Over the past few years, waste management and upcycling, along with the growth of the circular economy have become fundamental societal issues. However, the question of design, or circular design, is still being sidelined. And yet it is a cornerstone issue in achieving the economic, social, and environmental transition that many countries need today.
“Design became a tool of consumerism”
This is the hypothesis with which Tim Brown, co-founder of the famous California based design firm IDEO, started his TED talk in 2009. Industrial design is a relatively new field of study, especially in Europe, where it started in the late 1800’s. The Bahaus school of design was one of the protagonists putting forth the notion of usefulness, “the style must fit the use”. Then, the focus was set on combining esthetics with utility and technique. This trend marked the beginning of the rise of industrial design.
As the field of design developed, and as is most noticeable in the products created in the 2000’s, it started being increasingly more focused on creating strong esthetic identities, or even creating trends, while sidelining the societal utility of the products designed for society and people. Holistic design is often overlooked. Contrary to the trends seen during the Turn of the Century, in which the progress of humankind was a strong focus for designers, today’s industrial design glides over political and societal intentions because it is constrained by ever increasing sales targets.
The pressure to sell has forced designers to favor the attractiveness of the product and user experience, while only glancing at the longer-term impact of their design choices. It has to be noted that many products were conceived without the help of a designer, which is not a cause for blame, but the facts are here: when such choices are made, the results are often much worse. Furthermore, many objects, packaging, components, or products are wasted at different times during the lifetime of a product. And this has consequences:
- First, from the point of view of resources, this leads us to continually extract new resources when we know that most metals, for example, are becoming increasingly scarcer. This makes no economic sense. Our excessive materialism is nonsensical.
- Further, from a health perspective, waste also have consequences: the plastic waste polluting the oceans has adverse consequences on marine life, and can be found in most of the products we buy every day, thus having multiple types of repercussions on the food chain.
- Finally, from a pollution standpoint, most of the unprocessed waste creates additional pollution. For example, coffee grounds emit methane as it decomposes, a greenhouse gas that is several times more harmful to the atmosphere then carbon dioxide is.
The automotive industry provides a relevant illustration of these repercussions. If we look at automobile design and the industry in which it operates, we can see that today, cars can no longer be repaired by their owners, motors are too complex, some components are hidden or very hard to reach. This is due to the economic model of the company manufacturing the cars, for which revenue relies heavily on maintenance and repairs of the cars, rather than on the sale itself, which is priced close to production costs. Therefore, for the company to be viable, it needs to design cars that cannot be repaired by the neighborhood mechanic, so as to ensure its monopoly over the management of the car’s life.
80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined during its design stage
These strategic decisions, which designers have to include in their design, have long term impact. Indeed, the European Commission estimated that 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined during its design stage (Ecodesign your Future). Whether it is raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, or even the product’s use, the environmental impact of the choices made during the design phase are numerous. Design methods and cycle analysis are useful tools to identify improvement opportunities, but you seldom find products that reach a perfect mark at every step of their lifecycle.
Even eco-designed products often don’t consider the end of the product’s life cycle and/or of its different components (raw material, pieces, packaging…). Regardless of this trend, it’s important to note that we throw away 80% of what we purchase within 6 months of buying it (data from Richard Girling’s book, Rubbish!: (Dirt on our hands and crisis ahead). How can we overlook this crucial stage – the end of the lifecycle – when designing a product?
The case of biodegradable plastic bags for produce provides a good example of poor consideration of all the different steps in the life cycle. Even if companies designed these bags to minimize the impact of daily consumption on waste production, the fact that so few city dwellers have the possibility to compost their biodegradable waste does not minimize the waste stream, nor does it make this product virtuous. There is also the example of the McDonald’s tray, on which all the elements are recyclable. However, these products are never recycled because of technological of economical reasons.
A good intention does not automatically solve the problem. One has to consider the connections between the elements and the consequences of a choice, or a behavior on the other elements.
Designing for the user… and the system that surrounds it
Since design thinking has started gaining traction in the 2000’s, with the creation of the first d.schools, the three aspects of economic viability, technical feasibility, and attractiveness to the user have become an efficient frame of reference, which is increasingly more used in the industry. Countless startups, like Airbnb, Sunrise, Kickstarter, or Pinterest have been successfully created by designers, and many established companies have also improved their business by relying more heavily on designers (Schneider Electric, Decathlon…).
