Is recycling really that far behind?
I recently read two stories in The Atlantic — “Don’t Trash Your Old Phone — Give It a Second Life” by Kaitlyn Tiffany, and “Seriously, What Are You Supposed to Do With Old Clothes?” by Amanda Mull — that explored the question of what to do with the things that we no longer want. Both discussed various alternatives to throwing the items in the trash, including reselling and donation. Ms. Tiffany concluded that it was best to find an alternative use for her phone, while Ms. Mull concluded that it was best to donate her clothes to a local non-profit.
What struck me about both stories though was not so much the options they recommended, which seemed reasonable enough, but rather their recommendation to avoid recycling whenever possible (at least for clothing and electronics). I’ve been thinking about that conclusion since then. How are to fulfill the “reduce, reuse, recycle” formula to sustainability if we are to avoid one third of it?
According to the authors, recycling is not a viable option at this time because the products that we’re trying to recycle can’t be easily disassembled. The components that are recyclable can’t be taken out of the products without substantial cost, so they aren’t. Take a pair of jeans for example. To get to the cotton out of those jeans we have to remove the buttons, rivets, and zipper, and that assumes that the cotton isn’t intertwined with elastic. Similarly, the recyclable metals in a phone can’t be easily removed from the non-recyclable metals, plastic, glass, and sometimes even the battery because they are all glued together. The disassembly process is therefore time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive. There simply isn’t enough profit to be made at the end of that process. The result is that most of the products we send to be recycled end up in the garbage anyway.
The authors’ rationale is difficult to refute. So, if recycling is not an option for now, what can we do to ensure that we can transition to a circular economy soon? One thing is clear — we must find ways to rely more heavily on “reduce” and “reuse” while recycling technologies mature and brands redesign their design and production methods to facilitate an economically-feasible disassembly process at the end of a product’s useful. Consumers and brands have equally important roles to play in this approach if we are to successfully bide our time without sacrificing the progress we’re making towards a circular economy.
Reducing consumption is a complicated and controversial topic. Our current culture of over-consumption has been promoted by various interests, some well-intentioned and some profit-driven. We have been conditioned to constantly seek out the latest and greatest through the glorification of trends like fast fashion or the adoption of planned obsolescence. “The garment industry has a vested interest in ensuring that the rest of us think of clothing as disposable, or at least mutable,” Ms. Mull noted in her story. The same can be said of many other industries — electronics, appliances, furniture, etc. Ultimately, though, it is up to consumers to take responsibility for their own actions to the same extent that brands must take responsibility for theirs.
The tricky part of implementing such a massive cultural shift is that in many ways it’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Brands will invest in business opportunities that help them make money. When they see enough demand for secondhand products, they will spend the money to build and promote those business models. The increased marketing will then draw more consumers, which will strengthen the business case for more investment. To date, there has been very little investment in these models as a result of the perceived lack of demand (with several notable exceptions such as Patagonia and Eileen Fisher). However, there are promising signs that we are making progress.
Take, for example, the recent proliferation of secondhand marketplaces. These marketplaces have proven that robust demand for secondhand exists — so much so that there is a shortage of sellers! This new business model has led to a change in many executive suites and board rooms. The proof of the change at the corporate level is in the number of startups (including ours) that have emerged to help brands launch their own secondhand offerings. Where there is demand, supply will follow. We need to keep the momentum building with more investment from brands, and more participation from consumers. Rather than a chicken-or-egg, we create a virtuous cycle.
With a positive cultural shift underway, finding ways to reuse products seems much more achievable because we already have the tools we need. Secondhand marketplaces are one example. In addition to growing consumer demand for secondhand products, these marketplaces serve as a way to extend the useful life of products. They make global a process that was historically confined to families or local communities. Rental services are also an excellent solution as these services offer a substitute for fast fashion or other purchases that we know will be seldom used. Rather than buying a new outfit every few days and only wearing it once or twice before throwing it away, shoppers can fulfill the desire to have a new look constantly without generating nearly as much waste. And of course, there is always the option to repair, though tragically we have been largely deprived of this option in areas such as electronics and automobiles thanks to the adoption of planned obsolescence or under the guise of helping to improve our user experience with these products. Restoring our ability to repair the things that we buy falls squarely on the shoulders of the brands who produce them. I believe that this behavior will also change as new legislation in the US, EU, and UK come into effect, and companies are forced to face the angst of their customers. When a company as large as Apple begins offering self-repair options (even if not perfect), I am optimistic that other brands will follow suit.
And while there is still some resistance in the corporate world to adopting these new models, that resistance is quickly eroding. The reality is that these secondhand business models are not a danger to growth even if they may cannibalize some portion of new sales during the transition. These models present opportunities to diversify revenue streams, attract new customers, and in many cases, even charge more for producing sustainable products. They provide opportunities to strengthen customer relationships by demonstrating accountability to shared environmental values, and to foster long-term relationship with customers by offering services over the life of the product, such as self-repair or repurposing guides. Businesses that implement these strategies now, such as UK-based department store Selfridges, will be best positioned to serve changing consumer demands. Being prepared is good for business.
So, I return to my original question. It seems clear that while recycling technologies mature, it is incumbent on consumers to reduce consumption, and on brands to increase investment in secondhand business models (and the messaging that goes along with these models). Change takes time, as does developing new technologies. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. If we are to emerge from our environmental crisis, we must act now. Fortunately, the solutions are already available.