Ready for STURM und DRANG?
weberhardt@sturmunddrang.de
+49 40 - 20 20 100 0
Reading time: 15 minutes

Circular Economy: a radical new philosophy for a new consumer era

Circular Economy is a word that, appropriately, is in hot circulation right now. But where does it come from and what does it really mean? At STURM und DRANG we investigate what this idea says about how cultural and consumer values are shifting, and what kinds of codes brands are using to represent these new principles. 

 

Planet Earth is in an era of natural crises. In 2019 the world’s attention was on the climate emergency. In 2020 it has shifted to a global pandemic. Both years have been scarred by record-shattering wildfires in the Amazon, Australia and California. There is a growing sense that we are living in unprecedented times, and that this situation has been caused by the relentless scale and force of human economic activity.  

At STURM und DRANG we are keeping a close eye on what this means for culture and mindsets, and how this translates into consumer behaviour. We focus on tracking the development of leading and dynamic mindsets. This means looking at how people who embrace or lean into change, and who think in terms of bigger social systems, are responding to the current situation. Where are they placing their bets for humanity’s best chance for a brighter future? 

Paradoxically this may lie in, initially, dethroning humanity. A critique leveraged at our current plight is that our world view is too Anthropocentric, placing human gain and profit above all else, and disregarding the damage that this may cause to the wider ecosystems on which, ultimately, human survival also depends. 

Sustainability - a multifaceted expression

The term “sustainability” comes up frequently in this context and is something we are very pleased to be working on with a number of our clients. Nevertheless, this concept is also one we should interrogate. Making something more “sustainable” presumes we are, in a fundamental way, content with the way things are currently working, and that we simply need to figure out ways to sustain this in the longer term.  

Increasingly, we are instead seeing calls for a more fundamental re-thinking of how our economic system and consumer society functions. This is not a desire to sustain, it is a desire to re-create, and in the leading thinking on this topic today, this happens in circles. Kate Raworth’s groundbreaking book, “Doughnut Economics”, sets out, in the form of a circular model, how organisations can re-set the parameters on which they judge success to include social and environmental balance, and has been adopted by the City of Amsterdam. In 2015 the European commission first kicked off a Circular Economy action plan, with renewed goals from 2018 focusing on waste reduction and elimination of single-use plastic.

The idea of a Circular Economy is more than a new buzzword

Circular Economy is a radical, even revolutionary way of re-configuring how consumer society works. We are moving from a consumption-orientated values system, where amassing material goods signaled status and power, to an eco-systems orientated approach, where seamless integration into our natural world, the reduction of waste and careful use of resources become the new guiding principles. We can sum this up as moving from ego to eco, from singular impact to common balance.  

As we go through this shift, we are seeing new brands arise that are resonating with consumers for representing these new values. But what does this look like? What are the new codes, identities and cues of these new circular economy players?  

In Spring of 2020 we ran a workshop with ZHDK Trends and Identity Masters Students to map the way brands enact and communicate Circular Economy principles.The students conducted a semiotic analysis of brands operating in the Circular Economy space, coming up with an artistic landscape of the visual, tonal and linguistic codes that are being deployed to bring this across. Their original work can be viewed here. 

At STURM und DRANG we have worked with the students’ output to create a strategic mapping of codes according to two fundamental principles that we use across much of our culture change work. These are: 

  • How people respond to change (do they embrace CHANGE or try to MAINTAIN what they had before?) 
  • How integrated we are in our society (more focused on the SELF or on the COMMUNITY?) 

Circular Economy - A Strategic Values Map

 

Circular Economy – Codes and Examples

 
TIMELESS ENDURANCE

Original value 

High quality, premium, long-lasting products. These are brands that often have 100s of years of manufacturing tradition behind them, and are made from stable, strong materials with functional designs. Their contribution to the circular economy is that they are designed to last a long time, placing value on being one-of-a-kind editions, and often offering repair services. Products can be passed on to new generations, and their value increases with age.  

