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Target talks turning old car seats into adorable storage crates — and the future of its Target Zero initiative

"We didn't stop with how to get rid of it."

"We didn't stop with how to get rid of it."

Photo Credit: iStock

You've heard "Expect more, pay less." Now get ready for Target's newest catchphrase: "More joy, less waste."

In a recent discussion at the Sustainable Brands' Brand-Led Culture Change conference, Jason Breen, Target's senior director of owned product innovation, laid out what makes Target's sustainability strategy unique — beyond the Marie Kondo vibes.

Here are a few of the key ingredients to Target's holistic sustainability goals:

1️⃣ The biggest trade-in event of the year isn't for cars — it's for car seats 

Since 2016, Target has been solving a pain point for sleep-deprived parents nationwide by incentivizing a way to get rid of car seats responsibly. "We didn't stop with how to get rid of it," Breen said, "but we also added a moment of joy by adding a 20% off the next car seat or baby product."

Almost 30 million pounds worth of car seat materials end up in American landfills every year — partly because car seats have expiration dates after which manufacturers can't guarantee they will reliably protect kids. Car seats are also made of a ton of different components, making it harder to reuse the parts. 

Offered for a few weeks each year, Target's car seat return program has become the company's No. 1 consumer-facing sustainability initiative, according to Breen. So far, it has recycled over 2.6 million car seats, or nearly 40 million pounds' worth — and those numbers don't yet include this spring's campaign. 

And, Breen said, the company is using the car seats to create new products, including storage crates for Target's home goods brand, Brightroom. 

Now, the company is looking to see where else it can engage guests in similar behaviors. For example, it's testing a shoe take-back program in a couple of stores, responding to a common concern for customers that has even led to an unrelated startup company called GotSneakers. "I feel like I shouldn't throw them in the garbage, but I'm not sure what to do with them," Breen said, acknowledging that many customers feel the same way.  

2️⃣ Doubling down on products that go full circle

Breen says one way Target is looking to create an "equitable, sustainable future" is through circularity — when companies design products to be reused for as long as possible to reduce waste. 

By 2040, Breen says 100% of Target's nearly 50 "owned brands" will be circular by design. And by next year, Breen announced that two Target-owned brands will fall into that camp: Universal Thread and Everspring. That means they'll look to eliminate waste "using materials that are regenerative, recycled, or sourced sustainably — to create products that are more durable, easily repaired, or recyclable," according to Target's sustainability goals.

For example, some Universal Threads clothing is already being made with yarn blended with fibers collected from used garments and manufacturing scraps, including this crewneck T-shirt and this cami, developed in partnership with the nonprofit Accelerating Circularity, according to the retailer's website

Universal Thread clothing will also feature a "digital product passport" so customers can scan a QR code to get information about what the product is made of as well as learn how to improve the lifespan of their products and engage in other sustainable behaviors. 

Target says it's also trained more than 3,000 team members and 1,000 vendor employees in these circular design principles over the past six years, using a web-based hub and a calculator that helps the team assess the impact of certain materials. 

3️⃣ Making zero a good thing

Back to those "more joy, less waste" vibes: Breen walked through Target's goal to ultimately replace single-use packaging for its products. "Target Zero is an initiative that delivers products that either reduce packaging significantly or eliminate it completely," Breen said. 

Target now has a curated collection of products — in-house brands as well as vendors such as Burt's Bees and Pacifica beauty products — that use packaging designed to be more sustainable. That means they are refillable, reusable, compostable, or made from recycled materials that reduce the use of plastic. All such products have the Target Zero icon on them to highlight the initiative. 

➡️ Bottom line

Instead of making sustainability a separate strategy at Target, Breen says, it's integrated into all aspects of the business — from car seat recycling to circular products to reduced packaging.

And as for achieving the holy grail of sustainability? Breen framed it as: "How can we continue to deliver the promise of affordability to the guest while providing them with sustainable alternatives?"

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