Earth911 Interview: Stuffstr Turns On the Circular Economy

British consumers have a new option for recirculating products they buy at retailer John Lewis: it’s Stuffstr. Here is additional coverage of the new service and growing circular economy in Britain from The Guardian.

CEO John Atcheson spoke with Earth911 recently about Stuffstr’s goal to help give “customers an incentive to buy high quality, longer-lasting products, and buying such products is a win for both customers and the environment.” Read the interview, or listen, below, for a glimpse at a future for retail that keeps products out of landfills and improves the utilization of products.

Using sales information for the past five years, John Lewis now offers a free app, built by Stuffstr, that allows them to browse previous purchases and offer them for sale with the touch of a button. Once they have £50 ($68 at current exchange rates) worth of clothes, a courier will appear within three hours to collect it. John Lewis generates and emails a gift card the customer can use to shop at the retailer.

Stuffstr is working with other retailers to expand the recirculation of virtually all products, an important step toward a circular economy that is sustainable and fair.

Listen to “EARTH911.com Interview: John Atcheson, CEO of Stuffstr” on Spreaker.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Welcome, John Atcheson, to Sustainability in Your Ear, The Earth911 podcast. John, you’re the CEO and founder of Stuffstr. It’s an amazing project involved in the idea of recirculation, taking what you have previously bought and put it back into the economy when you’re done with it. Welcome to the show. Tell us about Stuffstr. You’ve been working on it for a couple of years.

John Atcheson: Thanks, Mitch, it’s great to be here. Yes, we actually, I do have a co-founder. A guy named Steve Gutmann. We started working on this back in 2014. Which is, at this point, it seems like a millennium ago. It’s been a lot of work, a lot of chapters of the story even at this point. But the genesis of Stuffstr actually came from a previous company that both Steve and I worked at called Getaround, which is a peer-to-peer car sharing company based in San Francisco. And Getaround was fundamentally about, is fundamentally — it’s still vibrant and cooking along — it’s about utilizing the 92 percent idle time of the average car [to generate extra income].

We spend thousands and thousands of dollars on this fantastic asset and then it sits idle 22 out of 24 hours a day. And so, using kind of the principle of Airbnb and applying it to cars, just made tremendous sense both economically and environmentally.

And it was really from that experience that I started looking into all the things, other than cars we buy, and what we do with those things. And it was just so, shocking and in many cases appalling, to see what was happening in our general economy with these things we buy. Things like 80 percent of items being used less than once a month. Roughly 70 percent of items ending up in a landfill. And just the enormous amount of money that was being wasted on things that people would buy and get used for some period of time, but then they would fall into non-use. And sometimes they would be in non-use for years and years. In fact, people pay money to put these things into storage so that they would not have to deal with it.

Mitch Ratcliffe: You shared a statistic with me a while back that really struck me and it was the difference that using a product for 20 percent longer makes to its carbon neutrality. Can you tell us about that?

John Atcheson: I think in general people don’t have any real sense of the resources and effects of the manufacture of these items, and what it means to have something sit around idle for long stretches of time. Because basically, if something is sitting in your closet or your attic or your garage, there’s some other product being made to satisfy that need that that item could be satisfying. And the statistics around it are a little bit startling in the sense that the household goods that we buy every year actually account for greater carbon emissions than the car we drive.

Mitch Ratcliffe: And yet we have thousands of dollars of stuff sitting around in the house that’s going completely unused.

John Atcheson: Absolutely. And if you go back to my stat about 80 percent of the things being used less than once a month, being able to essentially double the lifetime use of the average thing we buy, that’s actually a pretty low bar.

Because most things are being used a tiny fraction of their capability. And that has a tremendous impact, right? So, if we double the use of these things then that’s equivalent to driving half as much.

Mitch Ratcliffe: How does Stuffstr do that? You’ve launched Stuffstr and you’re here in the states in some experiments with REI and Amazon amongst others if I recall correctly.

John Atcheson: Yeah, we never actually worked directly with REI, but we certainly have a good relationship there and work them on some things.

Mitch Ratcliffe:  You’re working on a test launch in the UK, while you’re in fact speaking to me from the UK. What is Stuffstr’s role in the circular economy?

