Thinking out of the box: currently, retail is largely about mass, transactional relationships.

Can business ever be good? Henry Leveson-Gower explores.

A year ago I was on the hunt for examples of successful circular economy models. I was pointed in the direction of Tom Szaky of Terracycle, in the US, as one of the few real success stories. 

He had set himself the goal of ending waste while still at school and now has a very successful business recycling products for multiple high street brands. His team is genius at finding ways to recycle any product thrown in their direction – however they were originally made.

There was, though, a big ‘but’. He admitted that the one thing he couldn’t get his clients to do was to rethink the design of their products, so they were more reusable and recyclable. That was a no-go area.

The result was that these big brands could provide their customers with the warm glow of recyclability to sell them more stuff, while the overall environmental impact from consumption and recycling continued to soar. Not exactly the point of creating a circular economy.

Luckily there now seems to be some more promising initiatives emerging. For instance, top jeans manufacturers are redesigning their wares so they are more recyclable. The manufacturers and designers are actually collaborating with sustainability experts to create an industry standard. They are also encouraging a second-hand market for jeans.

“Our generation has to choose: we can be green or we can have growth, but we can’t have both together.”

Another leading actor is Ikea. It is promising to buy back and recondition or recycle used furniture.

However there remains an even bigger but. A clue is in the final sentences of the article on Ikea’s recycling initiative: “Ikea’s biggest franchisee said demand was rising after lockdown as people seek to do up their homes. Its latest figures showed sales in the year to August were €39.6bn.”

Addressing the issue of curbing demand seems the ultimate no-go area.  Maybe the only real exception is Patagonia who famously took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, telling customers: “Don’t buy this jacket”. 

However it is increasingly becoming clear that the dream of continuing to grow the economy while reducing environmental impact is just that, a dream. 

As Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times: “Our generation has to choose: we can be green or we can have growth, but we can’t have both together”. And of course, if we choose growth, we continue along the road to dangerous climate change, ecological collapse and likely civilisation collapse.”

But such a choice is not easy. You only have to look at Shell’s recent experience of asking on Twitter what people were willing to change to reduce their emissions. Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, supported by thousands of others, made it clear that Shell had no moral authority to ask such a question. The problem was not the question, it was the questioner. 

Shell might be thought of as a special case. It has publicly admitted knowing the impending disaster of climate change, whilst seeking to sow uncertainty and prevent change. 

But does any company have such moral authority? Ultimately all companies with shareholders are under pressure to grow by selling more – even if it is more of something that is recyclable, re-usable, low-impact, energy efficient or even a service. And many have been influencing people to want more for decades through advertising. 

“If businesses are to treat their customers as citizen collaborators and work with refurbishers and repairers to create local circular economies, then retail would need to revolutionise.”

So can business re-write the rules of the game, so they can focus on what humanity really needs rather than shareholder returns? Can they be truly good?

I think the answer is probably: not by themselves. If they take on the financial institutions which are effectively the voice of shareholders, they are likely to lose – as Paul Polman famously did when he failed to move the Unilever head office. 

However, businesses that truly want to serve humanity and prevent ecological collapse, have some potential allies: their customers and employees, who are also citizens and people with children and grandchildren; impact investors looking beyond financial return and governments who are being pressured to act to tackle the ecological crisis.

So the challenge and opportunity for good businesses becomes threefold:

  • Build shared purpose and mutual commitments to action with their customers and employees as citizens;
  • Seek impact investors who support that purpose, which could include their customers and employees; and
  • As I have previously argued,  convince governments that recognition and support for this type of initiative is a new, more effective policy approach.

Let’s focus on the first element, which suggests a radical upending of retail relationships, particularly when thought of in the context of developing circular economies.  

Currently, retail is largely about mass, transactional relationships. Customers only have the option to buy or not to buy. Shops are effectively dumb terminals of complex international logistics, supply chains and marketing strategies. This is the logical conclusion of the economies of scale of mass production and take-make-waste linear economy.

