By Andrew Sharp, CEO of CDSL, the UK’s leading appliance spare parts distributor
The last year has been one in which we were all forced to change our behaviour. We have become far more familiar with the four walls of our home than we would have liked, we have had to give up the social activities that mean the most to us and we have spent much longer apart from relatives than we could have imagined.
But alongside the many reluctant changes that we have made, there have been some silver linings. Both consumers and businesses have reassessed their priorities, and we have seen a noticeable increase in the importance of sustainability and social value in everything we do.
Within this has been a rise in awareness of the power of the circular economy. Research from the Recycle Now campaign shows nearly nine out of 10 UK households now say they “regularly recycle” (September, 2020), while environmental organization Hubbub found that 43% of people are more concerned about plastic pollution than before Covid-19 (September, 2020).
The role of the circular economy in underpinning wider sustainability targets is now being widely realised by Government, consumers and businesses alike. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently found that circular economy policies contribute towards tackling the remaining 45% if greenhouse emissions that cannot be resolved by transitioning to renewable energy alone (January, 2021), and the circular economy can offer solutions to the 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress that traditional resource extraction and processing require.
However, reducing the impact of our current linear economy will require widespread change and every product that we use will need to be accommodated within this. One area that is yet to be fully incorporated into a circular economy model is e-waste – an area where the UK is unfortunately a world leader. Other than Norway, the UN has said that the average person in Britain discards more electrical items each year than anywhere else in the world, and the UK is also the worst offender in Europe for illegally exporting toxic electronic waste to developing countries.
1,000,000 tonnes of e-waste are produced annually in the UK, enough to fill six Wembley Stadiums. The WEEE Forum estimates that only 17.4% of e-waste was recycled in 2019 (October, 2020), meaning the vast majority of this is burnt or thrown into landfill, creating environmental hazards for years to come.
However, the good news is that 100,000 tonnes of e-waste would be avoided if we fixed just 10% more perfectly repairable appliances. As an electrical spare parts retailer, we have seen incredibly encouraging trends throughout 2020. Our leading consumer brand eSpares has seen record-breaking surges in demand over the past year as consumers look to fix appliances themselves rather than kicking them to the kerb.
We recently conducted a survey of 5,000 people and the results clearly show this growing interest among young people for repairing and recycling their electrical goods. The answers suggest that three times more young people than over-65s would try to fix a broken appliance at home and that the environmentally conscious under-35s are increasingly keen to fix gadgets rather than throw them away.
That is why we have taken steps to encourage our customers to drive a circular economy throughout the year with the campaign #FixFirst. As a business and a retailer, it is our responsibility to help educate our customers on the benefits of a circular economy. Free services like our Advice Centre, which has over 700 step-by-step articles and attracted 1.2million visits in 2020, contribute to this by offering assistance on making repairs around the home whenever and wherever it is needed.
It is up to businesses to ensure that we champion the benefits of the circular economy and ensure these behaviours are maintained permanently.
Certain sectors are already leading the charge in doing this. In fashion retail for example, Levi’s is paying consumers to bring back old pairs of jeans for sale on a second-hand marketplace. Patagonia similarly will take back old pieces of clothing to repair and refurbish them.
Plastic packaging is also receiving some tough attention from across the retail and food and drink manufacturing sectors. Tesco has announced that it has removed one billion pieces of plastic from its UK business in just one year through a policy of Remove, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, while consumer brands like Nestle for example are testing reusable packaging to reduce the amount of single use plastics.
Consumer attitudes are moving in one direction on the topic of the circular economy and it is therefore essential that businesses also get ahead of this as a commercial priority. In 2020, Deloitte found that 43% of consumers were already actively choosing brands due to their environmental values, while 2/3 of consumers have reduced their usage of single use plastics. In direct to consumer in sectors like the one in which we operate, sustainability credentials are fast becoming a purchasing priority alongside price.
Legislation in the UK is also increasingly clamping down on businesses that do not champion circular economy in the products they create and use. The Environment Bill that is expected to be passed in Autumn will give Government powers to introduce new targets on waste reduction and packaging. Extended Producer Responsibility expected to be introduced in 2023 will also lead to major fees for manufacturers of products that cannot easily be recycled.
As the circular economy rises in priority over the next year, businesses must act fast. Robust policies on the circular economy will both drive environmental benefit and allow businesses to stay ahead of a trend that is fast becoming a priority for consumers.