John Atcheson: Our vision statement is “No Unused Stuff.” And so, everything we do is focused on keeping things moving. Anything that’s sitting idle is not good. That’s our target. We wanna get that thing back in motion, get it back into use, and have it being used as long as it can be used, and then get it recirculated back into some other raw material that can be turned into something else that can be useful.

Interestingly though, we take an approach that is very bottom-up with that, so our vision is “No Unused Stuff” but our mission is to empower people to maximize the value of everything they buy. So, we’re trying to give people, specifically we’re focused on consumers, on how to make it so simple for them to actually maximize the value of these things and to keep them in motion. That they’ll do that rather than letting things sit around and gather dust.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Walk us through a user’s experience.

John Atcheson: Well before I jump into that, let’s just say that the principle of this, the key finding behind Stuffstr and the idea of Stuffstr, is that once things actually walk out of a store, they enter the kind of deep dark beyond. And there is literally zero connection between a buying decision and a disposal position.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Sure, we can’t measure anything because it is literally not tracked by anyone [after leaving the store].

John Atcheson: It’s a completely different timeframe and mindset and decision process. I mean, by the time something’s at the [time for] disposal, most people don’t even remember where they bought it. It’s a completely separate decision. And so, I think that the key discovery that sits is the basis of Stuffstr is that you have to be able to get things into some kind of closed loop. You’ve got to be able to actually capture the information about the things that are being purchased before they walk out the door.

You’ve got to attach that tether to these items because once you have that information, then everything changes because you can then keep track of these things, you can track the value, you can continually apprise the owner of the value. You can make it very simple for them to not only know what the value is but how to capture that value.

And so, with that kind of framework in mind, the user experience for Stuffstr — and this has evolved — we probably should have some discussion about how it’s evolved over time because it’s been a great learning experience about, specifically about how to get consumers to think differently about recirculation and resource use. But I think also just this whole kind of, the diffusion of change. How you get people to change ways that they’ve been practicing for their whole lives.

Mitch Ratcliffe: I think that comes down to the context that is based on information, being able to show them, as you said, the value of something at [the current] time. If I’m looking at something I haven’t used in three years, and realize that I could pass it on to somebody else who could make better use of it as well as make some money. That’s the context that the consumer simply hasn’t had in the past.

John Atcheson: That’s right, and I think when you talk about even resale, where someone is [discovering lost] value. Generally, the images that pop into people’s minds are “Oh my gosh,” you know? That’s a lot of work. I gotta go take pictures, I gotta create listings, I’ve gotta write things up, I’ve gotta deal with fire haggles back and forth, I gotta arrange drop-offs.”

It’s not a positive message and I think one of the really interesting findings that we had was to go out and look at all of the different resale marketplaces. So, eBay, the Amazon used goods channel, Craigslist, innovative startups like OfferUp and various others. And collectively those platforms account for less than two percent of items. The items that actually are resold, it’s like a fringe activity. It’s a tiny sliver of the throughput of things that are purchased and go through an ecosystem. Which of course means that 98 percent of the stuff we buy captures no residual value at all.

And among that, about a third of it ends up going into some kind of useful recycling or charity or something like that, and then the other two thirds, around 70 percent, ends up going in a landfill. So, there’s just tremendous waste and its built around the fact that, fundamentally, people don’t take the steps to capture this because it’s just a lot of work.

Mitch Ratcliffe: You actually build in at the point of sale? So, when somebody is buying, they will be able to track in an app that is associated with the retailer I assume, what they purchased and later on then make choices about whether or not to keep or recirculate or sell it.

John Atcheson: That’s exactly right. So, we create essentially a closed loop for [the store], on a retailer by retailer basis. And I probably should now give you the user experience. So, as a user, the whole goal for us is that you don’t have to actually do anything. If you can do absolutely nothing to make this happen then we’ve scored. So, as you’re buying things, automatically all the images and data and transaction information about that purchase will just appear in your app. That everything is just there in this running inventory. And typically, when someone first connects, we go back about five years. So, you start with about five years’ worth of purchases.

