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.

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