Our consumer society creates a level of waste that threatens lives and the environment. Helen Brain of the Social Change Hub at MediaCom outlines three areas where brands can make a difference

Our current model of consumption is broken. We need to change WHAT we consume, HOW we consume, what happens AFTER consuming and WHY we consume.

We take raw material from the earth and turn it into products to be consumed, and then we simply throw it away when we’re done. This has a horrific impact for both people and the planet, and it must change. 

Each year, humans create 53 million tonnes of e-waste globally and less than 18% of it is recycled! But we also invest huge volumes of human labour in getting that material out of the ground, with around 100 million people working in mining for tech. And thousands of them, including children, dig by hand only for us to throw it away. 

We’re all aware of the scale of the plastic waste problem too. More than eight million tonnes each year is thrown away and washed out to sea. We’ve found plastic waste not just in the ocean, but in our food and in unborn children; it has been found in the stomachs of birds and fish since 1969. This isn’t new news. We’ve just been ignoring it.

Fashion waste is another infamous example. Between 2000 and 2014 global clothing production doubled, and so now we have 39,000 tonnes of discarded fast fashion left in Chile’s rubbish dumps. Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created each year – the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every single second.

Brands must take action to make a difference

We need everyone to repair, reuse and recycle everything. But we all know people aren't going to do this alone. Brands, along with the government, are going to have to make it easy, if not mandatory. There are three areas where brands can make a difference: 

  • Business model: We need to create new business models that allow brands to make money through the full product lifetime, not just the initial first-purchase stage. 
  • Product: We need to design more sustainable products. Up to four-fifths of a product’s lifetime emissions are determined by decisions made at the design stage and while R&D accounts for 5% or less of the total cost of a product, it influences up to 80% of that product’s resource footprint.
  • Skillsets: Changing what people do AFTER they have consumed a product, means making some hefty changes in our behaviour. There is a huge amount of knowledge out there on how to drive behaviour change through communications – we now need more of us to become experts in this skill.

Create ‘lifetime brands’

This is an untapped opportunity for expanding the relationship with customers and creating new revenue streams that should be explored further. Brands like Berghaus’ Repair Haus program encourage people to repair their clothes rather than replacing them by offering free fixes for life. My assumption is that this is accounted for in a higher original selling price and could set a bar for using higher prices as a way of increasing profit, whilst lowering the impact on the environment. 

In the electronics sector, Right to Repair legislation is driving great change. Manufacturers now have to make spare parts available for various technology, including washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, and TVs for the first time and repairs need to be possible using everyday tools. This takes the work being done by smaller brands like Fairphone, or community movements like repair cafes, and moves it to the mainstream, offering an ongoing revenue stream for brands at the same time.

Other businesses have been tapping into the reuse market for a long time, such as Autotrader or eBay. What's different now is the scale of the reuse and resale market; in 2020, eBay reported a 404% YoY increase in pre-loved sales since 2018.

There are also more product categories where reusable items have huge growth, with the personal care space, in particular, seeing huge amounts of innovation. For instance, period pants saw a 125% increase in UK online searches in 2021 vs 2020. As a result, menstrual cups, safety razors for women, reusable make-up pads and reusable nappies are now stocked in the majority of high street retailers. 

Reusing our stuff is becoming more normal thanks to brands simply showing that it is so – John Lewis’ addition of a ‘reusable name label’ on kids coats is just one example. Another is Ikea’s disassembly instruction concept that allows people to easily take apart and reuse their furniture. 

Make recycling easier

Recycling can’t be the primary route to a more sustainable future, but it still has an important role to play, and we do need to acknowledge and learn from brands such as Boots, Runners Need, and UK supermarkets that are trying make it easier for customers to recycle. By building up recognition amongst businesses, post-consumption waste can become as important in the product design stage as the product design itself.

Timberloop is a good example of not only introducing a take-back scheme but looking at how to redesign boots in the first place, to make reuse and recycling easier and more efficient. 

What we’re seeing here is brands trying to fill in gaps within recycling ecosystems, and it's not easy – for example, Nike had to close their Reuse Your Shoe scheme due to challenges raised by Brexit. We need systemic change to tackle our waste problem at scale – and that means government intervention and legislation for both businesses and their customers. 

Take responsibility to reduce societal waste

So how does the brand fit into this complex equation? Let’s revisit the three key factors that we identified earlier:

  • Business model: Brands need to count success in terms of customer lifetime value. How can they serve their customers, and charge for this service beyond an initial purchase? 
  • Product: Design more sustainable products. This means not just products that use sustainable materials, but products that can be easily repaired, reused or recycled. A long shelf life needs to be a KPI for all product designers. 
  • Skillsets: Encouraging people to repair, reuse or recycle requires a significant shift in our collective behaviour. Marketers will need to become experts in experience design and behavioural change theory to support this change. 

It is critical that we change what happens AFTER consumption, for the sake of the planet and the people living on it. For brands there is another challenge on top of this, which is to figure out how to change the way in which they make money and measure success, if they want to still be around in 5–10 years. 

If brands don’t make these changes voluntarily, they may soon be forced to. Getting ahead of the curve will create competitive advantage for brands, increased satisfaction for customers and a more sustainable way of living. Win, win and win.