If businesses are to treat their customers as citizen collaborators and work with refurbishers and repairers to create local circular economies, then retail would need to revolutionise. They would need to have the capabilities and power at a local level to have richer relationships with their local communities, government and businesses, required to co-create circular economies.

This sort of model is already developing in the food sector, where local growers such as Chagfood in Devon develop direct relationships with their customers around the shared purpose of ecologically sustainable food systems. But can incumbent, centralised businesses make the organisational changes necessary?

What we could see emerge are local circular economy organisations that formalise the collaborations between the different businesses and other stakeholders around a common purpose of a low-impact economy meeting local needs. These could be recognised and supported by government in a similar way to charities, while impact investors would find them ideal vehicles for their mission while providing low risk returns.

This might also seem like a dream, but at least it only requires a change in social organisation rather than green growth, which requires suspending the laws of nature.  Our current experience with Covid-19 has reminded us that the laws of nature cannot be wished away by people who find them inconvenient. Even if it’s just for Christmas..

Henry Leveson-Gower

Henry is the founder and CEO of Promoting Economic Pluralism as well as editor of The Mint Magazine. He has been a practising economist contributing to environmental policy for 25 …

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5 Comments on “Selling the circular”

  1. I don’t understand why pluralism has to be encouraged. As it grows it make the subject of economics more difficult to understand, because a student has a harder choice of what to study and he/she cannot be expected to cover all of them. Also this matter of choosing means that some choices will not be as useful as others. Along with pluralism we need sets of subjects to be categorized being the best to study, which are most basic, less basic and not basic at all, so that the effect of the pluralism is not on increasing the diversity and reduced depth of what our students can take in.

  2. The article is timely and to the point but it includes an unhelpful generalisation… the assumption that shareholder interest is a) only financial and b) short term. The world has just passed a tipping point: half of all investment today is climate sensitive, and that’s because investors have realised that investment in carbon no longer makes any sense in the long term. We all know that’s true for environmental reasons but the fact that it is now recognised as true from a financial point of view is something to celebrate and build upon. And carbon is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg! Long term investment is the key to shifting the mainstream economy onto a more sustainable footing. Meanwhile, from a circular point of view, designers are increasingly creating modular and other circular designs and Patagonia runs the largest chain of clothing repair shops in America. Things are happening…

    1. Tom, I would say that shareholder interest can easily be short-term even if there are claims to take a longer-term view. In simple terms that is because if a company doesn’t succeed in the short-term, its longer-term possibilities are likely to be seriously constrained – apart from anything hedge funds may get in a position to call the shots. And of course there is a lot of pressure in the short-term. As to shareholder interest beyond the financial, there may be some but the metrics and pressures tend to focus on the financial. There are exceptions but they are limited in number and some are struggling to maintain a long-term perspective e.g. Unilever and Danone.

      This not to say we shouldn’t build on the changing understanding and motivations of business people. These are also essential for attempts to promote institutional change away from the shareholder-dominated model. But we must seek to focus there energy in that direction rather than some broad idea of long-term wider prespective that has not supporting institutional structure so is unlikely to survive.

  3. Some thoughts! These efforts need to be accelerated, perhaps
    • Through the use of Circular Economy Scorecards for every product-line?
    • Through a Circular Economy Accountability Act that would require larger companies to measure their wastes, and report on measures being taken by themselves and their domestic supply chains to increase the Circular Economy Score for each product, as Scotland is doing?
    • Through Right to Repair legislation?
    • Through landfill bans on more products and harsher penalties for dumping?
    • Through the imposition of a Circular Economy Tax on every single product, graded according to its circular economy score, in effect applying Extended Producer Responsibility across the entire economy? Products that are easy to repair, re-use and recycle would pay a lower or no tax and the revenues would be used to pay for each product’s recycling or composting.

    1. Quite possibly, Guy. However i have focussed in this article on how circular purposed might be embedded in economic systems as opposed to Government having to force it from the outside, which often is not every effective as regulations are gamed etc.

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