Thought Leadership

Should brands do more to lean on the power of cultural connection to drive the circular economy forward faster?

As sustainability becomes a growing priority for consumers, cultural connection can help to drive behavioural change

Jeevan Georgina Hammond

Editorial Assistant Creativebrief


Consumer demand for sustainability is growing, especially among the younger generations. A recent survey from Harvard Business Review found that Gen Z and Millenials are 27% more likely than older generations to purchase from a brand that they believe cares about its environmental impact. Where sustainability is becoming a growing priority for consumers, brands that align with these values and promote a more circular economy are becoming more appealing.

The vintage and second-hand clothing market, with brands like Vinted, Depop, and eBay, demonstrates the demand for and viability of a circular economy. Yet while consumers want to make more sustainable choices, changing behaviours takes time. Within this space brands are leaning into culture, as demonstrated by the eBay and Love Island partnership, or Barbour’s rent-a-jacket activation at Glastonbury to better engage with consumers and present sustainable options as both practical and popular.

Beyond fashion, home, packaging, and lifestyle are amongst some of the other areas experiencing a circular makeover. Brands like Backmarket and IKEA are leaning into culture to promote buying second-hand and keeping goods for longer.

Yet despite these successful examples, there is still a way to go before the circular economy goes mainstream. The consumer demand is there and the sector holds huge potential for brands, people, planet. With this in mind, we asked industry experts, “Should brands do more to lean on the power of cultural connection to drive the circular economy forward faster?”.

Charlotte Willcocks

Charlotte Willcocks Impero 1.jpg

Head of Strategy


The circular economy is where capitalism and consciousness meet. On one hand it’s our responsibility as the biggest culprits of mass consumption to do something about it but in the same breath its totally at odds with the capitalist model we all exist in. Leaving efforts feeling disingenuous - see Pretty Little Thing marketplace and Zara pre-owned.

The uncomfortable truth is the make do and mend mindset is still reserved for the few - We’re sold a privileged version of the circular economy - those who can afford, are those who engage. The brands that engage service these consumers - look at nudie jeans repair shops or Everlane’s radical transparency approach - the influencer hype cycle is the thing that feeds the over consumption beast but could it also be the thing to fix it? Moving from a model of hype cycle to community education, reaching previously untouched audiences and communities. Instead of using influence to sell, using social influence to engage.

The biggest thing standing in the way of culture being a helpful tool in progressing the circular economy? The culture cycle itself.

The trend cycle has gone from every 20 years to around 5 years (at a push) with many trends coming and going on social media before they even peak within months or even weeks - creating a disposable culture, lack emotional attachment to product as well as cheapening the second hand value of items.

We’re already seeing moves in the right direction with rental sites like HURR and MyWardobe - however to change mass behaviour and democratise the circular economy where it really matters (in mass production) - a more diverse approach to cultural connection is needed which in reality will only come and not be seen as an optional corporate responsibility add on when there is really financial benefit for brands in progressing the idea of circularity.

Dan Deeks-Osburn


Strategy Director


For the sake of it? No.

If elements of circularity are both absolutely core to your brand, and helps it stand out in the sea of sameness, then yes, and well done for it.

Let’s just look at fashion real quick. In the marketing industry, there is a growing consensus that ‘used’ is cool, or ‘eco’ is in. We’ve all seen the trend decks, heard how Depop is changing the world, and we’ve all seen all seen businesses like Zara or Arket launching “resale” sections of their websites.

But are they trying to get a piece of the action, or deflect from the fact that fashion contributes to about 10% of global carbon emissions? Or that up to 40 billion of the potentially 150 billion garments made every year are never even sold?

Inditex – the owner of Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear – has a market cap of $154 billion. I would guess that this isn’t down to a booming resale trade or a booming demand for “recycled poly-cotton.”

From a marketing POV, when many brands in your category are doing the same thing, it’s usually better to do something else.

