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Circular Economy: When consumer behaviour can't be ignored

The European Commission recently published its long-awaited Circular Economy Action Plan, which focuses on reuse and recycling, the core actions of its waste management hierarchy (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle-Recovery-Disposal). With many proposals on how to ensure products are more environmentally friendly and on how to turn waste into a resource, there is one key element overlooked: consumers.

Despite pointing at some actions on restoring consumers’ confidence in green claims and a couple of initiatives on repair information and best practices, the Commission has overall not exploited the potential that consumers have at driving change.

Even the brightest and greenest of innovations will not be enough to “close the loop” if citizens are not responsible when it comes to making informed choices and discarding used products. Behavioural change is key to making the circular economy a reality.

Grocery shoppers base their buying decisions on their perceptions of value; the increase in recycling is partly due to the fact that many consumers are recognising the value (and impacts) of what they consider “waste”, but more needs to be done in this respect. The food and drink industry has been responsive to consumer demands in providing sustainable products and have publicly engaged with and educated their consumers on issues such sourcing, production methods, carbon footprint, packaging, labelling or waste management. However, other sectors are still lagging behind, thus leaving room for further consumer education and culture on the whole process of sustainability and the circular economy.

Aside the many options the private sector can explore to engage and educate their consumers (incl. availability of affordable sustainable products, innovative repair contracts which phase out obsolescence, shifting to a performance model, and adopting clear communication on sustainability issues to name a few), governmental bodies also have a role to play. For example, the European Commission could develop EU-wide written and TV ads or organise educational campaigns on the problems arising with waste and the benefits of the circular economy. Other solutions could include: liaising with the Covenant of Mayors or Member States to facilitate engagement events such as exhibitions, educational trainings or community clean-ups at local level which offer a more hands-on experience for consumer groups; or even the creation of consumer focus groups to assess different types of contracts which could be appealing to both consumers and manufacturers (such as the car sharing schemes) and which could result in efficiencies all around.

In addition, the European Commission (and other governmental bodies alike) should make further funding available to develop awareness campaigns to support behavioural change – which will result in a better understanding of the circular economy and an uptake of more sustainable products and services, which are in a “closed loop”. The range of solutions do not stop there, since other societal groups would also need to be involved, but exploiting consumers behavioural change potential is definitely an area worth focusing on. At the end of the day, the big question is: Who will dictate the developments in the circular economy: consumers, governments or companies?

In my very own opinion, all of them combined, with the consumer in the driving seat. What is clear is that we need to create the right culture around the circular economy which proposes accessible, desirable products and services that consumers will want to buy into. Up to you to decide…

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