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Behavior Change
Love, Loyalty & Lifestyle:
Making Circularity Irresistible

To unleash the power of circular design at scale, brands require an understanding of the cultural conditions at play. Here are five design principles that we’ve learned from our work with brands helping lead the way.

You might know the circular economy by some of its common names — thrifting, upcycling, swapping, recycling, secondhand goods, rental, resale, reuse, repair or even composting. Any time goods or materials are resold or reused rather than disposed of, that’s the circular economy in action. Designed like nature’s systems, where there is no such thing as waste, a circular economy is nothing new (no pun intended); reusing goods has been a common social and cultural practice for ages.

But recent innovations in circular business models and brand design are attracting new participants and making it one of the most exciting — and profitable — opportunities in retail today.

A mighty combination of consumer demand for affordability, sustainability and unique style has led to secondhand becoming a $197 billion industry that more brands are racing to access. Beyond apparel, circular models are also growing across electronics, sporting goods, consumer packaging, and retail of all types.

However, innovation in circularity is not just about designing new reuse systems: To unlock the success of these systems and move people toward circular behaviors, we also need to tell new stories that move us from a place of obligation and burden (Save the planet! Stop wasting bags!) to one of simplicity, joy and desire. When regenerative systems and stories combine, that’s where brands differentiate, break through and pave new ways forward for their categories.

To unleash the power of circular design at scale, brands require an understanding of the cultural conditions at play. Here are five design principles that we’ve learned from our work with brands helping lead the way.

5 Principles of designing for circular behavior

1. Design for human truths

Image courtesy of BBMG

Circularity is only successful if we can get people to want the systems we’ve designed. This is especially true when consumers are an intrinsic part of the circle — as is the case in many takeback and resale programs — or when we’re asking people to shift a well-worn behavior, such as using disposable products for everyday household use.

In working with Target to create its reduced-waste collection, Target Zero, we identified the tension people feel when balancing the products they love and need with the waste in their lives. Honoring this dynamic tension helped Target create and curate products and packaging solutions designed to be refillable, reusable, compostable — even eliminate packaging completely — and feature them via in-store endcaps and as a curated platform on

Takeaway: Start with sensing and serving a deeply felt human need.

2. Design for access

Image credit: Recurate

To ensure maximum usefulness of circular products and services, it helps to design for those at the extreme ends of the behavior spectrum. In the social sector, this is sometimes called the “curb cut effect” for the way sidewalks are often designed for accessibility. A curb that’s cut to allow someone in a wheelchair to roll easily across an intersection happens to also be useful for many others — parents pushing strollers, elderly people with walkers, a delivery person rolling a dolly. A feature designed to provide access for specific users ends up benefiting everyone in the community.

In our partnership with resale platform Recurate, our study of shoppers revealed that people not yet engaged in resale see the many benefits of participation — save money, reduce waste, score unique items — if only we could remove barriers to participation.

Like the curb cut effect, Recurate designs for the full spectrum of brands and consumers in a circular economy. Its accessible, tech-enabled resale service lets brands seamlessly integrate resale into their ecommerce by turning consumers’ closets into their inventory — no takeback program or warehouse necessary. And for shoppers, Recurate maximizes trust and loyalty by placing resale items from their favorite brands right alongside new apparel and gear.

By making it accessible for everyone to purchase secondhand items in one brand-led shopping experience, Recurate is bringing more people into a circular economy while helping brands enjoy the benefits of fuller shopping baskets, repeat purchases, brand loyalty and a positive impact on the planet.

Takeaway: Solve for the extreme ends of the behavior spectrum to unlock exponential benefits.

3. Design for ease

Image credit: Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag

While making awesome secondhand finds accessible is one challenge, making a new circular behavior easy to adopt is another — especially when the wasteful version is so deeply ingrained in our day to day.

For decades, we’ve been trained to expect disposable packaging at the point of sale. Coffee cups, plastic bags, to-go containers. Convenient? Yes. Sustainable? No way. Gradually, as a culture we are unlearning this wasteful routine — but there’s a long way to go before we’re all bringing our own containers everywhere, because the disposable option is still the easiest and default choice.

To get people to adopt a new behavior, it can be helpful to stack it with existing behaviors — so, it simply slips into an established routine. This was the behavioral logic that inspired our recent creative collaboration with Closed Loop Partners to make bringing your own shopping bag as automatic as bringing your phone, keys and wallet when leaving the house.

Closed Loop Partners are pioneering the “Beyond the Bag” initiative — a partnership in which national retailers are working together to design plastic bag waste out of the shopping experience through a series of experiments to move consumers towards reusable bags. Recent beta tests in Denver and Tucson — supported by BBMG — eliminated the use of an estimated 2.4 million single-use plastic bags, and 76 percent of customers report bringing their bags more often following the campaign. Gentle nudges with minimized lift that fold right into people’s well-worn routines have been the key to success.

Takeaway: Ride an existing behavior or norm to make circularity the easy choice.

4. Design for reciprocity

Image credit: Just Salad

Another way to get consumers to go circular is to reward them when they participate. Target incentivizes guests to return old car seats for recycling by offering them credits for in-store purchases of new baby gear. Starbucks offers a discount when people bring their own mug — and recently expanded the offer to mobile and drive-thru orders, too. The idea of mutual benefits is a no brainer, and it works.

Our client, Just Salad, the first quick-serve restaurant chain to carbon-label its menu, also offers the world’s largest and longest-running restaurant reusable bowl program. When customers purchase a reusable bowl, they earn a free topping (such as avocado) every time they reuse it. The program avoids nearly 25,000 lbs of single-use packaging waste per year; and after just two uses, greenhouse gas emissions and water use are reduced compared to single-use bowls. Today, the chain has grown to over 80 locations and it’s among the top five restaurant chains in terms of sales growth.

Takeaway: Align rewards and relationships to instill new habits together.

5. Design for pleasure

Image courtesy of BBMG

While we may feel proud to shout out the environmental friendliness of a circular innovation, there may just be something more intrinsically fun, exciting — or dare we say sexy — motivating people to participate. And that should be the headline when it comes to marketing.

A recent source of inspiration for our team has been the writing of adrienne maree brown on, among other things, “pleasure activism.” She makes the case that the work to right wrongs in society can and should also be a source of joy and pleasure — a way for us to feel whole, happy and satisfied. Why not take that same approach to moving people towards sustainable behavior?

When BBMG worked with The North Face to brand and launch its refurbished product line — The North Face Renewed — an “a-ha” moment for us was when we learned that for its target audience of younger outdoor-apparel buyers, style, performance and access to adventure were more motivating than simply being sustainable (though that mattered, too). So, our brand story to launch the collection was all about celebrating the “Revival of the fittest” and “Clothing remade to explore more more more.” That it’s also an exciting way to significantly reduce the environmental impact of the apparel we buy offers the added win.

Takeaway: Make it a want to do, not a have to do.

Most of us want to do the right thing by the planet, but ingrained habits and the immediacy of convenience can get in the way of making circularity the obvious choice. By designing for deeply felt human needs and optimizing for access, ease, reciprocity and pleasure, we can create more products, services and experiences that people love, that disrupt categories, and that shift behavior toward a regenerative future for retail where recommerce goes on and on and on.

For more on this topic, check out our interview with two circular visionaries — Closed Loop Partners’ Kate Daly and entrepreneur John Atcheson — on BBMG’s podcast, “The Future We Want: Accelerating the Circular Economy.”


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