How P&G and IKEA talk about circularity

The potential for furniture disassembly, so items can be more easily moved or repaired, is becoming part of the dialogue at IKEA.

This article is adapted from the newsletter Circular Weekly. Subscribe here.

As a reformed technology journalist, I am well-acquainted with the dangers of overusing jargon. Use too much of it, and you risk alienating anyone — especially your would-be customers — who isn’t an industry "insider." Eliminate it entirely from your vocabulary, and you could miss riding the rising wave of consumer consciousness related to an emerging concept finding its way into mainstream vernacular.

That’s why, when it comes to talking up the benefits of a circular economy, we’re hearing companies tout remanufacturing, repair, refurbishment, "product as a service" (aka rental) versus ownership, recirculation of stuff, the reuse of containers  — and the regenerative nature of all these behaviors. The concept of "circularity" is gaining resonance (test it on one of your "civilian" friends), but many pioneers of circular business models are treading carefully with their messaging and marketing.

"We do use the word ‘circularity’ as part of an internal dialogue," observed Nalini Bates, associate director of supplier citizenship at Procter & Gamble, during a breakout on consumer engagement two weeks ago at Circularity 19. "We are learning, with the rest of the consumer population, what that means … We are really trying to figure out not just what it means, but how to talk about it."

Her comments were echoed by Lisa Davis, U.S. sustainability manager at IKEA: "We need to explain to people that we are trying to keep resources out of landfills and bring them back in another way. We shouldn’t be speaking in sustainability terminology."

Both IKEA and P&G are living this firsthand, in two very different product categories.

P&G, for example, is framing its pilot program in Italy and Holland to collect and recycle used diapers and adult hygiene products as an antidote to sanitation and health concerns — particularly for fast-growing economies such as India, where diaper littering is a serious social and cultural issue.

From P&G’s perspective, it’s a practical way to recover materials such as cellulose and mixed plastics. In Holland, the company is studying how to link takeback and recovery activities to the P&G customer loyalty program through an app. "There are opportunities where we can connect," Bates observed.

Likewise, IKEA is finding that customers like the idea of returning their used furniture — provided there’s a little something in it for them to do so. It is supporting efforts to collect old items in exchange for store vouchers: Whatever it doesn’t repair and resell is being donated to various charitable causes.

You’ll also see IKEA devote more resources to developing components and pieces — an increasing number of them made from plant-based materials or wood as opposed to plastics — that customers can use to update or repair items. (All those IKEA hackers must be thrilled.) And, be prepared to see the company embrace the concept of "disassembly" more formally so that customers can move furniture or other objects from site to site more easily. "We’re trying to get people to use and reuse more," Davis said.