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Savings matter more than sustainability for UK circular economy consumers

Published on 22/09/2022 by David Jani

The British public loves a bargain, and that has been reflected in GetApp’s latest study investigating the UK’s circular economy consumer behaviour. Rather than rewarding sellers for cutting waste, improving recycling practices, or lowering energy uses, our participants showed that cost saving was the main reason they bought second-hand and used products. 

UK consumers participate in the circular economy by buying second-hand clothes

Circular economy sustainability promotes reuse and encourages practices that extend the lifespan of a product. A common way this can be done today is by buying and selling second-hand products.

In our first look at the UK circular economy, we found that many members of the public think companies are simply using circular practices to enhance their profits. However, when we examined consumer behaviour we found some similarities between the two.

For our second report, we asked our 1,027 participants to tell us more about their own use habits within the circular economy. We did this by questioning them on how they engage with the second-hand goods market and the usage of apps and services that aim to eliminate food waste.

Our full methodology can be found at the bottom of the page. 

Is circular economy consumer behaviour present in the second-hand market?

Incentives can drive consumers to buy specific goods, whether there is the promise of a discount or the chance to encourage sustainability in the economy. A major element in circular practices is the reuse or recycling of products to extend their lifespan, and the buying and selling of second-hand goods can make up a big part of this.

There is a broad and well-established second-hand market in the UK, from charity shops to car boot sales. Britain and Northern Ireland are home to over 3,800 shops selling second-hand products and 11,200 charity shops, which receive 90% of their inventory from donations. This is in addition to an active online sales ecosystem of used and preowned items. 

To investigate how consumers play their part in the UK’s circular economy, we asked our participants for details on how and why they buy and sell second-hand goods. The results speak for themselves.  

Graph showing reasons that British consumers engage with circular economy products

One of the clearest advantages of the circular economy for consumers is money saving. This is very similar to our findings in the first half of this report, whereby survey-takers thought businesses were motivated by profits. 

More than four times as many of our sample said they mainly bought second-hand products to save money rather than to promote sustainable consumption. 

Another factor that seems to indicate a lack of engagement with circular economy practices is the frequency that consumers choose to buy second-hand items. Overall we observed a lack of commitment and motivation from the public.

Graph examining the frequency that people purchase second-hand items

Whilst nearly half our sample (47%) said they sometimes buy second-hand items, it is not often their first choice. This appears to show that people would perhaps prefer to buy new products if they are available or affordable.

Only 10% of the people we asked expressed a strong preference for buying second-hand. Yet, more participants said they did so infrequently (28%) or never (15%).

It seems clear from these findings that the public has a passive attitude towards the second-hand market in general. Many people will engage with it on occasion, but it might not be their primary choice when making a purchase. 

Despite this non-commital approach, consumers, at least in the main, self-report an interest in extending the lifespan of products and/or donating or gifting items they no longer use. This shows some interest in supporting the circular economy, even if it’s a secondary concern. 

infographic showing levels of agreement or disagreement with 4 statements about circular economy second-hand goods

We also asked participants to state their level of agreement with several statements about reusing or renting products to create more sustainable levels of consumption and production. 

Overall we found that 86% agreed with the idea of donating used products they no longer needed. Additionally, 87% agreed they cared about extending product lifecycles.

The most substantial levels of disagreement were, however, reserved for the idea of clothing rental. Nearly half (48%) of the sample indicated strong disagreement with this statement, whilst another 32% somewhat disagreed.

What puts people off buying second-hand goods?

As the data above shows, there is a significant chunk of the UK public that does not wish to buy second-hand goods or that does so but only infrequently. This suggests several pain points that could affect habitual engagement with the UK’s circular economy.

To find out more about the factors that put consumers off purchasing second-hand items, we asked the participants who didn’t have any interest in buying used products to name up to three reasons that stopped them from engaging with the circular economy. 

graphic displaying top 5 main reasons that UK consumers aren’t interested in buying

Overall, quality concerns and a preference for buying brand new items were the biggest concerns for this segment of our sample. The largest group, making up 64% of all answers, said they preferred brand-new products. A further 53% and 48% of answers expressed concerns about the quality and lifespan of second-hand items. 

Whilst this group of people with no interest at all in buying second-hand goods only represents a small proportion of our sample, the desire to own newly produced products and distrust of used, second-hand items represent one of the biggest challenges for the circular economy.

