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Making Sustainability Tangible: From Ownership And Purchase to Access And Participation

by Mike Webster on 04/26/2019 | 5 Minute Read

You can't solve the challenges we face around waste by material choices alone. Only by reframing our consumption behavior and interaction with packaging will we impact significant change.

Thankfully, those new behaviors are emerging. Influenced by social-cultural shifts like the sharing economy and sustainably-minded systems like city bike rental schemes, brands are offering more sustainable products and services through a change in focus from purchase to access and participation.

The modern-day sharing economy originated in the mid-to-late-1990s. Thanks to the internet and the creation of digital platforms facilitating peer to peer networks, owners of houses, cars and tools began renting them out when not being used. This evolved to include brands offering services and experiences that people wouldn't have been able to access or afford previously.

This resonated strongly with younger generations who tend to live more nomadic lifestyles while placing a higher value on experiences, viewing ownership as a burden in some cases. It also attracted sustainably-minded entrepreneurs who saw the platforms as an enabler for smarter ecosystem services.

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BMW’s Drive Now scheme allows people to drive a BMW without having to own one; payment of a monthly subscription gives people access to any BMW or Mini so they can pick up the right car for any given demand, and it's a sustainable choice for infrequent drivers with ever-changing needs. Meanwhile, Rent The Runway is cutting down on waste in fashion by allowing shoppers to borrow instead of buying - and always having something new to wear. Furthermore, the bags they use to send and return the garments are reusable, so only the label has to be reprinted.

“Paper waste is the dirty secret of the retail coffee business,” says Brooklyn Roasting founder Jim Munson. Most takeout coffee cups require a plastic barrier that renders them un-recyclable. Although fully recyclable solutions are appearing like James Cropper’s Cupcycling, the chain has gone a step further to shift consumers away from single-use packaging. Offering ‘good to go’ reusable cups, consumers can buy their coffee in one store and drop the cup off at any store once finished to receive a credit for next time. The cups are washed and put back into the system.

The same goes for US food delivery brand Tyme. Unlike most food delivery services, all their meals come packed in a reusable jar that consumers return to Tyme for a discount on their next order.

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All these examples are closed-loop systems that embrace re-usability to combat waste and underutilization. Many countries, such as the Netherlands, have been doing this for years with beer. Bottles are borrowed rather than bought with deposits paid back on their return. We used to do the same in the UK with milk. How on trend is this now-milkmen using electric vehicles delivering reusable glass bottles!In his excellent article, “The Plastic Backlash,” Stephen Buranyi recalls how reusable packaging such as glass bottles had a nearly 96% return rate in the US before the 1950s, yet only 5% by the 1970s.

There is a growing realization in the developed world that the way we did things in the past made sense sustainably. Resources and materials were preserved rather than discarded; infrastructures were put in place to facilitate their retrieval; incentives were offered to ensure people played their part.

The only way we can achieve this is for systems to be put back in place either by governments or by brands. As such, we are coming full circle.

The UK government is planning a deposit-return scheme to increase the recyclability of single-use plastics. Consumers would effectively lease the packaging, paying a returnable deposit. UK supermarket Iceland has already trialed a similar scheme that rewards shoppers who return their plastic bottles. The results have been encouraging with over 2,500 bottles returned on average per day across five stores according to The Guardian.

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Earlier this year TerraCycle announced their closed loop e-commerce shopping system. The Loop Initiative will partner with big FMCG brands to remove waste from the direct to consumer supply chain through reusable primary and secondary packaging. On behalf of the brands, TerraCycle will recoup the bespoke primary packs made from durable materials like glass and aluminum so that they can be cleaned and reused over and over.

Both are steps forward in realizing the vision of William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the pioneers of circular economy thinking with their seminal book and manifesto Cradle to Cradle. They view the world’s material resources as nutrients, ones sustained within a closed ecosystem; technical nutrients describe materials like metals that can be retained and reused by manufacturers while biological nutrients describe those biodegradable materials that can be put back into the environment.

Fairphone is developing a new business model that moves from ownership to service. The ethical consumer electronics brand are working with Circle Economy on a pilot with businesses exploring leasing phones rather than selling them. But kickstarting a circular economy takes not only time but shifting how we view ownership.

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This mindset shift is fundamental to brands overcoming one of the core barriers to more sustainable products: cost. Supply chains have been honed over the years to work efficiently within a paradigm of single-use packaging, where reducing cost is prioritized over creating value.

Circular business models and systems that negate the need for consumers’ purchase of packaging can change this. The cost can be amortized by brands across multiple uses over several years. Furthermore, the fact that packs will be designed to last means that value and delight can be added to the experience where it matters most; in-use through better functionality and ergonomics, and through more desirable aesthetics that suit people’s environments.

This could be a golden age for packaging design. Packaging in its current form asks much from consumers wanting to be sustainable—think of the wrapped cucumber and the food waste versus plastic waste dilemma—yet it has tremendous potential to unlock a more positive consumer experience through the conduit of brand value.

This will require designers to reimagine packaging in a new light and challenge the semantics of the name. We are no longer here to package fast-moving consumer goods beautifully; we are here to shape a sustainable future that connects consumers with products through access and experiences offering emotional and functional cues. And rather than view the individual pack as a cost to the business, brands will need to view them as assets to invest in as they're touch points within a broader sustainable ecosystem.