And you have complete information about each of those purchases. You can see the picture and read about all the details of this item. So, that’s kind of part one and because we have that information we’re able to go out and it’s all very very specific information, we can go out and track resale marketplaces and we can keep you apprised of the current resale value of every item all the time. So, we can have real-time pricing going on on the screen that shows you what these things are worth and further because we have all this information, we can completely streamline the process of reselling and recirculating those items.

So, if there’s an item, “Gosh you know I’m really not using this much anymore and it’s worth 52 dollars,” then literally all you have to do is tap a button on your phone and within usually one to two hours a courier will show up and pick the item up free of charge and you don’t have to pack it or ship it or do anything. You just hand it over to the courier. As soon as the courier gets it they mark it as received and that then electronically transmits to you a payment in the form of store credit at the retailer where you originally purchased the item. 

Mitch Ratcliffe: You have a [virtual] wallet that is associated with your stuff?

John Atcheson: That is exactly right. So, your stuff is currency and so you can literally pick up your phone, look at this inventory, decide that you’re really not using these things, and have them hauled away and be paid within one to two hours. And that’s it.

Mitch Ratcliffe: As you think about the future of retail or the future of buying and selling stuff it sounds like a radically changed world. Are we talking about a change in the way we own stuff? Is this a variation of leasing in the sense that our ride sharing where we’re using somebody else’s car for a while going back to your experience.

John Atcheson: Well, I mean I think a basic tenet of circular economy thinking is the idea of use cost versus ownership. And the more that we can move towards people thinking of things in terms of “how much it costs me to actually use this item,” then we’re winning. Because it’s just a completely known economic fact that if people are aware of the economists would call it marginal cost, right?

Mitch Ratcliffe: Right.

John Atcheson: Having this thing sitting around if I’m not actually capturing that or making any kind of benefit out of it then I don’t want to be spending it. And so, I think that from the Stuffstr standpoint, we’re trying to make people aware of this value and they find that, will see that this value tends to decline over time. If something is sitting in my closet it’s usually not appreciating. It’s usually sliding down the scale and so it is actually costing me money to have this stuff sitting around.

Right now, people don’t have any concept of that at all. They really have no idea what the basic price of this item would be let alone how that’s changing over time. And so, giving people that awareness is one big step forward in terms of getting people to recirculate their things.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Yeah, I think what happens, certainly my experience has been that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the carrying cost of all the stuff in my house until my kids moved out. And then suddenly I realized it was a house full of stuff that I was paying to continue to store and not really thinking in terms of minimizing that load on myself and my wife as we grow older. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is our generation, because you and I are roughly the same age, as it ages out. There’s going to be a massive unloading of stuff that has accrued in our homes that younger lighter living people will not be carrying around with them. That’s going to be quite a change.

John Atcheson: It is. It is. Unfortunately, an awful lot of that stuff is really beyond, in terms of resale and really capturing what could’ve been the value of it. It’s pretty much past that point.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Exactly.

John Atcheson: And Stuffstr really doesn’t, we don’t really address that issue. I mean Stuffstr is not a platform for the set of golf clubs that’s been sitting in your garage for 20 years.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Right. It’s a solution to the future. Which is absolutely a wonderful thing but it’s interesting — we’re at an inflection point where we can start to do this and now, for instance, I want to track what I buy so that I could get rid of it when I’m done with it or when I’ve finished my use so somebody else can use it. And I’m really looking forward to using Stuffstr in that way.

Now you’re in the UK right now working on a launch for the retailer. What’s the status of Stuffstr here in the states? I know that it started off as an experiment, which of course has been recognized by Accenture and the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is having been really disruptive and innovative. What’s the current path to market for Stuffstr and where should we expect to see it soon?

John Atcheson: Yeah, we have been out there since 2014 and we’ve gone through several iterations in terms of how to engage consumers in doing this and that to me, that’s our biggest challenge, is getting people to engage and begin to think of things differently and act differently. We started with a version of a platform that was focused on trying to match people up with mostly charities that really wanted and needed those items. And people thought it was really just a fantastic idea, so cool and everything, but it was still too much work.

People didn’t really do it and so we evolved to where we got to in this current model that we’re pursuing as soon as we kind of made known to the retail community that we were heading down this path and wanted to do this we were invited by a major retailer here in the UK to come over here and pilot this with them.

