“Circularity” Claims are the Latest Marketing Mistruth

“Circularity” Claims are the Latest Marketing Mistruth

Every week there are too many developments in the world of repair for any mere mortal to keep track of. Fortunately, the folks over at the Fight to Repair newsletter are here to help: recapping the most important repair news for iFixit readers. As a special offer, iFixit.com readers can claim a free, 60-day premium membership to the Fight to Repair newsletter. Visit fighttorepair.substack.com/ifixit.

Companies across the globe are being criticized for using the term “circular” as a way to bill themselves as environmentally friendly brands—without doing the work. Business professors Maira Babri, Hervé Corvellec and Herman Stål, writing in Social Europe, warn that the trendiness of the “circular economy” could make it harder to figure out who is doing work that actually benefits the environment.

The authors worry that if widespread use of the term “circular” continues as it has, the concept of a “circular economy” will be reduced to a savvy marketing gimmick without delivering any real change to the linear status quo.

Use of the term “circular economy” has steeply risen in the past ten years as businesses have become more attuned to the opinions consumers have about the environment. But what does this term “circular economy” actually mean? Companies marketing their products often use technical business language implying that they are environmentally-friendly, but aren’t always as willing to substantiate those claims.

Zeroing in on circularity

While the concept of “repair” seems concrete—the ability to fix a car or home appliance or a phone—the idea of a “circular economy” is more abstract. “Circular economy” is described as an economic system that aims to minimize waste; maximize the efficient use of resources; and promote the reuse of materials in a closed-loop system. Through this model, resources are used in a way that allows them to be continually recycled, reused, or repurposed, minimizing the need for new resource extraction and waste generation.

“Circular washing” refers to the deceptive labeling of products or processes as circular without actually delivering the environmental benefits. It’s a tactic increasingly employed by businesses to mask the true ecological impacts of their operations and products. To address this issue of inflated, and outright false, statements being passed off by companies environmental advocates say it is vital to establish a clear and precise definition of what circularity truly entails.

At the same time, minimizing production, consumption, and waste management impacts will take effective regulation. Governments will need to prevent misleading practices and hold businesses accountable for their environmental claims. And while the goals of reducing the consumption of resources and the generation of waste are commendable, there are many situations where circularity either isn’t possible or doesn’t outweigh the negative impacts of consumption. For example, a study of the leather industry’s practices warns of “circular washing.” While the production phase circularity efforts have positive effects, the environmental impacts associated with the upstream supply chain of leather, particularly cattle raising and slaughtering, outweigh these benefits, it concludes.

How do consumers figure out what’s circular and what isn’t? Tools like Life Cycle Assessments and Product Environmental Footprints are the most common forms of measuring the impact that products have. But these are currently voluntary, and apply to a select number of brands.

On the regulatory front, there are proposals in the EU to impose financial penalties on companies that “green wash.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. has called for public comments on its “Green Guides” which provide guidance on environmental marketing claims—though it remains more carrot than stick.

Tactics for circular washing could easily be encompassed by these efforts. If companies are pivoting from greenwashing to circular washing there will need to be strong and comprehensive regulations in place to ensure that claims of circularity are backed by genuine action. Beyond that, more stringent monitoring is needed of materials used, transparency in manufacturing processes, and clear guidelines for measuring and verifying the environmental impact of circular practices are where a real path to “circularity” would start.

Other News

  • Federal government says “no” to auto right to repair: The Federal government tells automakers not to comply with Massachusetts right to repair law. In a surprise letter to 22 US automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), part of the Department of Transportation said the law, approved by nearly three quarters of Massachusetts voters in November 2020, conflicts with federal auto safety regulations.
  • Michigan’s tractor Right to Repair bill: The Great Lakes state is looking to restore farmers’ freedom to repair their equipment, and the recent hearing on HB 4673 suggests that the campaign is gaining momentum. Farmers in Michigan want the ability to fix their own equipment, and the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) signed between manufacturers and the American Farm Bureau Federation are seen as inadequate solutions. Repair restrictions are costing Michigan farmers $124 million annually, and the bill could help alleviate the technician shortage faced by dealerships.
  • Medical device software controversy: A Medical device trade group appealed the dismissal of a suit saying it could “spell disaster for innovation and hurt patients in the process.”
  • Microsoft starts selling replacement parts to the public: You can now buy replacement parts for components in some recent Surface tablets, laptops, and all-in-one PCs. Microsoft says the goal is to make it easier for “technically-inclined consumers” to perform out-of-warranty repairs without taking their products to a shop or paying to ship their products to Microsoft. Only a limited number of replacement parts are available so far, and pricing could certainly be more accessible.
  • EU battery regulation: The EU is now requiring portable devices and light transport (think scooters and e-bikes) to be designed with replaceable batteries, ensuring users can replace them themselves. It also mandates that manufacturers make spare batteries available for 5 years at a reasonable price. While seen as a win for the right to repair, concerns remain about the affordability of repairs and the potential industry pushback and exemptions.
  • Maryland guidelines for vehicle glass repair: Maryland has passed S.B. 793, a new law that aims to protect consumers by establishing guidelines for the repair or replacement of glass on vehicles equipped with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), requiring safety glass facilities to inform customers about ADAS recalibration requirements and provide written statements ensuring the work meets or exceeds original equipment manufacturer (OEM) specifications. The law is set to go into effect on October 1, 2023.