Things have been nicely balanced on planet Earth for billions of years. The ingredients of life have flowed between species. They grow, use materials to survive, and eventually give them back to the system to be reused by the next living thing.
This has worked so well that all life that has ever existed has followed it. Apart from us.
As humans, we’ve adopted a linear approach. We take some resource, make something from it and sell the product to consumers, who eventually send it to landfill. This has worked well in business, but sustainability pressures are causing companies to rethink how they operate.
The circular economy is an alternative model that generates as little waste as possible. Products, components and materials are designed to be reused, refurbished and recycled to keep resources in the system. So, how do more businesses start thinking in a circular way?
User experience is the secret to sustainable business
In the modern world, creating a great user experience often drives more circular thinking. With customers wanting more sustainable and convenient products and services, sustainability now drives value.
A fitting example of putting user experience at the heart of circular thinking is the M&S Hubs concept produced by Cranfield University and creative agency Dragon Rouge. The Hubs are local supermarkets fuelled by organic waste.
After a long day at work, the last thing I need is a scramble to find food when I get home. But what if my M&S app could tell me something in my fridge needs to be used before it goes out of date?
If, for example, I have some chicken that needs cooking tonight, I could select a chicken recipe and the app would order any ingredients I need.
An electric M&S Hub van would then deliver the items within 30 minutes. The van would also collect my organic food waste, which is taken back to the Hub and fed into anaerobic digesters. These produce the power for the whole store and the delivery vans.
And, as everything is driven through my M&S app, I can earn rewards for more sustainable behaviours. The really clever thinking in this example is how they looked beyond the digital user experience.
Cooking can take a lot of effort – you have to think about what’s in the fridge, come up with a recipe, pick up shopping on the way home from work and get rid of your waste. With the Hubs, everything is taken care of with minimum effort.
Another good example is Splosh – concentrated cleaning products that reduce the need to transport water. A lot of products we use are mixed with water. Most of the time only a fraction of what’s in the bottle is actually the cleaning product.
Reading the back of most products shows ‘aqua’ (water to you and me) as the main ingredient. That means tonnes of water are being shipped around on the backs of trucks. But with Splosh, you get a sachet or pouch that you dilute at home.
The critical part to this business model is the reorder process – it’s simple and effective. When you notice you’re running low on Splosh, you can order more on their website or app. They’re then delivered within a few days and even fit through your letterbox.
Inspiration from the past
While new initiatives built on the current trend for sustainability are great, they aren’t the first examples of a circular economy.
Milk, for example, used to be delivered to your door on electric milk floats. It would come from your local farmer. The old milk bottles would be collected and reused. And you could tell your milkman exactly how much milk you wanted for the next day or rest of the week to minimise waste.
This goes to show we’ve known how to profit from a circular economy for a long time, we’ve just forgotten as priorities changed.
How to embrace the circular economy
When thinking about making your business more sustainable, remember these three things to create a great user experience:
1. Convenience: In our busy lives, we tend to think of things only when we need them, so make the experience suit people’s habits.
2. Frequency of contact: Nobody likes an endless list of notifications. Let your customer contact you when they need something and use that opportunity to build your brand.
3. Simplicity: Make things simple for your users, don’t overcomplicate processes and make sure it’s clear what users need to do at each step of the journey.
By focusing on user experience to embrace the circular economy, businesses can tap into consumers’ new-found sense of responsibility for the environment and increase satisfaction.
In the short-term, this will set organisations apart and drive significant value. While in the long-term, this kind of sustainable thinking will be crucial to remaining relevant.
Rob Armes is digital expert at PA Consulting