Material consumption plays an important role in shaping and reinforcing our individual identity and facilitating our connection and relatedness to others. However, production and consumption of materials and energy at today’s rate is a significant factor in driving climate change and resource depletion. With the middle class projected to double over the next 15 years, we will need “the equivalent of two Earths” to support us (Global Footprint Network). The Circular Economy proposes a viable way forward, with a projected opportunity of $1 trillion in yearly savings in reduced material costs, and preventing 100 million tonnes of waste globally (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

"Every day we are losing the equivalent of $3-4 billion worth of materials." - Dominic Barton, ManagingDirector, McKinsey, 2015 

As leaders in business, technology, design and policy embrace a circular economy approach and envision smarter, more restorative ways to design and facilitate longer use of products; consumers will have an important role to play across the entire product lifecycle - from helping to extend the useful life of a product, to properly recycling and returning used products at the end-of-life stage at the appropriate retail location or disposal facility. 

Many of the ways that consumers access and use products in a circular economy vary from conventional consumer behaviours prevalent today, and will require behaviour changes. Individual behaviours are deeply rooted into external contexts, with individual habits shaping and constraining our choices and actions. Strategies for shifting consumer behaviours must empathize and recognize the various external contexts and identify decisional points for unfreezing behaviours.


Using systems and design thinking approach, I spent 16 months learning about the Circular Economy, through literature review and by conducting expert interviews with organizations such as IKEA, the Repair Cafe, the Tool Library, Closed Loop Fund, JWT and many others. 

I then worked with 4 organizations to conduct consumer surveys and in-situ observations to gain deeper insights for why people choose “circular behaviours”, and barriers faced by consumers across 5 behaviours and 9 motivating drivers.

I lived a “circular lifestyle” for a year, choosing to borrow, rent, share, swap, and repair instead of buying brand new which provided her with an opportunity to intimately understand some of the barriers in consumer/citizen engagement.

Based on my research, I developed strategies and case studies for helping to shift behaviours towards a circular economy including strategies for designing external contexts, shifting social norms,and shifting individual values and beliefs. The strategies and recommendations described are not exhaustive and are meant to be guiding principles for taking action.

Business Model and Organizational Examples

These Circular Business Model examples are helping to extend the useful product life. Please note: these particular organizations have been found in Toronto, Ontario, Canada - where the research phase of the project took place. 

These Circular Business Model examples have uncovered new product use from waste. Please note: these particular organizations have been found in Toronto, Ontario, Canada - where the research phase of the project took place. 

Three User Segments

As part of data analysis, survey respondents were subdivided by the frequency of participation in the five behaviours, as well as kinds of activities performed for each of the behaviours to gain additional insights. Three segments were discovered.

The ‘Occasional Enthusiast’ exhibits the lightest frequency of activities in the five behaviour areas tested. Mainly driven by cost savings and reducing the hassle of purchasing new products, this group is not significantly (if not at all) driven by waste reduction and environmental responsibility. When they do participate in circular consumption behaviours, it only extends to one or two activities within a few select product categories.

The ‘Value Conscious Enthusiast’ is a practical and overall product value conscious group. They are conscious of the environmental impact in their decision making, but if an activity is inconvenient and expensive, they won’t necessarily pay more or go out of their way. Environmental impact is important for this group, but other conditions such as financial considerations, convenience, and product quality have to be met as well. 

The ‘Circular Lifestyler & Advocate’ group expresses strong values that permeate majority of their decisions, career choices, and volunteer activities. They go above and beyond to reduce waste and live sustainable lifestyles. Many of them will “virtually never buy anything new except for socks and underwear”, but they will use product access services such as car sharing, appliances sharing. As much as they can will buy consumables (i.e. toothbrush) made out of recycled materials. 

Action Plan for Shifting Consumption Patterns

Individual behaviour is embedded in social and institutional norms.

Transition solutions for behaviour shifts must therefore tackle institutional context, socio-cultural norms, and individual values and beliefs.

My proposed action plan falls into three buckets and was developed using the Value Proposition Canvas, helping me consider gain creators as well as pain relievers.  

External Context

  • Designing for reparability and ease of disassembly 
  • Incorporating modular design,
  • Developing robust policy standards to counter obsolescence, 
  • Designing for emotional desirability to counter perceived obsolescence.
  • Widening the ecosystem of solution providers with service design, 
  • Designing products that fulfill multiple design and usability criteria.

Social Norms

  • Modeling Desired Behaviour – ‘Show, Don’t Tell’, 
  • Fitting Circular Consumption Behaviours into Existing Social Norms, 
  • Designing Experiences, 
  • Re-framing Messaging from Environmental to Other Benefits,
  • Signaling Social Status and Relatedness.

Values and Beliefs 

  • Identifying Decisional Points for ‘Unfreezing’ Behaviours, 
  • Tapping into Existing Individual Values and Beliefs, 
  • Developing a value proposition that connects with users, 
  • Shifting Values from Materialism to Relationships. 
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