Earth Day 2023: Celebrating the rise of the corporate take-back program

If Earth Day honors the collective achievements of the environmental movement, celebrating corporate take-back programs isn’t a particularly intuitive topic for an Earth Day post. After all, most corporate take-back programs are quite small in comparison to total sales and almost all of them are structured as loyalty programs where used branded goods are returned in exchange for store credit, not cash. Some programs seem so small that it’s hard to believe that program implementation and operation costs are justified. That’s why they’re worth a closer look. If there isn’t a clear economic reason for something happening, there’s more to the story.

Survey results indicate that a preference for more sustainable products is now deeply entrenched in our society’s collective psyche. A recent consumer survey found that 83% of respondents believe it’s important or extremely important for companies to design products that are meant to be reused or recycled. Another found that 7 out of 10 Americans would go out of their way to support a company that makes strong efforts to be sustainable. While survey results are notoriously tricky to interpret, the simplest explanation for results like these would be to assume that people aren’t lying and that they really believe that more needs to be done to make our economy and lifestyle less impactful.

At the same time, other survey results suggest that if people really cared as much as they say they care about sustainability, they would more clearly shop their values. While multiple studies have concluded that some consumers are willing pay a little more for sustainable products and a few are willing to pay a lot more, the number of consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products is nowhere near the number of consumers that report that sustainability is important to them. These studies typically go on to estimate the scale of a “say-do” gap (or the more politely phrased “intention-action” gap) and then put forward a few guesses as to why this gap exists.

Studies are designed to answer questions. If the question is how to make consumers pay top dollar for a more eco-friendly product, studies that assess how much extra consumers will pay for more sustainable products are probably quite useful. If the question is whether consumers care about sustainability generally, that’s not what these studies measure. These studies measure consumer response to products marketed as sustainable. The problem with this approach is that, even if a product is marketed as sustainable, there’s no guarantee that the sustainability claim is credible or relevant. Can we safely conclude that someone who wants to avoid sunburn while mowing the lawn doesn’t care about the integrity of the marine environment if they choose to bypass the “reef-safe” sunscreen? If a cleaning product is labeled phosphate-free but comes with a host of safety warnings, doesn’t that send a mixed message? Is a package made with 25% recycled content enough? Some people don’t shop their values. But equally true is that some marketing campaigns provide information that is misleading, irrelevant or simply not compelling. Until the relative quality of sustainability claims is standardized, consumer response to sustainability-based marketing cannot be assumed to accurately reflect how important the issue is to people.

People changing their habits or attitudes is a better indicator of their values. One relatively recent example of changing consumer attitudes and habits is the rise of resale. This change is related to how much people value sustainability. Although resale has always happened at some level, the recent change is that resale may now be happening on a scale that traditional retail finds threatening. Resale rates appear to be picking up for a few reasons. First, previously unavailable online marketplaces have made it easier for individuals and small organizations to get involved in buying and selling used goods. Second, the previously existing social stigma associated with buying secondhand goods is now more than counterbalanced by a rising appreciation of the environmental benefit of extending the service life of already manufactured items. Third, people want to get involved. This 2022 Ebay user survey suggests that sustainability was very or somewhat important to 93% of consumer-to-consumer (C2C) sellers. This remarkable study found that municipal solid waste generation declined by 3% to 5% when Craigslist became active in an area. This OfferUp recommerce report suggests that the average American made $368 selling furniture and home goods on resale marketplaces in 2020, which means that resale could be capturing between 5 and 10% of what Americans spend on furniture and home goods annually and displacing an even larger fraction of retail sales. The scale of resale now appears to be significant to the scale of the overall economy and the sector is poised for further growth. Consumers have made this happen by taking matters into their own hands.

Companies with an ear to the ground seem to be reaching the collective conclusion that resale is fast becoming an inevitable component of retail and the best approach is to join in, not fight it. Patagonia and Columbia Sportswear launched what would become their branded used gear trade-in programs in 2017. Their lead has been more recently followed by the likes of REI Co-op, lululemon, Carharrt and more. Apple, whose marketing prowess is legendary, has accepted trade-ins of some products for store credit for almost a decade and routinely sells “Apple Certified Refurbished” products at a relative price discount. Walmart has stepped forward with “Walmart Restored”. Ikea is testing a “Buy Back and Resell” program at some store locations and that list of locations is likely to grow. Best Buy accepts product trade-ins of multiple tech brands in exchange for a Best Buy gift card. Amazon’s trade-in program is similar. All programs are tightly tied to corporate sustainability messaging. From a distance, the overall effort might look underwhelming but these programs could be signaling a major future market change. If these programs are successful, they will grow and additional programs will be implemented.

Credible sustainability claims aren’t obscure or incomprehensible. They’re specific, logical and process-related. “Preowned” makes sense and is the sustainability claim behind resale even if it isn’t printed on the package because there often is no package. “Made from recycled materials” makes sense. “Locally produced” would benefit from a bit more specificity but mostly makes sense. “Lifetime guarantee” doesn’t require further explanation. “Free of unnecessary plastic” is clear and crisp. That’s why, this Earth Day, Black Squirrel Farms is pleased to announce that we are now a supplier to Marilla’s Mindful Supplies. Located on 438 Exchange St in Geneva, NY, Marilla’s is working to provide necessary household supplies with as little plastic and packaging as possible. Most of the products that Marilla’s sells are consumables, like toiletries, cleaners and beauty supplies, products for which the idea of resale does not apply. Having nothing left after products like these are used is ideal. Will we someday look back and notice that flat-out consumer rejection of overpackaged products and single-use packaging has led to significant and positive changes in how products are transported, stored and marketed? It’s hard to predict but the story of resale suggests that if enough people care enough about a topic to makes specific lifestyle changes, they can move the needle economy-wide.

The reason to celebrate corporate take-back programs isn’t for the programs themselves. Celebrate them because they appear to be a response to consumer consensus that the benefit of resale is now so clear and so generally accepted that we can count on it being an unavoidable component of retail going forward. Those who want to be involved in retail in the future will need to have a plan for how to handle resale. That’s a major change and it doesn’t cost consumers an extra dime. Those studying how much extra consumers are willing to pay for sustainability branding will have completely missed it. And if they missed that, what else are they missing?

Happy Earth Day 2023 from Black Squirrel Farms.

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