Every (Repurposed) Product Has a Story

Goods made from reused or upcycled materials are more appealing when customers are primed to spin a narrative about a product’s history.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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Davide Bonazzi/theispot.com

Turning trash into treasure through repurposing and recycling can be a very sustainable materials sourcing strategy. But marketing the products that result can be a challenge, particularly for upcycled items with visible traces of their past, like bags made from old bicycle inner tubes, tables made from decommissioned boats, and laptop sleeves made from used mosquito nets.

Visible traces of a product’s past might show that the repurposing process has minimized energy use, making a product particularly sustainable. However, repurposing products and materials comes with unique production challenges, so they are typically not low cost. Rather than paying a premium for products made from trash, many consumers would rather spend their money on brand-new items.

How can we convince consumers to pick repurposed products that might show signs of wear and tear compared with new products? While some people seek out the greenest goods and are willing to pay more for them, our initial research made clear that most consumers aren’t so motivated. In fact, some research finds that highlighting the sustainable aspects of a product might effectively reduce demand.1

We investigated ways to make repurposed products desirable to the broader market by overcoming the potential stigma associated with used, discarded materials. We focused on how to potentially make people feel special when they opt for a repurposed product despite its having been made from waste. Our key insight was that there can be a benefit to tapping the human affinity for a narrative. We found that by priming consumers to think about an item’s transformation into a new product rather than its origins on the trash heap, the item gains value by being perceived as unique and special, with its own life history.

Turn Consumers Into Storytellers

Humans have a deep-rooted affinity for stories: Narratives engage us and are how we make sense of experience.2 Stories are a great way to imbue information with meaning, which people seek wherever they can find it.3 Marketers have long been aware of and leveraged this affinity. However, the prevailing practice is to craft stories that put the brand on center stage and evoke certain feelings toward it, which to us seems ill suited to the problem at hand.

The story we need to tell is not about peripheral characters, such as a spokesperson or mascot, or even the brand.



An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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1. A.R. Brough, J.E.B. Wilkie, J. Ma, et al., “Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research 43, no. 4 (December 2016): 567-582; and M.G. Luchs, R. Walker Naylor, J.R. Irwin, et al., “The Sustainability Liability: Potential Negative Effects of Ethicality on Product Preference,” Journal of Marketing 74, no. 5 (September 2010): 18-31.

2. J.S. Bruner, “Acts of Meaning” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990).

3. V.E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” revised and updated ed. (Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, 1985).

4. B. Kamleitner, C. Thürridl, and B.A.S. Martin, “A Cinderella Story: How Past Identity Salience Boosts Demand for Repurposed Products,” Journal of Marketing 83, no. 6 (November 2019): 76-92.

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