A circular economy isn’t just about recycling materials at the end. Ideally, goods need to stay in use for as long as possible. They should be designed to be durable. They should be repairable. Things like planned obsolescence and annual upgrades should be left behind, and there should be thriving secondhand markets.
Making new things needs energy and materials, so the longer something stays useful for, the better. Secondhand markets are important to a circular economy because they find new homes and uses for items that are no longer wanted by their original owner. They prolong the lives of manufactured objects, paying off the embodied carbon and reducing the throughput of materials.
This is especially important with electronics, where there is high turnover and where goods have a high environmental footprint.
The trouble with secondhand goods is that the markets for them are quite haphazard. If I were to buy a secondhand laptop, I could go to a shop round the corner in Round Green that sells them. I’d get some after sales support if I had any problems, and could take it back there if it needed repairs. But there wouldn’t be much choice. If I was committed to buying from there, I’d probably have to compromise on exactly what I was looking for.
Or I could go to Ebay or a similar secondhand sales platform. I’d have lots of choice, but I’d be buying from someone I don’t know, with no customer service. It will be difficult to send back and any problems could take a long time to resolve. There’s a sense of caveat emptor about buying secondhand stuff online, especially items of any value or fragility.
For lots of things, it’s a whole lot easier to buy them new. You just know what you’re getting.
Back Market is a French start-up that is hoping to change that. They have built an online retail platform for secondhand electronics. They sell refurbished goods through a network of partners, with careful vetting to ensure quality. That allows them to offer a warranty and to provide customer service.
Last year Back Market was named among FastCompany’s list of most innovative start-ups. “Innovation is not always about new products and technology” said founder and CEO Thibaud Hug de Larauze. “The goal of Back Market has always been to drive a cultural shift in the way we think about consumption, waste and the environment.”
The company isn’t doing things by halves – the whole point is to get to scale and make secondhand gadgets and appliances normal. Last year they raised $120 million in a funding round to help them expand into North America.
“Our mission is to restore trust and desire for refurbished devices” says Back Market. If they succeed, they may be a household name within a couple of years, and the first place many people look for a new phone or laptop.