Bottled water is another category where brands are desperate to claim eco creds. The new disruptor in the water market – Liquid Death – has good green credentials, but has built their brand to be different to the competition in every conceivable way. Different name, different distribution model, different target audience, different advertising philosophy that saw it go from start up to a $1.4 billion brand in a few years.

Rachel Watt

Rachel Watt, Communications Director, Smarts.jpg

Communications Director


The circular economy has hit a sweet spot across culture, consumers and convenience; meaning there’s no better time for brands to be driving it forward.

We’re seeing a rise in circular behaviour playing out in culture: from upcycling pop-ups, to the fashion industry repurposing waste materials, and even the popularity of TV shows such as The Repair Shop. And consumers – particularly sustainability-championing Gen Z, with whom so many brands want to engage – are loving it. In fact, with circularity becoming increasingly convenient, there’s little excuse not to jump on board. Supermarkets have made loop deposit systems easily accessible, e-waste recycling bins now appear on street corners, and there are easy means for unwanted textiles to be made into new clothes, or even insulation (brilliant when done well, a greenwashing red flag when not!).

Circularity also poses an opportunity to work collectively. Brands that join heads to offer creative solutions for consumers (whether that’s sharing waste materials, technologies or knowledge) will not only make strides in their sustainability and efficiency goals, but will also benefit from reaching a broader audience and extending their brand fame.

Those who embrace the culture of circularity will not only help to drive it forward, but they will position themselves as leaders in a space that audiences increasingly prioritise.

Ellie Malpas

Ellie Malpas, Strategist, Media Bounty.jpg


Media Bounty

To make the circular economy cool we need to stop calling it the circular economy. I mean, your average Tom, Dick or Harriet probably has no idea what it means. If you look outside sustainability corporate trend reports, you can see that culture is already driving it forward. Our love of nostalgia, even for times before us, means that pre-loved clothes and furniture are no longer destined to gather dust in charity shops. Instead, a ‘vintage’ label can add value, especially if it taps into a specific era or style, Y2K jeans anyone?

We need to re-frame what the circular economy means for other goods to achieve the same glow up ‘vintage’ fashion and furniture has had. What if second hand tech became a unique way to play old-school games, much loved books became a deeply personal gift, or old electricals a new challenge for DIY fans. Again, it all comes down to finding the unique value a second-hand item can offer people’s lives and running with it. Brands can amplify this by intersecting relevant cultural moments, for fashion, eBay’s collaboration with once fast fashion riddled Love Island is a great example. Brands in this space, like Backmarket, WOB and Gumtree, should think of how they can authentically contribute similarly.

Papillon Bond

Papillon Bond, Cultural Researcher at BBH.jpg

Cultural Researcher

BBH London

Cultural connection and the circular economy share the same fundamental principle - longevity. And so for me, the 'forward faster' approach won't work here. Brands need to demonstrate consistent commitment both to the environmental cause and cultural spaces they wish to enter, which takes time. I cringe when I see brands use sheer force because all it does is cause friction and resistance. As the military motto goes 'slow is smooth, and smooth is fast'. Brands will make more ground if they go steady and set their sights on the long term. This requires resilience, so brands really need to dig deep and keep a hold of their 'why'.

Also, the power of cultural connection lies in its authenticity. In a climate of misinformation, instability and lack of institutional trust, I'd argue that cultural connection is more powerful than ever. For the brands that wish to harness this power lies a great responsibility to be authentic themselves. I'd like to see more brands be brave in this way but like the circular economy, there needs to be a shift in values. We cannot continue to measure cultural success in terms of the virality of skin deep social media activations. It's about demonstrating the ways in which brands have legitimately contributed to the betterment of culture.

Jens Andersson

Jens Andersson, F&B.jpg

Brand Innovation Director

Forsman & Bodenfors

We often get the question, "Can you make us into an Oatly?".

