The Circular Economy is Coming Our Way. Here Are Some Things to Think About for Your Product Development and Product Delivery…

February 13, 2020

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

During your travels, or even going about your usual business and personal activities, do you recall the days when… 

For example, experienced pilots remember having to use cockpit instruments (going “IFR”) when flying over large cities because the “smog” (usually thick yellow) eliminated visibility below. 

That was caused by belching smokestacks as dirty coal was burned for industrial use or for generating electric power. Con Ed in New York City was a prominent “smokestacker” in those days.

Or, you may have seen deep and wide gouges in our good Earth where giant machine scoopers were pulling a variety of minerals out for manufacturing products.  The American west and south (and north and east!) are filled with these gaping holes. Wonderful vistas?

As a young pilot, up there as the “Eye in the Sky” on weekends as a hobby to build flight hours, flying and broadcasting beach traffic to WGBB and WGSM (radio) below, I often had to fly in and out of the yellow mists IFR. With choking effects as the cockpit air filled.

Or as you traveled past a flowing river you may have seen thick flows of rubber or petroleum-based factory discharges…don’t worry, downstream the ocean will take it away, we were told.

(I remember seeing the US Royal plant outflow into the Connecticut River, with the rocks in the river all rubber-covered! The river flowed south to Long Island Sound and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Where the junk disappeared. Or did it!

In many countries, especially in Europe and North America, the good news is we have been moving far away from those days. In the U.S., the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, RCRA, Superfund/CERCLA, and a host of other environmental regulations helped to make this one of the cleanest (relatively) countries by the end of the 20th Century.

That’s the good news!

And as the linear model of many years in old-line production methods continues to recede in many factories – that is, the traditional  take, make, use, dispose – and that model moves farther into the past (as described by Tom Tapper of “Nice and Serious” writing for Sustainable Brands), the “circular model” has been steadily emerging. The positive effects are being felt all along the value chain.

So what does this mean for branded company leadership?  Whose brand out there in the consumer or B-to-B marketplaces signals “we hold these values dear” or “look to us for sustainability leadership” or “corporate and societal responsibility is at our core”?

Tom Tapper cites examples of products and practices new and old from such firms as Unilever, CIG, Haagen-Dazs, Coca Cola, Stella, and Aesop, with a focus on their distinct product delivery (packaging, bottles, capsules, other means).  

He offers us his perspectives in a sometimes whimsical but always firmly- grounded style on what to expect in the coming years in brand marketing.

In a circular economy, the author sees five trends to watch:

  • We’ll be thinking of Bottles as “objects of desire”.  (Remember the classic, dark brown 1890’s voluptuous-evoking stylized Coca-Cola bottle of yesteryear?  And whatever happened to the little plastic Pez dispensers!) These were ions of yesteryear.
  • Product and Story. Or, as story.  The quality of and qualities of the product will be the main story told by marketers.  (The smart brand marketing leaders have been doing this for years!)  The drive to reduce plastics use, as example, gives smart marketers new ways to talk about product and packaging that has plastic workarounds (in product and packaging). Not that plastic will go away; it will be “different” in many ways.
  • “Hermit Crab Branding”.  If the brand does not have that beautiful bottle or packaging to offer consumers, they can offer stickers in packs to enable consumers to do their own packaging customizing. Or to cover over the branding on a competitor’s bottle. That is thinking like the Hermit Crab, which live in other sea critters’ cast-off shells.
  • The Coming of Dispenser Wars.  Push here for soap – the product dispenser becomes the competitive battleground, thinks author Tom Tapper. Will consumers want “memorable refill experiences”? Will marketers entertain the customer as he/she refills their containers?  (With music, sounds?) Maybe.  Non-branded containers may become the choice of the merchant (more profit!), like store brands are today.
  • Refill Truck Revolution.  Push here for the soap. If individual product packaging and products in bottles as today’s primary delivery modes recede into the past, will a fleet of electric vehicles someday be visiting your neighborhood to bring you “a premium refill experience”?  Filling your vat when you run low?

So the opportunities inherent in the coming of the Circular Economy, Tom Tapper tells us, present challenges for us as well, especially in that we have to discard the old ways and adapt to change, as in the relationship of the brand and product to the buyers. 

Progress is always about adapting to change.  Risk and opportunity. Welcoming and forbidding.

Just consider for a moment the work involved in the disappearance of those old belching smokestacks and smog over our heads and junk flowing into rivers from outflow pipes and deep gouges in the Earth.  Pilots don’t need to wear smoke masks anymore as they pass over U.S. cities.

We are certainly more productive as a society today than ever before!  U.S. industry is booming, turning out various goods.

And that presents many challenges as well – which the coming of the Circular Economy could help us deal with.

We’re reminded here of the favorite quote of the late Lee Iacocca (he was a leader of both Chrysler and Ford Motor Company.  Lead, follow or get out the way – good advice today: the Circular Economy is coming our way.

