5 ways companies can encourage consumers to form circular habits


Consumers are an integral part of the circularity equation and often have foiled well-intentioned sustainability programs. Recycling rates among consumers are notoriously low and the disposable mindset is deeply ingrained. During GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 20 event, Lindsey Boyle, founder of Circular Citizen, moderated a conversation between Brian Reilly, CEO of reusable takeout box company Muuse, and Karen Winterich, professor of marketing at Pennsylvania State University.

“The default of a lot of consumers right now is to automatically replace or dispose of things,” Winterich said. “Brian’s trying to fight it in single-use items. But even more durable goods like clothing, electronics, we still have this ‘once it breaks, throw it away’ mentality.”

Reilly’s business touts a 98 percent return rate for its takeaway boxes in major cities such as Hong Kong and San Francisco, while Winterich’s research on consumers’ sustainable behaviors gives academic credibility to his anecdotal success. Reilly and Winterich highlighted five ways companies can help consumers shift to better, sustainable habits.



Reilly’s service is opt-in. No one is forced to use a Muuse takeout box when they pick up their order. This means that only the most passionate and active consumers are deciding to make a sustainable choice. “The first adopters are the true believers,” he said. “[These are] people who are sustainability advocates. So, to them, this is a service they’ve been waiting for. It’s something they’ve been excited for.”  They are the pioneers that can help shift the norms and it is important to engage them first as a base.


Once companies get those early adopters, they can use that behavior to get everyone else on board, Winterich said. People want to fit in and do what the majority of people are doing. By communicating that others in the immediate community are participating in sustainable behaviors, more people will copy, according to Winterich. She pointed to a study at hotels that prove when a note says most guests at this hotel re-use their towels, the rate of re-use increases. The same can be applied to neighborhood composting programs or college recycling initiatives.  By offering a repair service, brands not only support sustainable behavior but also maintain customer relationships and avoid losing market share to a competitor. “Everyone wants to be part of that culture,” she said. Possibly more important than the peer-pressure model is the aspirational identity angle. According to Winterich, if a company can identify the type of people a consumer aspires to be, then signal to the consumer that this group engages in circular behavior, a customer is more motivated and might even pay a little more to fit in with that aspirational group.


Ever look at a plate of food and feel bad eating it because it looks so pretty? Well, Reilly has co-opted that instinct for the good of sustainability. His takeout boxes are beautifully designed and gorgeous to look at, encouraging people to return it so it can continue to be used and appreciated. The containers include stainless steel coffee cups and food to-go boxes made from a wheat fibre base with bamboo lids.  “We’re using very, very nice products,” he said. “So, there’s very little room to think that this is something you would use and then throw away. It’s a higher quality, elevated experience. Muuse has a 98% return rate on its takeout boxes.


Help consumers out of the disposable mindset by promoting a repair service. Winterich found that third-party repair services do little to encourage consumers to repair their products. But if the service is provided by the company or brand-certified, consumers are less likely to throw it away by default and instead will invest in repairing it.  “[A company] might look at it and say, ‘Well, I’m going to decrease sales then, right? Because I’m not going to be selling as many new products,’” Winterich said. She noted that in fact, consumers are likely to turn to a different brand to replace the broken product. But if they are able to repair it with the original brand, they’re more likely to maintain loyalty to the brand and keep the market share.  By offering a repair service, companies not only support sustainable behavior but also maintain customer relationships and avoid losing market share to a competitor. It’s a win-win-win.


Finally, if none of that works, something that almost always will affect consumer behavior is cost. After a few gentle nudges, Muuse’s last resort is charging a monetary penalty on unreturned Muuse takeout boxes, even though Reilly doesn’t really like that term. He prefers “positive incentivization.” Businesses and corporations can do a lot to affect the sustainability of our planet, but they still need buy-in from consumers. These strategies and tactics can facilitate new habits for even the most stubborn section of consumers. “We all want this beautiful future, but it’s going to take additional attention to our everyday actions,” Reilly said. “It’s going to take, collectively, all of us actually committing to behavioural change.”


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