By focusing on the user’s needs, designers let organizations exceed their goals. By implementing a process fostering continued improvement, the products have a better image, and are increasingly more recommended by peer networks, makings them the big successes of the past few years.
And, as we see today, the environmental situation of our planet is becoming more worrisome every day, without needing to waste time citing facts and reports. As we have seen, design choices play a notable part, which is why designers have a role to play. In addition to focusing on the user experience quality, designers now also have to consider the system surrounding the user. This means: with what materials? What type of energies? What manufacturing process? Distribution process? Use? And above all else, what becomes of these streams once the product or service, or any of its parts, has reached the end of its life cycle?
By adding a 4th sphere, one representing the circular nature of design and including the notions of resources, ecosystems, biomimetics, coupled with the design thinking frame of reference, circular design automatically opens up new possibilities for discovery and new economic, social, and environmental opportunities.
“The next big thing in design is circular”
By purpose, the circular design is to learn by doing, especially considering how many corrections need to be done. The continual improvement process incentivizes incremental improvements, and quickly leads to improving the ecosystems, and to do better. By looking at the big picture, the system in all of its complexities, rather than focusing on the final product or service, the designer, who is also a key player of the 21st Century according to Dominique Sciamma, realizes what his or her impact is, and how to avoid creating a negative impact or how to make a positive one for the user, the company and the ecosystem. He or she takes into consideration the landscape, its climate, the available skills, the readily available resources…
To better understand and analyze this type of data, Wiithaa developed a suite of tools via the Circulab to facilitate circular design projects. Considering all of the complexities of a situation lets a designer anticipate what will be at stake and design for the long run.
As soon as you start seeing waste as a design flaw rather than and end in and of itself, you start shining a whole new light on the stream of resources. Working towards, and attaining zero waste at the design stage optimizes what already exists, and lets you do more with fewer resources, as is recommended by the frugal innovation movement, or the famous Low Tech Lab. Doing more with what is already around us allows us to reach a high level of resiliency in the territories and organizations by multiplying local cooperation and stream loops. By involving local stakeholders, a designer can also turn the end user into a key player, who is aware of the consequences of his or her choices.
Even if his statements aren’t as far reaching as the ones above, Tim Brown, during the launch of the Circular Design Guide, readily admitted that the next design revolution will be circular design.
The different principles of circular design
Even though circular design is rather new, and not often taught in design schools today, it is still possible to outline several key principles:
> Prioritizing the use of local and/or readily available resources, to minimize energy consumption linked to the extraction, supply, and manufacturing processes, and to reduce the amount of actual waste. The designer must therefore observe and create from the resources available to him or her, especially if they have a low value today.
This is what Shoey Shoes does. The brand created by a student from the Royal College of Art, makes leather shoes for kids exclusively from leather scraps. At the industrial lever, the French company Circouleur, which reuses leftover paint cans, is also a good example.
> Optimizing resources and energy consumption can be achieved via different means. For example, on average, a car spends 96% of its life parked. It’s hard to picture waste as stemming from single user ownership, but it exists, and it is not useful. By switching to a needs-based use model, it is possible to increase the objects level of use and also diminish the number of such objects circulating on the market. This is exactly what several auto makers and the city of Paris are working on to replace the Autolib. Resources can also be optimized at the end of a product’s life cycle, when the company has anticipated that phase. This is what the Dutch brand Mud Jeans has done by leasing its jeans on a monthly basis. The practice allows for the reintegration of the raw material, as opposed to extracting new material. The inverted logistics process can also be looked at to optimize transportation streams. La Poste’s Recygo service is a good example of optimizing and recreating economic, social, and environmental value. Last but not least, the example of Adopt an office perfectly illustrates this example by making durable, well made, top of the line office furniture more accessible than cheap products.
> Product durability, repairability, or upcycling possibilities. Built-in obsolescence has been formally condemned by many NGOs over the past few years. however, it is often considered to be an important pillar of the business models of large players in the economy today. We mentioned it before for the automobile industry, but the example of smartphones is equally as striking. These products could technically be used for 7 years. However, their average lifespan in France is only 18 months long. Most manufacturers encourage people to change their devices by suggesting updates that challenge the hardware’s capacity, so that the product becomes hard to use and obsolete. Fairphone is an interesting initiative for several reasons: beyond the modular nature of their devices making repairs easy, their phones are designed to last and seem much more solid than most phones.
