Is there no end to the Circular Economy?

As the Black Friday narrative of “Consume More!” comes and goes again, it predictably ignites the counterpoint argument in many of us concerned about the pace of human consumption.

Reading articles along this theme, I am mixed with emotions of encouragement — that we are dealing with the problems of over consumption, and concern that we use the same tired story of guilt, bad big business and systematic failure. Its not that these arguments are wrong, its just they are not part of the consumer’s experience. The real failing is that the consumer experience is an incomplete story. And until the story has an emotional ending, this is not going to change.

Consumer narratives are unique among narrative styles as they fail to present meaning and reflection at the end of the story. This failure damages our ability to create healthy endings in consumption. Which in turn limits our vocabulary for when we need to stop consuming and reflect on consequences. As an environmental narrative, the Circular Economy has fallen into this trap.

Humans enjoy narratives. We are expert at telling stories. In our films, books and games we create coherent, meaningful and emotional experiences. These have beginnings, middles and ends that compel us to reflect and take a message away with us.

The end of a story is a vital aspect of narrative. Its importance is often talked about in narrative theory. Elizabeth MacArthur in Extravagant Narratives, for example, says

“Closure in narratives attempts to preserve the moral and social order which would be threatened by endlessly erring narratives.”

Richard Neupert in The End, Narration and Closure in Film, says that

“Solid closure in conventional narratives and histories satisfies individual and social desire for moral authority, a purposeful interpretation of life, and genuine stability”.

Reflecting upon our consumer narratives against this guidance, we could argue that they lack a ‘moral authority’, and fail to provide the ‘social order’ we require in consumer experiences. We witness this in our seas being poisoned with plastic, climate change being questioned, and global warming continuing whilst governments concern themselves with economic impact. Are these the social disorders and the moral collapse MacArthur and Neupert warn us of?

Experiencing a bias story
The consumer lifecycle is bias. At the start we are on-boarded through advertising, marketing and packaging. These exciting and emotional messages promise to fulfil our dreams and provide a type of self-actualisation. It hooks us into commitment.

We have very different experience at the end of the consumer lifecycle. Here messages come from governments, municipal councils, industry bodies in cold, factual tones — the language of safety and security. Although these might compel action, it fails at engaging responsibility and reflection in the consumer. Current consumer endings don’t happen with purpose. Some end abruptly without meaning. Others linger forever unacknowledged and hidden. And sometimes we are told we just can’t end things satisfactorily.

The Circular Economy story
As much as I encourage and champion the enormous benefits offered with the Circular Economy approach, it to fails to grapple with the emotional engagement of the consumer at the end of the consumer lifecycle. Instead, it champions a new purchase — a starting experience. It even mimics the language and methods of sales from the beginning of the customer lifecycle. Championing new materials, new chemicals. It promises a better world; if only we would do the right type of consumption.

This is characterised by the promises of guiltless consumption in William McDonough’s and Michael Braungart’s book The Upcycle.

“We want to show you how people can move from being “less bad” to becoming part of the natural cycle of regeneration on the planet. We can be overtly good. We can finally enjoy our human dignity. We can celebrate the unique and fruitful role we possess in perpetrating the biological system. We can proliferate. We can create more magical objects.”

Engaging ends
Another benefit of designing emotional experiences at the end of the customer lifecycle is the engagement in positive action. The Circular Economy requires an element of this to achieve its goal of separating items correctly and placing materials in the right places. This has to be an emotional consumer experience if we hope for this behaviour change.

Consumers are hoarding many items at home. E-waste is an example of this — being stored in draws and cupboards, redundant, out of site and out of mind. According to the UN University’s Global E-Waste Monitor, this will hit 50m tonnes by 2018.

Consumer products that are lingering in homes can not be nutrients in the soil, or reclaimed materials — consumer action is required to achieve leap. The sophisticated consumer narrative that we follow at the beginning of our relationship with products and services achieves incredible action and decision making on the part of the consumer. So could we achieve more at the end of the life of the product by completing a story with meaning and emotion?

Although, the Circular Economy approach is enormously needed on a chemical, material, and industrial processes level, it changes little in the status quo for the consumer narrative.

Ends Black Friday Circular Economy.jpg

If we continue to overlook the emotional meaning lingering at the end of the consumer lifecycle, then we will continue to fail in stimulating reflection about consumption and have little chance of changing behaviour in consumer habits.

The Circular Economy currently tells a familiar story with old messages of improved materials, new chemicals and better processes. To engage action and responsibility this needs to change. If not it will inevitably end as other trends in consumption do, as a future Black Friday promotion.