Want to put your commitment to sustainability front and center with customers? Then give them products that can be easily recycled.

Not only are these programs good for Planet Earth, but they’re also good business. More and more, consumers are interested in finding retailers and brands who are committed to recycling, and they’re rewarding them with greater loyalty and more purchases.

Nike: Recycling, Designed Right In

Successful recycling programs aren’t add-ons or afterthoughts—they’re the result of focused design thinking. Remember: 80% of a product’s environmental impact can be influenced in the design process.

No one understands the design-for-sustainability mantra better than Nike. Since 1990, the company has recycled 33 million pairs of shoes through its Reuse a Shoe program. And its power comes from two thoughtful design elements: (1) the shoes generate little waste to begin with, and (2) the shoes are designed to be easily repurposed at the end of their life.

In fact, Nike has created Nike Grind, “a suite of high-performance materials made from recycled footwear and manufacturing scrap.” Nike Grind transforms community sports facilities by resurfacing running tracks, basketball courts, and other play top surfaces.

Now that’s world-class recycling, all designed from the git-go.

More Recycling Success Stories

I realize I use many examples from the retail fashion space to illustrate the challenges and triumphs of the circular economy. But that’s for two good reasons.

First, there are tons of these items making their way into landfills. In the US alone, we throw away an estimated 17 million tons of textiles annually. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation tells us that a garbage truckload of textiles is incinerated or dumped into a landfill every second.

And second, the apparel industry offers us hope. Retailers, brands, suppliers, and consumers are getting more serious about sustainable solutions. After years of foot-dragging and half-hearted efforts, the industry is finally starting to overcome the mindset, infrastructure, and cost issues that have slowed the progress of circular initiatives.

But we can also find significant wins to celebrate beyond fashion. Cars, for example. Each year, the automotive industry is responsible for approximately 20% of retail sales in the US. But it has also produced CO2-emitting cars that have wreaked havoc on the environment.

To help stop the pollution, more and more consumers are opting to buy electric and solar vehicles. But carmakers are also designing cars that can be recycled at the end of their life.

In fact, automobiles are the most recycled consumer product in the world today, and on the average, the industry now designs cars so that 80% of its parts can recycled. Leading manufacturers, such as BMW, have reached the 95% mark.

The point of all these examples? Whether the industry is big or small, or the products simple or complex, you can find ways to make your product recyclable. The trick is to get people to recognize the product and then use it.

Incentives and New Habits

Today, 35% of consumer waste is being recycled. People have options when it comes to recycling glass, cardboard, and cans. But it’s not so easy to recycle consumer goods themselves.

That’s why brands and retailers are creating ways to collect end-of-life products.

Consumers are rightfully anxious about the waste they’re generating through consumption. They understand that they’re part of the problem, and they’re seeking partners to help them change their behaviors.

Enter the incentive.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that becoming a parent had made me a poorer global citizen. I was guilty of more consumption and more waste. But one source of pain that really stuck out for me? What to do with the essential-but-not-used-for-long baby carrier and car seats. Two growing kids and two cars meant that we had 6 car seats, each with a life of about 3 years.

Now I had tried to give my gently used baby gear to as many friends and charities as possible. But car seats and carriers were another story. Both products are highly regulated and cannot be easily donated due to safety and liability issues.

So what’s a parent to do?

Find a retailer to rescue them. Since 2016, Target has held an annual event inviting guests to bring in used, expired, or damaged car seats and boosters of all kinds. For me, the gift of reclaiming space in my garage would have been enough to get me to take advantage of the offer. But Target also offered an incentive of 20% off your next seat purchase.

Wal-Mart’s program launched in 2019, with a $30 gift card given in change for seats.

Patagonia, Madewell, and Best Buy also offer recycle-for-a-rebate programs. Each is crafted to give their customers an incentive to recycle the old stuff (and perhaps find something gently used to replace it).

Even better, the technology to help facilitate these incentives is exploding.

Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, can be used to track items that are returned, as well as collect information about them, such as what the item is made of. Blockchain can be used to create a safe and secure rewards system. And trust me, a deep dive of these digital solutions alone would be its own book.

In the future, we’ll revisit and expand on this topic. But for now, just remember it’ll only become easier to use technology—and take other creative steps—to support recycling and become more circular.

Next Up

We’ll take a closer look at new business models that are making it easier and easier to extend the life of products that consumers no longer need.

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