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The Happily Ever After of Sustainable Businesses (IV) – Consumer Readiness for a Circular Economy

Before getting into the consumer readiness, let’s quickly recap upon the concept of a circular economy. (Check out our introductory articles: part I and part II if you haven’t already). The 5 Rs that allow us to achieve this in various ways are: Recycle, Rebuild & Renew, Reuse & Resell, Refurbish and fix, and Rent.

In a few of our Instagram posts we also shared some reflections in discussions about circular economy and circular fashion from the EU Green Week 2020 agenda and the Sustainable Fashion Business Conference. Through the debate with likeminded businesses, there is no doubt that circular economy is our future. Because the linear economy model of take-make-waste is just not going to give us enough new, natural resources to continue exploiting in the long run.

Over the years, the concept of recycle has made its way to our minds. To rebuild and renew something has also become an acceptable way of consumption. However, as mentioned in this post, the shortest route towards a circular economy relies on being able to tap on the areas of “Reuse & Resell”, “Refurbish & Fix”, and ultimately, “Rent” – which leads us towards an access economy.

In this and the next post we are going to explore the consumer readiness in taking onboard this way of living, and where some opportunities may lie.

Discussion 1: Consumers still expect longevity

One of the most direct ways of achieving a circular economy is to ensure longevity of a specific item through reselling it or repairing it. The European Commission published a report in 2018 titled Behavioural Study on Consumers’ Engagement in the Circular Economy. A few key insights gave us a glimpse of opportunities in this area.

First, people actually expect that things last, surprise!

Approximately 82% of the respondents to this study had indicated that they find it difficult to obtain information about the expected lifetime of a product that they purchase, or information about its repairability. However they are motivated in trying to repair goods that they own. The majority always try to repair something when it’s broken before resorting to replace it. They do believe that it’s worthwhile going the lengths of trying to do so economically, even though very little people believed that it is an easy task. The only key consideration for replacing the product when it is broken, was to gain access to the latest trends in fashion and technology.

We can look at tapping on this consumer readiness to zoom in on repaired goods. This could be an opportunity for small, sustainable businesses to provide more transparency on the reparability and expected lifecycle of the product.

Looking at the graph borrowed from this report, consumers are not seeking for continuous replacement on their goods. They have expectations of a fairly reasonable timespan. That goes against the prime principles of our modern times linear economy that comes with the burden of its scale, where it is only profitable if you can produce in mass. Which means for the demand to continue in a fairly frequent manner, things have been made to break. Serving up the likes of fast fashion so that the excuse of chasing trends made it OK for clothes to shrink three sizes in one wash with a bonus hole on the armpit. Electronics that stop working (suspiciously and miraculously) almost the day after the warrantee expires.

Graph extracted from Behavioural Study on Consumers’ Engagement in the Circular Economy (2018, European Commission)

As we can see from this table, people expect a t-shirt and pair of jeans to serve them for a good 3-5 years. Whilst an investment like a mobile phone should at least make it past the 5-year mark. An area that will certainly be appealing for consumers is to meet these expectations through clear and transparent information on the product description. Also, easy access to how a product may be repaired to ensure longevity.

One may argue that even if longevity is possible, people like to chase after trends. Whilst this is true, the study reflected that the economic benefits of not having to replace certain goods frequently, outweigh their desire to gain access to the latest trends. For those trendsetter-wannabes, access economy may also provide some answers. More about that on the next post.

Discussion 2: Good designs stand the test of time

Another key aspect is to “design-out” things that do not last the test of time. Once again, the magic chime from Cinderella goes…

“The good into the pot, the bad into the crop.”

Cinderella, Brothers Grimm

What do we do? Design for versatility and timelessness. One of the key lessons learnt from an inspirational session at the Sustainable Fashion Business Conference was a conversation between Elliot Atkinson (a lecturer of fashion at many universities, and one of  the founders of BITE Studios) and Clare Press (from The Wardrobe Crisis), where they spoke about changing the fashion industry starting from the education.

The role of a designer no longer stops at designing a beautiful and creative piece, but to go beyond the production stage and think about how to make this design versatile enough season after season and how agile can the piece be. And what happens to the garment at the end of its lifecycle, does this zipper make it impossible for the entire garment, otherwise perfectly eligible to be sent for recycling? Can we replace certain parts by more sustainable fabric that can be repurposed afterwards?

Discussion 3: Small twists to get ahead of the game

To provoke our thoughts here are some additional questions I want to throw out there.

Consumers are increasingly looking for an experience in their shopping. Some large brands consider this a way to make fashion advisors and personal shoppers a vehicle for upselling. But many fashion brands create another kind of experience with their customers by making them part of the road to sustainability and conscious consumption. Some have started educating consumers in how to care for their clothing, look no further than L’Envers in their extensive guide in everything you need to know about looking after your knitwear.

Very little people keep that little spare button and piece of spare thread that comes with the labels anymore, why not start teaching them how to use it? What if at a small cost the garment could come with a mini repair kit and some quick notes on how to do so?

For the rather lazy ones, how about repair services with a small cost in the original store giving you an opportunity to continue that experience and engagement with the customer? Why not start creating a network and partnering with providers that repair items and provide a recommendation service to your customers? Small businesses could benefit from small commissions on the referrals made or based upon the item being brought to them from a specific brand.

Perhaps the warrantee of products shouldn’t be one to two years anymore, perhaps consider reviewing the expectations of consumers and provide ongoing refresh and repair services at a small cost, that would allow the customer to stay loyal to your brand and go back to you for maintaining their items, knowing that they are not going to spend more to repair it than to go for another brand that may be a cheaper alternative. Repair subscription, anyone?