Beyond the Circular Economy: What's Next for Corporate Sustainability?
PSFK researchers spot the next-wave of business practices with impact
In Helsinki, a grocery chain holds happy hours to help clear its shelves. In London, supermarkets are offering products without any packaging and in New York, a restaurant never leaves a garbage bags out at the end of the night.
While sectors like fashion and electronics receive media criticism for their environmental impact, topics like food scarcity and food waste feature each and every day in headlines of the world’s mainstream news. Arguably, the food sector is facing the biggest sustainability challenge today—and it’s also where we see weak signals for the direction corporate sustainability will take beyond the circular economy.
In our previous analysis piece, we wrote about the strategies identified by PSFK recommended that corporations most urgently need to adopt. They had considered the ways retailers and brands are integrating circular practices into their business models and the key themes that PSFK presented were:
But what next? PSFK researchers would argue that while everyone reading this piece needs to integrate circular practices into their processes today, they also need to set their sights on emerging strategies that will be part of the next wave of sustainable business. These new practices typically deal with avoiding the creation of unused product or waste as well as extending the lives of products themselves to avoid the need to recycle or repair:
7. Selling Out
8. Bare Bones Business
9. Guided Consumption
This corporate sustainability practice involves ensuring that the business sells every single product it makes, or makes only enough to sell out.
The approaches to ‘Selling Out' are varied and creative. Finland's S-Market supermarkets hold ‘happy hours‘ where late-night shoppers are invited to buy groceries set to expire soon at price reductions surpassing 50%. To combat produce-specific waste, Food Forward takes unsold fruits and veggies from LA's fruit trees and farmers markets and donates this all to relief agencies.
In a similar vein, Imperfect Foods not only takes away surplus produce items from farms and grocers, but has actually designed a subscription service using the nearly wasted foods. Co-founder Ben Simon told PSFK when we spoke to him last year, “There's 20 billion pounds of perfectly good product getting wasted. It's a lost opportunity for retail because it's ultimately driving the prices up on other items. There's a tremendous amount of waste throughout the food supply chain. Some of it happens at the farm level. Some of it happens with distributors and manufacturers and a lot happens at grocery stores themselves.”
Benefitting food growers, vendors and shoppers alike, Imperfect Foods works by inviting consumers interested in economic and convenient grocery delivery to sign up for a schedule, customize their order and now even choose from snacks and other items after the platform's recent expansion beyond just produce.
There are also instruments to help businesses monitor their waste, using feedback on what types of foods and items are tossed most to help them restructure their production and become more efficient. An AI-powered trashcan does exactly that, helping food and hospitality establishments track their waste to better understand what's most and least in demand—and is already reportedly saving its clients major costs.
Bare Bones Business
Progressive brands, retailers and establishments are also focusing their attention on packaging and other accompaniments or containers for delivery and presentation of product or service. Zero and low-waste are popping up across the world from New York to Singapore. Brooklyn's Package Free Shop is requiring brands in its online and in-store marketplaces to sell their products au natural—or, if not possible, then in degradable wrappings—another growing trend.
At trial stores in London, Waitrose encourages shoppers to bring their own containers to fill up on items that include wine and beer, rice and cleaning materials. Prices are “typically” 15% cheaper than the packaged alternatives. “We know the impact of plastics on our environment is a serious concern for both [our staff] and our customers. That’s why we’re leading a journey with our pledge to a waste-free future,” says Tor Harris, who heads up CSR at the U.K. supermarket chain.
Back across the pond, the Wally Shop is another New York native in this category, enabling waste-free delivery via bicycle courier to slash carbon footprints and a no-plastic policy for any needed containers. Meanwhile, no-waste establishments seem to be taking the world by storm, offering consumers entertainment and hospitality experiences that preserve the goods and services clientele expect while drastically avoiding surplus or waste creation. Rhodera, mentioned in our first sustainability installment under its previous iteration of Mettā, slashes trash by concentrating on eco-friendly operations.
The establishment does not allow any single-use plastics on the premises for any reason, and will implement only recyclable or compostable materials for its menu items and facility operations. Further, Rhodora's food providers also agree to forgo packaging waste, implementing only eco-friendly materials. In London, Berlin, Paris and more, across verticals from food to fashion & beauty, retailers are helping shoppers avoid waste or encouraging them to BYO and refill, spreading the low-waste movement every day.
Finally, research shows that brands and services are beginning to act as leaders and influencers to help consumers live sustainably on their own. New platforms and guidelines are cropping up everywhere, like Helsinki's app and city guide that helps users shop, eat and entertain themselves sustainably. Upscale secondhand marketplace Rebag offers the Clair tool that helps clients already interested in sustainable resale make informed decisions.
Good Stuff is a NYC-based retailer and popup experience that not only vends sustainable home wares and beyond, but also offers experiences like workshops and panels that educate consumers on thoughtful living. Other DTC brands have been spotted tapping into ‘Sinnfluencers‘.
In London, Patagonia ran a pop-up cafe to connect and advise the activist community. Nike, too, is lending its customers as well as industry creators a hand with its Circular Design guide, explaining what constitutes a sustainable and circular approach to retail through 10 pillars around topics like materials, packaging, durability and versatility.
From selling out of every item produced and offering product naked to acting as a guide or influencer to help consumers live sustainably, the PSFK reseachers hope they gave you insights into the latest alternatives and add-ons to circular and re-commerce practices.
If you've reached this part of the article, maybe you should think about inviting the PSFK research team to come to your offices and present their research on sustainability—or they could help you set your strategies for your CSR roadmap over the next 2-3 years. Contact our team via the contact form on our Services Page.
Lead image: illustration by Ouch.pics