It’s 2018 and zero waste is here. From branding consultants to packaging designers, from food brands to retailers, keeping up with consumer demand for less single use packaging will become a big part of business. The zero waste philosophy demands careful design of resources so that nothing is sent to landfill or incineration.
From Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up to The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson, it’s apparent that consumers have reached peak stuff. Zero waste goes even further, looking into everything that comes into the home. And it’s not just for the eco-conscious or “dippy hippies”—it’s now mainstream, with the books, blogs, podcasts and hashtags to prove it. The rise of zero waste as a consumer movement is credited to Bea Johnson, a French woman living in California, who learned to combine the concepts of zero waste (previously only a manufacturing term) and minimalism and then wrote a book about it.
Instead of just 3 R’s, zero wasters strive for 5: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. From BYO jars and returnable or refillable packaging, from compostable toothbrushes to sustainable smartphone cases, from reusable bags, hankies and make-up pads, a zero waste mentality questions everything. And it’s catching on fast. Not only is it easy, especially if consumers start small with 1-2 changes, but it can save 15-25% of a household’s total budget too. As food costs rise, the first big brands to tackle this with authenticity and transparency could be big winners.
We can’t recycle our way out of this: cleaning the oceans and increasing recycling don’t address the real problem. While new uses for post-consumer plastic are an option, consumers are questioning the need for single use packaging in the first place. To be fair, many brands have introduced or achieved zero waste targets in their manufacturing processes, saving millions of dollars. But it can’t just be the manufacturing of goods that achieves zero waste: we’ve got to look at the entire lifecycle of products and their packaging too. Zero waste consumers—and the shops they frequent—may provide clues for bigger brands to thrive.
Former British pro-footballer Richard Eckersley and his wife founded a zero waste shop, in March 2017 in Totnes, Devon, England. Peppered with questions from around the world, they’ve shared their knowledge with a free 17 page PDF. And they aren’t alone: zero waste shops are popping up from Germany to Vancouver, Brooklyn to Malaysia. What we’re really witnessing are the beginnings of a consumer push for a more circular economy. It’s still in its infancy—most zero waste stores rely on small, local businesses to supply their goods, companies able to innovate quickly to eliminate packaging. But it would be a game changer if bigger companies got on board.
While retailers and brands may panic about zero waste, there is opportunity. Regardless of the amount of stuff we’ve already hoarded, humans can’t live without consuming. Even zero wasters and environmentalists are not immune. But they will deliberately choose—even evangelize—products that hit the right notes in regards to sustainability. And people are listening.