I love these conversations. However, they often begin with the disappointment of an ambitious client when we say "no " before getting to the more relevant discussion of what’s next for brands and sustainability (and what’s right for them).

Oatly remains a perfect case of how branding, design and communications can shift global norms and culture. Were you ever asked “what kind of milk would you like?” before Oatly created demand from consumers actively choosing a dairy alternative? Yet, many of our discussions with clients today reveal that they would need more from us as creative partners than just changing people’s attitudes.

A good example is the shift towards a circular economy. While for many traditional brands, the concept of circularity still mainly serves as salvation and an add-on to existing linear models. For the innovative, it presents new and exciting solutions to challenges such as user co-creation, loyalty, or bridging a brand’s heritage with the future.

The big shift needed here isn’t primarily about influencing attitudes but creating better products and offerings that change how we consume things. What if the next generation of circular offerings were more emotionally designed with the audience's life cycles in mind, not just the product or material? Blurring the lines between product and consumer will create deeper connections and better experiences.

The creative industry can accelerate product innovation by bringing new capabilities from a more communicative perspective. But this requires relationships and models for collaboration beyond the conventional brief.

To drive the circular economy forward, the question we should discuss more is: what’s next for the collaboration between us as creative partners and our clients?

Lameya Chaudhury

Lameya Chaudhury, head of social impact at Lucky Generals.jpg

Head of Social Impact

Lucky Generals

Absolutely, brands wield immense influence in shaping culture and driving lasting social impact. When we tap into the power of culture authentically, resonating with people's values, identities, and lived experiences, it can act as a catalyst for positive change, propelling the circular economy forward at warp speed.

However, the biggest challenge lies in navigating this complex, interconnected system. Unless we collectively work to make these issues and solutions more widely known, we can’t work together to fix them. That's why initiatives like WRAP are so important. Before joining Lucky Generals, I worked with WRAP to drive behaviour change within schools and local communities using the power of education. They are a collective that champions brands like the Co-op’s Soft Plastic Recycling scheme and the work we put out for them launching Europe's leading in-store recycling scheme. These initiatives are vital - they educate and empower us to make impactful choices.

Embracing cultural connection can empower brands to drive positive change and accelerate the transition to a more sustainable and circular economy. However, it requires a genuine commitment (and buy-in at senior level) to make this happen. Add in the greenwashing debate and the scrutiny of playing lip service into the mix, brands are feeling the pressure to take tangible action or face the cultural backlash. It’s time to quit short-term gestures and really commit to a long-term approach. And stick to it.

Zoe Dawson and Ed Fletcher


Creative Lead and Co-Managing Director

Shape History

In short: yes. The last decade has seen the rise of cultural marketing, with brands savvying up to the power of meeting audiences where they spend their most enjoyable time, in formats they feel most comfortable with. Music, the arts, sport, the cultural paradigm is limitless. But, the circular economy is behind the curve.Brands’ influence is strong – certainly stronger than the influence of government or charities. But it’s always going to come with the tinge of capitalism that people instinctively mistrust. Cultural connection has the wildcard of genuinely tapping into daily life.  Nothing will ever convince anyone as well as when they’re not expecting to be convinced. The things people can talk about, connect over and genuinely enjoy.Whilst the sustainable lifestyle is beginning to pop up in unexpected cultural spaces, we’re only at the tip of the iceberg. Showcasing the circular economy in places and spaces we love to spend time in is only going to accelerate the normalisation of circular choices. But beyond normalising sustainability, culture can create the pressure required to fast track adoption of the actions we need to take – because no one likes to feel left behind. It’s an opportunity for brands to lead the way and differentiate, if they have a genuine commitment to sustainability. Just last month WWF launched a new virtual series - the Sustainable Futures Showcase - bringing together cultural leaders from the worlds of fashion, sport, and film to discuss how sustainability is becoming part of every career, opening the eyes of young people across the country.  What greater endorsement could you wish for to influence adoption of this critical transition. More of this please.