Codes: Brands are not shy to tell their story and communicate their heritage, often using iconic, timeless or classic design styles, made to feel relevant to any age. 

Signs of age, worn, torn, faded or battered objects, can also be symbols of endurance, testimony of an ability to withstand time. 

Rimowa - designed to be the “perfect suitcase” and to accompany its users for a lifetime. It offers repair services globally integrated with hotels and other partners.

Rimowa – designed to be the “perfect suitcase” and to accompany its users for a lifetime. It offers repair services globally integrated with hotels and other partners.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angle Razor – an aluminum, minimalistic and smart-designed Razor, made to fit all standard blades, so users can easily access re-fills. For a mindful shaving experience.

 

 

INNER BALANCE

Self-awareness, Connection 

A spiritual concept of circularity, or holism, where products and services enable people to feel more connected to the bigger ecosystems around them. Ascetic lifestyles and a sense of connection with nature act as counterpoint to stressed, urban lives, evident in social media phenomena like Tree Hugging and Earthing. The circular principles here lie in using products that are recycled and made with very high quality and simple materials, designed to last a long time.  

Codes: The aesthetic and sensory features of products express a desire to slow down, for softness, warmth, peace and rejuvenation of the soul. Muted, natural colours, gentle materials. Re-using and re-filling are also important activities here.  

Organic Basics – a Danish fair fashion label that works with pure organic materials and tests each product for its eco footprint. Also with strong social principles, representing women of diverse body sizes.

Organic Basics – a Danish fair fashion label that works with pure organic materials and tests each product for its eco footprint. Also with strong social principles, representing women of diverse body sizes.

PATCHWORK PRINCIPLE

Craftsmanship and skills  

Repairing as a valuable craft, an activity that prolongs value, brings people together and promotes the development of skills. Evident in services like i-Restore, DIY-mending sets, sewing studios, tutorials and repair cafes, where it’s not just materials but also knowledge that’s being shared and re-used. 

Codes: Patchwork and DIY aesthetic, celebrating the imperfect. Combining plastic baskets with natural materials like straw, dilapidated wooden chairs spruced up with artificial materials or 3-d printing. Patchwork products upcycled, and with new aesthetic appeal. 

Fablab - This Zurich-based repair café provides a workshop for experts to help people with fixing anything, from toasters to zippers. But it’s not just about fixing things, the space also functions as a place where people can connect and get to know each other over a shared activity.

Fablab – this Zurich-based repair café provides a workshop for experts to help people with fixing anything, from toasters to zippers. But it’s not just about fixing things, the space also functions as a place where people can connect and get to know each other over a shared activity.

 

TRANSPARENT CHAINS OF PRODUCTION

Transparency, fairness 

Supporting conscious consumption, fair production and sustainable materials, and using certified raw resources that have been recycled, are composable or fairly produced. Here production systems, the origins of raw materials and workers’ labour conditions are important. Brands that elevate traditional handcrafts, work with upcycling projects and measure their CO2 footprint feature heavily. 

Codes: Meticulously showing the whole journey from sourcing to production to consumption. Using raw materials, natural colours and product designs that work with the inherent features of the natural product.  


Freitag – well-known for their Messenger bags made from lorry tarpaulin, the brand now also has a clothing line, using 100% biodegradable materials.

 

Wikkelhouse – a modular home-living concept made out of 100% recyclable, natural materials like wood and card.  

COMMUNITY AUTARCHY

The common good, local community 

Building on sharing economy principles and using this to build social communities, with a focus on the wellbeing and engagement of everyone involved. Community initiatives around gardening, ceramics, DIY and green-living projects, including new types of housing, such as co-living. This means participative activities, where people feel they can create their own goods and tools for living, in a way that is locally-focused and sustainably minded. 

Codes: Swapping as an economic as well as a social resource: showing people building closer relationships, and living in communities including childcare, or organizing swap parties. Muted tones and colours, no photoshopping, hand-pressed or hand-made techniques to communicate diversity and communal effort.

