Smarter design paired with a longer lifespan, that’s just one of the many ways to be circular. In the current linear system, goods are written off when they cannot be used in obvious ways. In the circular economy, they will be repaired, taken apart, given other dimensions and turned into something new. Take IKEA. It has started asking its customers to return mattresses to the store for recycling. Thanks to pairing up with a recycling partner, they can now use up to 90 percent to turn them into new products.

The 10 R’s and how retail can contribute

The circular economy comes down to three new ways of thinking of resources and goods: smarter production and use, prolonging lifespan of a product and its parts, finding sensible use for materials. These three ways can be subdivided into the 10 R’s: Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, Recycle and Recover. It is perhaps no coincidence that retail starts with an ‘R’, too, for retail can be an important driver of change.

Retail can provide platforms for various uses: eliminating uses of raw materials (Spotify – rendering CD production obsolete), sharing goods, offering pre-selected efficient goods, offer reused goods and materials. Retail could also offer repair services or pair up with businesses providing that service, and retail can provide spare parts instead of always selling a new item. Retail can further take on the part of information source and facilitator for consumers who want to dispose of raw materials, and similarly can process spare parts themselves or reuse them in products discarded by consumers.

Sure, it can be done

Changing the way retail approaches packaging is another key transformation in the circular economy. Consumer complaints about inefficient (too bulky, too many separate items, etc.) packaging are a great incentive for manufacturers and (web) stores to improve their packaging policy. Smaller packages, recyclable cardboard boxes and mailing bags cut to size are besides excellent ways to cut costs. Increased overall efficiency and happier customers, win-win. Amazon has recently launched small and light. Small items such as stickers, USB cords and screen protectors are now shipped in an envelope instead of a box. LEGO started its Green Box Project in 2014, with the aim to pack products in smaller and smaller packaging. The result: up to 7,000 tons reduction in packaging.

For packaging, one of the main issue is that its design is still – by and large – intended for in-store displays. Such boxes are not sturdy or strong enough for shipping and delivery. It would be perfect if this could change, so that manufacturers made packaging that was suited to both in-store sales and online orders. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution for packaging, much depends on how many shipments are made, which kinds of goods are sold, and so on. New types of packaging materials, further minimizing of surplus room in boxes, reuse and recycling are all part of the solution as we move to a circular future for retail.

Take me home: transport

In the onlife retail value chain, logistics are essential to success. Efficiency of delivery is key: every customer has their own preference and logistics need to move from producer to sales intermediary to retailer to, well, to the customer’s home in the end. Home deliveries or pickup points, both have ups and downs from a sustainability point of view. The bottom line: retailers will need to understand what the onlife consumer really wants – be that expensive delivery within 24 hours or cheaper and slower delivery at a pickup point – and make circular, sustainable choices to match.

More on this topic in the next blog, when I will look at how retail can be instrumental in sustainability thanks to the many new roles for retailers.

This is blog 19, based on my book ‘The end of online shopping. The future of retail in an always connected world’, published by Business Contact (Dutch/Flemish editions), Nubiz (English edition) Post & Telecom Publishers, Beijing (Chinese edition, May 2018). The book will also be translated into Danish, German, Italian and Portuguese in 2018.