Top Stories for This Week

What Will a Circular Economy Mean for Branding?
Source: Sustainable Brands
While a circular economy will present huge challenges to most brands’ conventional business models, there are huge opportunities for those who embrace and adapt to this change — while those who drag their heels with incremental changes will undoubtedly fall behind.

Environmental Threats to Us and Mother Earth – Seven Trends to Consider…and Develop Solutions From the Forum for the Future

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

This week we are celebrating Earth Day.  The first (in 1970) observance became a catalyst for action – soon after the first of a series of environmental-focused Federal legislation began to change dirty air to cleaner and then clean, and more laws to address a very unhealthy state of affairs in the U.S.A. (The Environmental Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, RCRA, etc.). 

But…the challenges for society have not gone away. The list of “hot ESG issues” grows by the week. 

Once an ESG issue emerges and people begin to dive into the details, a range of sub-issues arises.  In this corporate proxy season we are seeing top-line issues in focus and the underlying questions that investors have as they bring their resolutions to the companies for inclusion in the broader shareholder-base voting.

Example: Where “political spending” began as a broad issue the investors moved on to ask from where the company money was being spent directly(corporate donations to political party or candidate or PAC) to now, indirectly (is the company’s money going to business industry groups that lobby against shareholder interest – which ones, addressing what issues, how much money?) 

Some environmental challenges of the 1970s are still with us (consider the continuing impact of coal-burning, the state of global plastics disposal, and questions about water treatment such as in animal husbandry and fracking). And more issues are in focus under the huge bundle we refer to as “climate change”.

The evolvement of ESG as an integrated approach for investor evaluation of companies has complicated life for many corporate managers. 

In the recent past, a large-cap would assemble the “top 10” issues list for the management team and their direct reports to address.  For 3M, as example, “highway safety” and related issues under the heading would be high on the list (the company’s important product offerings would be directly impacted by changes). 

Today, that Top 10 list is all about the materiality of the issue(s) for many investors and companies — and how those issues are being measured, managed, how risk is being addressed and opportunities seized — and then reported to stakeholders.

In many large-cap companies a broader-based team will be busily shaping ESG strategy, policy, sustainability team practices and addressing issues-associated risk management on a much wider range of topics and subtopics. 

Timothy McClimon, head of the American Express Foundation, brings us his views on seven global trends – and their relevant issues – that are impacting the sustainability movement today. (You can think about how the seven impact your organization through the 2020s, the focus of the research and perspectives shared.)

He reviews the Forum for the Future’s report in a Forbes commentary.  The report is “Driving Systems Change in Turbulent Times” – with major implications for “how” or even “if” we will be able to address current global “E” challenges.  (Are patterns of behavior, structures or mindsets shifting toward or away from sustainability?)  Consider:

First – the plastics kickback; we continue to produce and then dispose of eight million tons each year with no real change in sight. (We are adding tons of material that will go “somewhere” and have an impact on society.)

Second – Climate change and the impact on mass migration; large parts of the world are becoming less hospitable and more people will try to move to safer places. Mass migrations are ahead. Perhaps as many as 2 billion persons will be affected by climate change and migrating away from their homes.

Third – around the world, Nationalism Marches Again; this is leading to fragmentation, intolerance, competition for fewer resources… complicated by growing inequality and a range of old and new “S” issues.

Fourth – We Live in the “On-Life” – by the end of this year, half of the world’s 7-billion-plus will be online, with issues arising (mental health, social cohesion, personal interaction, privacy and security, and more).

Fifth – The Rise of Participatory Democracy; cities and states lead the way in combating rising levels of protectionism and nationalism, which may usher in a new era of more local decision-making and civic participation.

Sixth – Asia’s Changing Consumerism; China leads the way with India, Japan, South Korea and Thailand close behind in moving more people into middle class status.  But, we are losing our global capacity to sustain them as the pursue the good life.  Millennials may slow the trend in Asia (they’re more conscious consumers).

Seventh – Biodiversity is Now in Freefall; scientists see mass extinction of some plant and animal species and one-fifth of the valuable Amazon rainforest has disappeared. (Something has to give to make room for growing food to meet the needs of the growing Earth population.) Little is being done about this, say the report authors.

How can we meet these global environmental challenges – what principles can be adopted to preserve the good life so many of the citizens of Earth enjoy today?  Some are spelled out in the Top Story for you.

Author Timothy J. McClimon is president of the American Express Foundation and serves on not-for-profit boards. He also teaches at New York University and at Johns Hopkins University.

Click here for more on the Forum for the Future (not for profit).

Each of the 7 trends has a chapter devoted to the issues. 
Click here for the full report.


This Week’s Top Stories

7 Global Trends Impacting The Sustainability Movement   
(Tuesday – April 16, 2019) Source: Forbes – the Forum for the Future advances seven trends that have major implications for how (or if) we will be able to address current global environmental challenges…