In fact, they said, “We’ll pay you money to come to the UK and do this with us,” and so that’s kind of how we got over here and got started. I mean I think within that context there is, in general, I would say a greater awareness of, and whether it’s called circular economy or other things, there’s a greater awareness of recirculation of resources here in Europe than there is in the states right now.

And part of that is consumer awareness, part of it is corporate awareness, and part of it is government regulations.

Extended producer responsibility laws are not uncommon over here. And so, there’s just a much deeper understanding and awareness of these kinds of principles and the value of these things. And so, it’s been really interesting to be over here for the past several months, kind of putting this all together and getting things in place, and just really getting a sense of that awareness and that excitement around the idea of what we’re doing.  That’s not to say that we won’t do things in the states, and we actually do have conversations going on with a number of major US retailers, and it looks to me like one or more of those are going to come together sometime fairly soon and when they do, then we’ll begin to deploy the service in the states.

Mitch Ratcliffe: You’ll essentially be a “Stuffstr inside” kind of brand that consumers should be looking for? It sounds like the retailer itself will have its own app. That’s how you will interact with the retailers, what you’ve purchased with the retailer, and then over the course of time, Stuffstr might be able to aggregate that into something, even more, meta and simple. But is that essentially, as US consumers watching for this opportunity to participate in recirculation, they should be looking for Stuffstr inside?

John Atcheson: Powered by Stuffstr is definitely kind of a key aspect of what we’re doing. We want to be just the universal platform for recirculating items. And we don’t really care if people know that much about who we are. We just want things to get recirculated. So, our goal right now is to be able to weave this into the fabric of everything a retailer does. Right? This should be a part of the retailer app, should be part of the retailer website, it should be just part of the whole experience.  Because what we really want to be happening here is for people to, not only begin to gauge things on the basis of use cost and all of that, we want people to start really buying differently.

We want people to start looking at their purchase decisions and linking those decisions in their heads with their disposal decisions. Which only really happens with cars and maybe boats these days. People don’t do it with shirts and bicycles and those kinds of things.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well we’ve never had the tools to do it and it’s incredible that you’re going to be bringing the tools to do so to market.

John Atcheson: Yeah, well, one of the really interesting things that we discovered at Getaround was that when people would first list their cars for sharing, they put their beat-up Toyota on the marketplace and lent it out for a few months and then six months later the Toyota would kind of disappear from the system and a BMW would show up.

It was just totally a matter of people looking at the economics and saying, “This is stupid. Why I have this inexpensive, not very durable car when actually I could have a really nice car that I could drive when I’m not sharing it, and it works out better for me because I can rent it out for more money.”

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well these are amazing visions of the future. You’re describing the ability for everybody to live a better life as well. Not simply to get by on the lease they can, but because they have the ability to monetize and treat their stuff as an investment rather than simply using it and throwing it away. That’s quite a thing.

John Atcheson: I look at the kind of the classic scenario of someone going into the store to buy a bicycle for their kid. Alright, and what currently goes through someone’s mind at that moment is, “Bobby’s going to outgrow this bike in 18 months, so what’s the kind of cheapest bike I can find that will last 18 months?” And he can ride it during that time, and if I actually know what the depreciation of curve looks like on all these different bicycles, and I have a belief set that I can capture the residual value of that bicycle just by tapping a button.

I think totally differently, and I started looking at those bikes and then like, “Well which of these bikes is actually going to have the highest resale value 18 months from now?” And so, I buy a bike that’s twice as expensive, lasts twice as long, Bobby gets this fantastic bike, and everybody wins.

Mitch Ratcliffe: John, that’s a beautiful vision and I think one that’s going to be important to track and I’d like to invite you back to talk more about this as Stuffstr makes progress. But thank you very much for joining us today. This is an inspiring conversation.

John Atcheson: Well thanks again for having me, Mitch. It’s great to be with you.

Mitch Ratcliffe: That’s John Atcheson, CEO and co-founder of Stuffstr. We’ll be right back with the rest of the show. 

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Mitch Ratcliffe

Publisher at Earth911.com
Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their buying decisions on the planet.