RILA’s 2016 Retail Sustainability and Environmental Conference Workshop Follow-Up

Stuffstr had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop on the circular economy for the retail industry at RILA’s 2016 Retail Sustainability and Environmental Conference in Washington, D.C. last September.

We kicked off the discussion with a primer on circular economy concepts and the major players. We then quickly dived into five small groups to brainstorm opportunities to move the retail industry forward toward a circular economy. The discussions focused on:

  • Measurement
  • Product Sourcing
  • Packaging and Distribution
  • Circular End Products
  • Circular Business Models

It should be no surprise to anyone that the discussions were vigorous and generated some impressive thinking and ideation. There were a few themes in particular that we think are worth highlighting.

1. Collaboration is key. This was a particularly important theme that dominated the discussion on product sourcing. Workshop participants noted that customer requirements for lower impact products are steadily increasing. At the same time, supply chains remain complex — collaboration and cooperation among suppliers is vitally important to manufacturing products that are more recyclable, reuse materials, or simply have a smaller environmental footprint.

2. Profitability is paramount. The importance of the profit motive was highlighted in several group discussions. Success in adopting new business models such as product-as-a-service will only happen if profitability matches or exceeds current business models that are familiar and time-tested. Extending the life of products is a key concept in a circular economy and companies will need to find ways to maintain profitability while selling fewer products.

3. Start with design. Many participants expressed the view that it is critical to engage at the design stage to ensure movement toward a circular economy. We discussed examples of products and packaging where incorporating circular economy thinking early on in the design process is critical to properly considering all inputs and outputs. For example, when developing a product, if the designer begins with the viewpoint that the product is expected to be returned, disassembled, and the parts repurposed, the end result will be quite different compared to a design process that assumes the product will end up in the trash.

We came away from the workshop with enthusiasm and optimism about where the retail industry is heading on the circular economy. It is clear to us that the industry understands the world is changing and that their customers are expecting something different — a world where things are designed better, last longer, and have a lower impact on the planet.

RILA’s Retail Supply Chain Conference will be in Orlando, FLA, February 12–15, 2017.