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3 Ways Circularity is Driving Retail

Our sustainability team attended two conferences this June: Sustainable Brands and Circularity 19. We’ve put together some of the key takeaways from these conferences.

Plastics are everyone’s problem

  • Companies like SAP, adidas, Burt’s Bees, and HP are working collaboratively to find solutions to the ocean plastics crisis. A recent Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit brought together representatives from corporations, academia, nonprofits, recyclers, and more, to spend a weekend on a boat in order to see firsthand the plastics in the ocean and to discuss solutions.

  • The occurrence of a summit like this demonstrates that companies are thinking creatively about ways to lessen their contribution to single use plastics and other environmental waste. To move away from disposable plastics and packaging, as well as product waste, sustainability leaders are helping their organizations move toward building a more circular economy.

The end of “end-of-life”

  • The language of product life cycles is changing. Traditionally, most of us have referred to the post-consumer use phase of an item or material as the “end-of-life.” At both conferences this month, sustainability leaders discussed the need to change the language from end-of-life to “end-of-use.” Getting brands to think about what a product’s next use would be after a primary consumer has used it, forces brands to engage in designing their products to be optimized for multiple uses. Designing for durability and reuse extends product life cycles and helps enable a more circular economy. Furthermore, retailers and brands also have to build processes for bringing products back from the market in order to meet circular economy goals. That’s where take-back and trade in programs come in.

Companies want their products back

  • Retailers and brands are moving toward models where customers can repair broken items, trade them in, or drop them off for recycling. If a customer has an old tablet, they might receive a store credit for the value of that tablet, or at least they won’t have to worry about what to do with it, since the retailer will offer to recycle it. Best Buy has been operating an electronics recycling program since 2009, through which they’ve collected 2 billion pounds of electronics. Best Buy gives customers gift cards for products with value and recycles the products without value for free.

  • When IKEA U.S. was designing their mattress recycling program, they wanted to help customers give to those in need, so they send some of the mattresses to communities who need them.

  • Another example is Target, which runs a car seat take-back program. This program provides an important service that removes a friction point for their guests: product waste.

  • Similarly, Cisco’s product take-back program gives their customers value by not asking the customers to deal with electronics waste. To be better prepared to expand take-back programs into fully circular business models, retailers and brands need data on what kinds of products come through their doors, where those products go, and how they can use them.

Sustainability leaders from a variety of organizations cited the need for better data on where their products go in the forward and reverse supply chains, as well as what material components are in those products. Retailers and brands can use technology to power circular business models. See our recent paper on the circular economy for a review of circular business models and how technology can contribute to them.

With an increased focus on building circular business models, the need for a technology to power these initiatives will become more critical. At Optoro, we work to enable our clients to build circular business models into their operations through our returns technology that routes returned and excess inventory to the most appropriate channel.


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