Ask a room full of consumers, “Who here hates to see things go to waste?” and every hand will go up energetically. But if everyone hates to waste, then how come we generate so much of it? And what can we do to prevent waste from being created in the first place? Answering these questions can be profitable and fun.
Unfortunately, even if we wanted to bring our household waste down to zero, recycling and composting facilities are not available in all communities, nor are there a lot of affordable and accessible resources available for getting most things repaired. Also, a lot of food, energy and water are consumed in the privacy of one’s home, and there’s little social stigma about wasting resources, as long as you have the money to pay.
Turning Waste Into a Business Opportunity
All of this represents an opportunity for future-looking businesses to profit by helping consumers save money, time and space, and to better their lives by scraping less food waste into the trash, cutting down on watts, printing double-sided or using water more sparingly.
Representing the household counterpart to “pollution prevention” in factories, preventing waste can lead to exciting new products while creating happier and more loyal consumers, and generating lots of free publicity (For the latter, just ask Patagonia about the reaction to their “Don’t Buy this Jacket” ad, which ran on Black Friday 2011).
Learning from WeHatetoWaste.com
Our new consumer blog and website, WeHatetoWaste.com, is helping us discover inventive ways that waste-hating consumers have devised to get the last swipe from their deodorant, eliminate the use of paper towels, and create delicious second meals from leftovers. We’re tracking consumer behavior in seven categories, all of which represent exciting new areas of opportunity:
- REDUCE. The first and most important part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” triad, ‘reducing' has become closely associated with ‘making do’ with what you already have, and not buying what you don’t need. But it is also very much about buying quality over quantity. It’s also about heirloom products that evoke sentimental value — “stories.” Likely crafted from high-quality materials, they’re the products that people want to keep forever — the Tiffany silver, Rolex watches, Montblanc pens, even Lego toys and Le Creuset pots and pans.
- USE TO THE MAX. Especially in tough times (and who’s know when they’ll be over?), consumers are looking to use up every product right down to its last drop or morsel — rolling up that tube of Crest, slicing the Clinique skin cream tube in half, and repairing, refilling and upgrading products, so they are not disposed of or even recycled before their time. Just ask the Fix-it Collectives that are sprouting up around the country. How repairable is your product?
- SHARE. Also known as ‘collaborative consumption,’ a major trend has emerged in peer-to-peer lending, leasing, swapping and renting, as well as selling directly to others on eBay or Craigslist. Consider the phenomenon that is Zipcar (recently purchased by Avis) and Airbnb, and Carpooling.com, now in 45 countries. Power-tool lending libraries are turning the design paradigm upside down: Instead of designing products to last only as long as one consumer will use them, they should now be designed to fit the needs of many, and for longer than the anticipated six-hour lifespan.
- RESPECT FOOD. With 40% of all food going to waste before it gets to the table this is about preserving, conserving, and storing food. It suggests opportunities for high-quality/low-resource storage techniques such as Debbie Meyers produce storage bags (recently acquired by SCJohnson) and for lightweight, collapsible doggie bags in which diners can take home the rest of their fries and burger.
- CONSERVE RESOURCES. Is Tom’s of Maine toothpaste really ‘green’ if consumers don’t turn off the tap when they brush? Are Energy Star-rated light bulbs really energy-efficient when left burning in an empty room? Opportunities abound for new products that can help consumers minimize the use of resources consumed during product use, e.g., water, energy, materials and other resources such as paper, ink and toner used while printing. To get a gauge on this opportunity, think about the water-saving, energy-saving gadgets you’ve bought recently, and refer to this article about what I call “responsible consumption.”
- LIVE EFFICIENTLY. NYC is currently spearheading a “tiny apartment” movement to house the slew of new residents expected in years to come. Living in a home with just enough space for one’s family and possessions helps minimize the amount of space that needs to be otherwise heated, cooled, ventilated, etc— and opens up opportunities for double-duty furniture (such as the kind Graham Hill uses in his apartment), and all the space-saving closet and home office furnishings on display at the Container Store.
- RECYCLE AND COMPOST. When a product can no longer be used for its primary or even secondary purpose, it should be recycled or composted as a way of sidestepping the landfill. San Francisco boasts that, thanks to recycling and composting, it diverts a record 80% of all waste generated from landfills, making it the Greenest City in America, and creating the potential for ten times more jobs than landfilling would ever bring.