Reuse makes a comeback
The following is adapted from State of Green Business 2019, published recently by GreenBiz in partnership with S&P Global Trucost.
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
It’s an environmental mantra most school kids — and many of their parents — can recite, a pledge of allegiance to an age of limited resources. Most of the attention goes to the first and last of the Three R’s — reduce and recycle — but hardly any to the concept of reuse. To the extent it has, the focus has been on giving a second life to used packaging (such as bags and bottles) and apparel — and maybe to donating or selling unwanted stuff.
That’s a start, but just a taste of what’s possible.
The rise of the circular economy, where resources flow continuously and safely, has jumpstarted a nearly moribund culture of reuse. A new generation of materials, products and services is coming, reviving business models that would be instantly recognizable to our parents and grandparents, albeit with a distinctly 21st-century overlay.
Consider Loop, a service launched at the 2019 World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland. It involves a collaboration among more than a dozen global brands, including Clorox, Coca-Cola, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and UPS. Loop, managed and owned by TerraCycle — which made its name by finding creative uses for hard-to-recycle materials, from juice boxes to cigarette filters — describes itself as "a global platform that enables consumer product companies and retailers to shift from a disposable to a durable supply chain."
Translation: Welcome back to the "milkman model."
Those of a certain age will recall a time when local dairies would deliver bottles of milk to consumers’ doorsteps and, at the same time, pick up empty bottles to be cleaned and refilled. Loop, rolling out first in Paris and New York, put that model on steroids, offering hundreds of refillable products. That required creating innovative new packaging, designed for 100-use cycles, some digitally enabled, which can be returned and reused. Many offer benefits beyond durability. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream container, for example, will keep your Cherry Garcia colder longer than a typical disposable container. Empties can be left for pickup or returned to retail stores.
Such services are just the beginning of the resurgence of reuse. Another is the renaissance of the fix-it culture, where worn or broken goods, from sweaters to smartphones, are repaired or upgraded rather than disposed of. Leading the movement is the Repair Café, a concept born a decade ago in Amsterdam, now numbering more than 1,500 outlets worldwide. Each features tools and materials to help individuals repair or refurbish clothes, furniture, appliances, bicycles, crockery, toys and whatever else needs a little TLC. Onsite specialists — electricians, seamstresses, carpenters, mechanics and more — are available. The idea is to do it yourself, get help when needed or help others when you can.
The fix-it movement — a subset of the maker movement, which comprises a vast army of individual inventors, designers and tinkerers — is still nascent. But as a new generation of do-it-yourselfers enters the time of life when people traditionally acquire homes, cars, furniture, appliances, baby toys and many other things, fixing what’s broken could become second nature. So could an ethic of avoiding nonrepairable goods and shunning companies stuck in the world of cheap, disposable products.
A handful of political leaders is seeing social value in this, particularly in Europe. Sweden offers tax breaks on repairs to clothes, bicycles, refrigerators and washing machines, an effort to counter its throwaway consumer culture. In Ireland, a new focus on reuse has captured the imagination of consumers keen to do their bit to reduce carbon emissions and prevent waste. In Scotland, a furniture reuse firm has drawn praise for bringing the benefits of reuse and repair to housing associations and landlords.
And then there’s "recommerce," another emerging concept in the culture of reuse, where consumers can trade in used goods to consumer brands, which then refurbish and resell them. The idea has found a good fit in the apparel sector as a means to combat some of the industry’s rampant waste: an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste annually from the global fashion industry, projected to increase by about 60 percent between 2015 and 2030, according to the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report.
Yerdle Recommerce, which provides a "white label" service for retailers such as Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and REI, aims to stop some of this waste. The service enables companies’ customers to return worn goods for store credit. Yerdle then repairs and refurbishes those goods so that the apparel companies can sell them again as refurbished under their own brands, complete with warranties, customer service and return policies.
Yerdle is just one company trafficking in refurbished wear. Others include The RealReal, which sells high-end brands of mostly women’s apparel; Rent the Runway, which offers a rental service for clothing; thredUP, "the largest consignment and thrift store"; and Renewal Workshop, which, like Yerdle, handles returns and refurbishing for a select few brands.
According to Yerdle CEO Andy Ruben, a former Walmart executive, the average age of a customer buying refurbished goods is 20 years younger than the conventional customer. Millennials, in particular, prefer experiences over stuff and don’t view something being previously owned as a barrier, he says.
Ruben’s former employer, Walmart, also sees potential in reuse. "With the materials that we use to protect our product, to deliver it efficiently to the customer, to keep it safe, to keep it fresh, there has to be an end market for those," Zach Freeze, the company’s senior director of strategic initiatives in sustainability, told the U.S. Senate Recycling Caucus in November.
As reuse ramps up, a coterie of entrepreneurs and organizations, both for-profit and not, are finding niche opportunities. For example, London-based Restart Project, with the cheeky motto, "Move slow and fix things," has created a platform for repair-minded consumers who want to dig into closed products. "By bringing people together to share skills and gain the confidence to open up their stuff, we give people a hands-on way of making a difference," the organization boasts on its website. A Los Angeles startup called Replenish has designed "the first fully customizable packaging platform for liquid concentrates" — a refillable container system for cleaning products that cuts plastic waste by 90 percent.
SC Johnson is among the large consumer brands that has vowed to introduce more refillable products. Will consumers buy in to the idea of adding water to a concentrate to make their own Windex or Formula 409? It’s been tried a couple times before with only minimal success. But it’s a new era with new concerns about waste, particularly single-use plastics, and fewer taboos against reuse — witness the success of the sharing economy and consumers’ increased willingness to tote shopping bags and water bottles. So, the third time could be a charm.
Key players to watch
Loop — a consortium of major brands offering products in refillable containers.
Repair Café — a global network of storefront operations offers tools and expertise to repair or refurbish a wide range of products.
Replenish — offers a line of refillable packages designed primarily for cleaning products.
Walmart — is asking suppliers to design products with more recycled content, and with reuse and recyclability in mind.
Yerdle Recommerce — a pioneering platform for apparel companies to offer refurbished clothing to their customers.