Etepetete  - Fruit and vegetables frequently get stuck in the supply chain because they are not deemed attractive enough for the supermarket. To stop this wastage, in 2014 Munich start up Etepete launched their own veggie-box featuring bent and crooked vegetables. To date they’ve rescued over 2,7 million Kg of fruit and veg.

Etepetete – fruit and vegetables frequently get stuck in the supply chain because they are not deemed attractive enough for the supermarket. To stop this wastage, in 2014 Munich start up Etepete launched their own veggie-box featuring bent and crooked vegetables. To date they’ve rescued over 2,7 million Kg of fruit and veg.

 

Leihlager - This library of things was founded in Basel as a non-profit organization in order to promote community ties and save resources. Any kind of non-everyday object (from tents to hammers and tattoo machines) can be borrowed here.

Leihlager – this library of things was founded in Basel as a non-profit organization in order to promote community ties and save resources. Any kind of non-everyday object (from tents to hammers and tattoo machines) can be borrowed here.

 

CIRCULAR ACTIVISM

Evangelism 

A socio-ecological movement, where products and services in use become symbols of protest and identity. Sustainability and climate activism are understood as a calling, a duty and a mission. Calling for greater accountability from corporates, seeking to expose wrongdoing and convert the mainstream to the circular economy philosophy. 

Codes: Protest-aesthetic and strong contrasts. Loud, confrontational language, block capitals and bright colours.  

Lush – this British brand is a long-standing advocate for natural cosmetics, no animal testing and reducing packaging. In 2019 the opening of the first, packaging-free "Lush Naked” store in London, complete with naked employees, received much attention, and is just one example of their many activist initiatives.

DIGITAL SHARING

Sharing  

Digital applications that enable a sharing economy, where knowledge, products and materials can be widely circulated. Giving life to products, tools and materials that have been laying about unused. Reducing ownership and exploiting the results of over-production.  

Codes: Dominated by sleek tech brands, with community-building as more of a means to an end, emphasizing seamlessness and ease. However some new brands are beginning to spring up and offer more socially-minded initiatives as counterpoint to these. 

Fairbnb - a not-for-profit alternative to existing holiday-home applications. Designed to support sustainable tourism by collaborating with local city regulations and combating gentrification.

Fairbnb – a not-for-profit alternative to existing holiday-home applications. Designed to support sustainable tourism by collaborating with local city regulations and combating gentrification.

NATURE-TECH RELOADED

Genius, Innovation 

Leveraging the most advanced scientific technologies to create solutions that help us be more environmentally sustainable, or to enhance natural beings and processes. Re-making resources through technology is a way to get materials that would otherwise have gone to waste back into circulation. Backed by blockchain technologies, smart energy systems, and supply chain control mechanisms, giving access to more data on resource usage, for example for water. 

Codes: Maker Culture, clean, white laboratory aesthetic, technological machinery combined with fresh green colours, plants, light, nature boosted by science.

Solar Foods - A Finnish food-tech start-up using Biotech solutions to produce protein from CO2 – making food from air. A sustainable alternative to animal or plant-based protein.

Solar Foods – a Finnish food-tech start-up using Biotech solutions to produce protein from CO2 – making food from air. A sustainable alternative to animal or plant-based protein.

---

Author: Xenia Elsaesser

Xenia Elsaesser leverages her background in humanities and languages in a business context. She guides brand innovation, positioning and communications work, applying her understanding of semiotic codes, cultural narratives and anthropology. She is deeply multi-cultural and works internationally with consumers and brands.

Image references

Image 1: "Circle" // Image 2: "ZHDK Trends Identitiy" // Image 3: "Strategic Values Map by SuD" // Image 4: "Rimowa" // Image 5: "Angle Razor" // Image 6: "Organic Basics" // Image 7: "Fablab" // Image 8: "Freitag" // Image 9: "Wikkelhouse" // Image 10: "Leihlager" // Image 11: ""Lush-Naked” // Image 12: "Fairbnb" // Image 13: "Solar Foods"