This negative feeling towards reused or refurbished goods is something companies should take into account when selling them. However, there are ways this could be mitigated, such as giving consumers clarity about the returns policy and offering limited guarantees on products. 

How often do people sell second-hand goods?

The buying of second-hand goods makes up only one part of the equation. For the circular economy to function in this realm, there need to be sellers offering used and second-hand items.

In many cases, this is something the public can participate in themselves rather than relying just on companies to do the right thing. As we’ve already mentioned, charity shop donations are a common way for people to share second-hand items with the buying public. 

However, it is also common to see individuals selling second-hand goods either through offline or online marketplaces. As a result, we sought to investigate this practice further.

Graphic displaying the frequency that participants sell second-hand products

When we asked participants about their second-hand selling habits, we found that 74% of our sample had sold items before. However, of that group, only 11% did so frequently, whilst the rest would only do so occasionally.

To understand the motivations of those who did sell used products a bit better, we asked them for their main reasons for doing so. Rather unsurprisingly, just like customers buying second-hand items, the primary goal of sellers was income related. 

graphic showing the main reasons for selling second-hand products

Again, making money outranks the green credentials of the circular economy, at least in terms of selling second-hand products. Much like the companies in our last report, the UK public also is eager to use the circular economy to earn extra money.

What was surprising was quite how much considerations about income outstripped sustainability. Three times more participants (54%) preferred the extra income from selling used products compared to those who cited sustainability as their primary motivation (18%).

Additionally, just as many (18%) specified that their primary motive for selling second-hand items was down to a lack of space at home. 

This seems to show a similar pattern to those who bought second-hand products. Again, it is a secondary consideration for those who engage with it, and the focus is more on making money than working towards more sustainability in the circular economy.

Do food waste apps whet the public’s appetite?

Another major concern for industry and the public is food waste. It is estimated that around 9.52 million tonnes of food is wasted each year in the UK from both industry and private households.

This is an area where public consciousness has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic , after periods of lockdown when people ate in more often. However, beyond personal measures, there has also been a rise in solutions to help companies and the public cut food waste.

There has been a growth in specialised apps and websites that help restaurants and consumers cut food waste. These work by linking places where food is prepared, such as cafes and restaurants, with customers when they run into issues with surplus inventory that is soon to expire.

We, of course, wanted to know the extent to which our sample knew about these services and whether they actively used them or not. So we put the question to our participants.

infographic displaying public awareness of circular economy food waste

Generally, there was a good level of awareness of these food-waste apps and websites. Over half of respondents (53%) said they had heard of them before taking this survey. Of the 47% who hadn’t, 29% indicated an interest in trying them.

Whilst this is an encouraging sign, it still shows that usage of these apps is still in the minority. 

To dig a little deeper, we also asked participants how likely they would be to spend money in physical locations that participated in anti-food waste measures.

graphic showing circular economy consumer habits in food-waste saving services

What we observed was that there is a curiosity about food-waste-saving shops and restaurants. Many of our survey takers indicated they would spend money at such locations, although the vast majority (54%) would only do so if it were convenient. 

Therefore it seems logical that small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) looking to offer food-saving services that reduce waste should make an effort to be transparent about how the process works and how it can be managed conveniently by customers. Food establishments may therefore aim to focus publicity on this objective, so people feel more compelled to take part in the circular economy.

Money talks in the circular economy

It is true that the public is motivated by financial incentives and also believes that industries participating in the circular economy are driven by the same goals. Yet, there is still a large proportion of people who are interested in the sustainability credentials of this model. 

The perception of cost savings in the circular economy is both a blessing and a curse in terms of its image. However, this information does offer opportunities for companies that want to participate in circular practices.

People are already engaging with the circular economy via the second-hand market. However, this can still be enriched with the right messaging.

To keep the circular economy healthy, it is necessary to highlight those additional incentives. The benefits are there, and it’s up to SMEs and companies that operate in the UK circular economy to highlight them in a trustworthy and engaging manner.

Looking for waste management software? Check out our catalogue. 

Methodology

Data for GetApp’s Circular Economy 2022 survey was collected in July 2022. Results comprise responses from 1,027 UK participants. The criteria to be selected for this study are as follows:

  •  UK resident
  • Aged 18 or older
  • Understands the definition of the circular economy

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About the author

David is a Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate. He loves traveling, cooking and F1.

David is a Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate. He loves traveling, cooking and F1.