “in the know” and those who can afford it. Corporates and partners must bear in mind that while circularity is king, accessibility is key.

Author: Alexandra Reece