The last century of industrial change has been a clear development and domination of a linear economy - a one way flow of goods and materials from extraction, manufacture, use and disposal. This model, which relies on cheap flows of materials and energy, has been extraordinary successful in bringing affordable products and material prosperity to billions of people. Whilst there is still space for the linear model to grow, find efficiencies, and expand geographically across developing nations, there are signs that the inherent weaknesses in such a model will be exposed in the coming decades. The productivity and efficiency gains, which are essential to sustaining this nature of consumption, are at a new order of magnitude.
The global middle class is predicted to double in the next 15 years, with consumption of materials rising accordingly. Demand will exponentially rise at a time when supply is ever more challenging, increasing price volatility of key materials which fuel the global economy, a huge threat to business in the long term.
Modern circular and regenerative forms of consumption represent a promising alternative to the linear economy. For durable goods, the benefits of reuse and repair have been widely demonstrated. For fast-moving consumer goods, that are short lived, and often transformed during their use, the economic and social benefits of a more cyclical design model are more complex in origin and harder to examine. This enquiry examines how fast-moving consumer goods businesses might act differently in a resource constrained world.
Through research and enquiry, visiting landfills, recycling centres, and talking to industry experts, this study presents 7 unique attitudes a business might take. Each attitude represents a different way of thinking about what a solution might mean, each creating exciting opportunities for brand, business, retailer, and customer. For business, a chance to build resilience, more intimate customer relationships, or differentiation in the market.
Each attitude is characterised in the design of a toothbrush. An everyday object - used daily by billions - this ‘polymer injection moulded throwaway dental care product’ epitomises the issues the FMCG sector faces. The toothbrushes are designed to exemplify each attitude, but also to resonate with people, to appeal to habits, cultures and ways of life.
These attitudes are seven distinct ways that businesses can think differently about designing fast-moving consumer goods. Whilst they may not be exhaustive, they act as departure points for innovative or unconventional ideas. There are many similarities and parallels within the different attitudes, and it is often the ideas that fall in the spaces in-between categories that yield the most interesting products.
A Participator is a company who understands the importance of composing the whole customer journey. Offering a service, rather than just a sale, and crafting all the touch-points, creates the opportunity for rich connections to be built between customer and brand. They understand that simply placing a product on a shelf is no longer enough; they strive to build connections and honesty between the brand and the user though a service, rather than a sale.
This toothbrush is a bespoke design, configured to be the best brushing experience for the user by their dentist. Forming part of the routine check up appointment, the dental hygiene of the patient can be assessed, allowing the dentist to prescribe the optimum bristle shape, size and hardness to suit the patient. The brush provides an opportunity for a brand to attach itself to a professional body, creating validity and strength to its reputation.
An Innovator’s aspiration is to answer pressing challenges with pioneering products which are circular by design. This style of business approach can radically remake an industry, change consumer habits, or challenge well-held economic assumptions. A material or product innovation can dematerialise, reduce, or eradicate waste or increase the lifespan of a product. Innovating may mean reformatting a product, using a contemporary material or recalling solutions from the past. Higher rates of technological development, improved materials, labour, and energy efficiency, and more profit opportunities for businesses are all benefits of a more innovative economy.
The bristles in this brush are sixteen times longer than a standard toothbrush, continuing from the head, through the entire handle. When the bristles wear, instead of throwing away the whole brush, the user can simply trim the used bristles and screw the end, like a mechanical pencil, to lengthen the bristles, forming a new head. The creation of a small innovative mechanism inside the handle extends the use from 3 months, to 4 years.
A Reuser chooses to create products where customers invest in a durable product which is refillable, has adapters, or replaceable consumable components. This style of consumption can create customer loyalty, and prolonged buy-in to a familiar range. This approach is often seen in packaging, but applying this technique to products where the part thrown away is reduced to solely the part consumed, can dramatically reduce waste and material costs over the long term.
This toothbrush is formed of two parts, a reusable handle, and a bristle cap. The head, made from a starched based paper foam, has been optimised to last a full two minute brush cycle, before turning into a mush which can be spat out with the toothpaste and dissolving bristles. Toothpaste is dried onto the single use bristles, eliminating the toothpaste tube. A fresh bristle cap each use gives the most hygienic brushing experience available.
A Conservator chooses to opt out of using finite materials in the making of its products, and instead choses to make short lived goods from biological materials which can flow within natural systems. All products need to either be reused, recycled, or return safely as nutrients. Here, products and packaging are designed to have value and cascade through the biosphere. As a business, they understand the scarcity of key materials in the economy, the importance of safeguarding them, and the associated volatility in their prices.
This toothbrush questions the appropriateness of the materials we currently use for such a short lived product. The brush, made from starch based polymers, is degraded by micro- organisms after use. Once the bristles have worn, a family can simply snap the segments of their brush, and push into the soil. The starch based handle gives protection in the germination stage and breaks down providing vital nutrients.
An Optimiser is a company which streamlines all operations in the supply chain, to make better products with less materials. Optimum functionality has to be the primary objective, not simply value engineering products, at the detriment to functionality or ergonomics, but by doing more with less. Finding efficiencies can combat rising material, transport and energy costs in the short term, and is essential in the transition to a circular economy.
This toothbrush has been optimised for performance whilst being scarce with material use. Mimicking natural forms creates a robust, lightweight structure, creating a better grip with a single material. The void inside the toothbrush creates the space for a concentrate toothpaste tube. Advanced manufacturing delivers a 60% reduction in plastic compared to a standard brush.
A Conformer harmonises its material choices and product assemblies to fit within current recycling systems. Piggybacking current infrastructure allows key materials to be widely captured without significant cost to business. Investing and adding to what has been achieved in kerbside and local recycling can create further economies of scale for collection and sorting technologies; this further mainstreams the habit of recycling at home.
This extruded aluminum toothbrush has a wall thickness of less then 0.1 millimetre, and lacquered like the coating on the inside of a drink’s can, creating a barrier between the metallic surface and the mouth. Cold to the touch, and refreshing to use, the concave shape provides a strong grip whilst brushing. This is the first toothbrush which can be put into the recycling bin at home, and uses less aluminium than a modern drinks can.
A Partner aids customers to have authorship over their own products and experiences, by creating products and brands which help people help themselves. A Partner opts to make local products which invite the user to make a contribution, understand their impact or change habits. Built on values which say ‘small is beautiful’, products can foster an ethical response of stewardship to the environment or importance of community.
This toothbrush focuses on the two minutes we each spend in the morning and evening brushing our teeth. Made locally from birch, and incredibly lightweight, each brush carries a reflective message to consider each morning . Whilst this small product makes little difference in its own impact, it instead makes its influence as a catalyst for further changes, through shaping a different mindset in the consumption habits of its user.
Future of the Everyday - Conclusion
The effects of the acceleration of human activity are now clearly discernible at the Earth systems’ level. Business sustainability in the future will be about making the necessary changes to survive, and thrive.
Finding a business model which can function in the long term has positive repercussions in the twenty first century: reducing material and energy use, efficiencies in production and a desire for materials and products to return to the manufacturer. This, coupled with changing consumer habits, collaborative consumption, and grass roots movements from emerging innovators will bring round the necessary change.
The momentum in new circular business practices is now very evident, and the benefits which are to be reaped from different ways of working are becoming clearer. We are in a new time of disruptive innovation. When change to a circular economy will happen is unknown, but I believe it to be inevitable. If you would like more information about this study, or have any comments or thoughts, please get in contact.