In a circular economy, companies repeat a product’s life cycle to reuse materials and keep modern consumption sustainable. It’s society’s way of making up for all the years of piled junk sitting (and floating) around the world. Materials are originally used and trashed for two reasons:
1. The materials don’t seem reusable.
2. There isn’t a system in place to recapture and revive materials.
Social entrepreneurs, alongside companies with strong ESG practices, experiment with sustainable options of restarting the product lifestyle. Materials reentering the product life cycle is environmentally friendly, and also saves resources for companies. Just think about it; restarting the life cycle means there is less cost for tasks like sourcing raw materials or large scale manufacturing. Brand awareness is another part of the company that gets impacted positively. Saving the planet, cutting costs, and attracting a loyal audience are convincing enough to make teams find a new life for their products.
How fast can a company restart a product’s life cycle?
When you think about restarting the product life cycle, recycling or perhaps biodegradable materials may come to mind. Recycling collects waste that can be reused, but it doesn’t apply to all materials. Items made from certain plastics or fibers are not considered recyclable. Biodegradable materials break down so the materials go back into natural resources, but the timeline is not usually efficient for the current times. The process doesn’t happen fast enough to meet the demands of what humans currently take from natural resources. Where does sustainability develop from there?
Essentially, we want an option that takes a slightly shorter time, maintains sustainability, and doesn’t cause a shortage for customers.
The product life cycle can follow options that actively revive the purpose of the materials. Compared to other gradual options, this makes sustainability easier to grasp in the short-term. Companies will be able to produce less new products, and market demand can be fulfilled while we figure out how to ease up on our consumption habits. It’s possible that an active restart isn’t reasonable for every product, but exploring the options is worth a try.
What are your options to actively restart a product’s life cycle?
Restart is rebirth for products. Giving products a new start means the materials can be put towards a similar product as their original purpose, or show up in a completely new way in another product. Social entrepreneurs determine where the materials are needed the most. In this way, they create a path for products to never waste away again.
You’ll see that some options are already common or recognized. The key is knowing how to apply these options to different products within a social enterprise model. Below are examples of active options to restart a product’s life cycle:
Creating a Second Hand Program
If a brand sells products that can be passed to another consumer after use, they can start a second hand program within their company.
This type of program is typically seen for retail products such as clothing and technology. Traditionally, thrift stores are literally second hand goods that are given a new life cycle when purchased by a different consumer. Aside from that, more brands are creating internal second hand programs where they’ll take mildly used clothes from their brand to be resold at a lower price.
As for technology, you may be familiar with companies that buy old computers, speakers, or the like to be resold. This is common for phone upgrades as well, where a person can turn-in their phone in exchange for a discount on their new phone. The phone that the person turns in will be resold at a lower price, or in other cases, broken down to repurpose some parts.
Repair products and resell the items
Speaking of technology, repair programs are a very popular option for restarting a product’s life cycle. Companies take time to fix products that were discarded for newer products.
Phones that are turned in can be upgraded or fixed, then resold. Actually, it’s not only phones, but this can happen with other tech. You see these tech options in the market as “refurbished.” Tech from repair programs are usually sold at a lower price despite being fixed, since there is still a chance of a problem occurring (depending on the original issue).
Clothing can also apply in this option. Customers can send back ripped clothes or clothes with undone stitching in exchange for a discount. The company repairs the clothing (or possibly upcycle the fixed garments) to revive the materials as a “new” product. It wouldn’t be a surprise for this to be used elsewhere, such as with furniture or home decor. It’s a convenient approach to sustainability and profit. Companies earn a profit by making money without investing in manufacturing an entirely new product.
Break down products into a resource material
Beyond taking back products to reuse them, companies have a chance to revamp the materials into a different product. Products can be collected and be sent back through the manufacturing process completely.
If a company is collecting plastic materials, they could of course melt the plastic down to be reshaped into a similar or different product. Other materials this could work for include wood (not melted, but wood chips), bio plastics, or metals. A company running their own program could have a send-back-program, including a facility that specifically breaks down old materials to be used again.
By treating the gathered materials as a new resource, products have an almost infinite loop to go through. That’s what a circular economy is all about. It’s about forming a cradle to cradle mentality around the products being going out into the world.
Recycle or Upcylce Materials through a company program
The classic options. We mentioned earlier that recycling can feel a bit passive, however, there are ways to make the process more active.
If there is a return or turn-in program directly to a company, the time between collection and reuse is much shorter. The thing about community recycling (while awesome) is that it’s generally one huge mesh of different recyclable materials that need to be sorted and sent somewhere to be used. Companies recycling their own products already know how to sort the materials, what to use the materials for, and how to care for the materials.
An example would be a cosmetic brand. In cosmetics, customers can send back empty bottles that the company can refill and send out again as a new product. Customers wouldn’t need to wait for their exact bottle to come back, since there will already be other reused bottles that the company can send to customers.
As for upcycling, companies can turn materials into a completely different product, and possibly for a new purpose. You can definitely see this in the fashion industry. Tons of designers are finding creative ways to revamp items, like turning blazers into dresses. Instead of wasting the materials, they are put to good use and offer a new experience.
How can you make this official?
Exploring active options like this is almost like an introduction or less formal discussion of what can be thought of as closed-loop manufacturing. In social enterprise, we care about the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. When you restart a product’s life cycle: customers still get awesome products, the environment is better preserved, and profit margins increase. Reviving a product or two could be just what a company needs.