> Taking apart and repurposing the product. If the product can be taken apart or repurposed, other uses may be considered in order to create additional value. Renault is known for its Choisy-le-Roi manufacturing facility specialized in remanufacturing, which means taking objects apart and repackaging the parts. This process creates an opportunity to resell spare parts 30 to 50% cheaper than new parts, and saves up to 88% of water, 80% of energy, and 86% of the chemicals needed to manufacture a part. Carwatt offers the possibility to switch from a combustion engine to an all-electric engine, knowing that the impact of manufacturing a new car is often higher than the impact the car will have during its lifespan. At the end of its lifespan, a product can also be repurposed to serve new uses. The young Nantes based startup Bâtho collects old sailboats to transform them into unique houses. This process finances the boat’s reprocessing, prevents boats from being simply abandoned, and saves on construction materials in the region.
> Absence of waste during the product or service’s lifespan as well as for its parts. Indeed, waste that cannot be reused at the end of a life cycle is seen as a design flaw and calls for a change in design or a better foresight of what that component will become. The objective of biodegradability or regenerating ecosystems must always be taken into account. Contrary to most products today, the objective is to avoid using harmful substances, to protect the product’s users, but also to let the product go back to the ecosystem at the end of its life. The Freitag t-shirt example is a particularly interesting one, because it is entirely made of biodegradable fibers, which means it can decompose in just a few months when buried in the ground, without damaging the soil. Similarly, Ecovative manufactures packaging reinforcements from fungus mycelium, which are biodegradable once the product reaches the consumer.
> finally, a continuous improvement process. The raw material streams, product uses, or user behaviors may change according to design modifications, which is why it is important to integrate them so as to improve the user experience and create new continuous value loops.
Beyond its practical aspects, circular design has become crucial to many companies. Plastic pollution in the oceans serves as a particularly vivid example: even HSBC recommends that Coca-Cola overhauls its product distribution strategy.
During this transformation, brands and companies must go back to their core values, so they can create a strategy that will create the most positive impact and successfully reconcile economic prosperity with the regeneration of ecosystems. It is important to make this process obvious to the teams, partners, but also to the users and ecosystem, by giving meaning to the company and its actions.
Circular design, by bringing the subject of resources to the forefront, also creates an opportunity to integrate an increasingly more important strategic dimensions in an ever-changing world.
In conclusion, doesn’t circular design seem to be the right combination of respecting life’s way and the designer’s creative abilities to allow companies to respect the natural ecosystem?
For a long time, the innovation has been focused on product or the industrial process. However, for several years, we see the innovation can be focused on the business model. Why don’t we go further and innovate in a more holistic way to conciliate business development and positive impacts?
Even though countless companies and public administration have started coming to terms with the necessity to rethink the way they produce, consume, and manage, there are still many barriers to change, and few strategies. Many companies try to eco-design or recycle more. They tend to limit the amount of actual waste or the product’s components at the end of its life. However, at Wiithaa, we believe that the circular economy goes beyond these solutions, because waste management only scratches the surface of the issue with a result minded approach, rather than rethinking the problem while considering all of the system’s complexities. An efficient transition cannot rely solely on these actions.
We need to eco-design business models, not just the products
With an approach combining biomimicry and design thinking, we are convinced that business models rather than products should be eco-designed. The word eco-design must sound familiar, and there’s a good reason for that: it has been increasingly more used by design firms and consulting firms focusing on environmental issues. Eco-design is a process through which one designs a product while including environmental considerations at the earliest stages, to ensure the best environmental performances at every step of the lifecycle. Often, the objective is to improve recyclability, upcycling opportunities, or biodegradability at the end of the lifecycle. It can also consist of using bio-soured, recycled, or second-hand products or materials, which put the focus on the end of the lifecycle, the sourcing and the impact of the manufacturing process.
Eco-design is a necessary component of circular design, however, for the process to be complete, one must ensure that resource use is optimized throughout the value chain, and that positive impact are multiplied at different levels: during the use, but also during the manufacturing process, the supply, the distribution, or the end of the lifecycle. This is how we see a transition from eco-designing a product, which focuses on materials, shapes, and uses, to eco-designing the business model, which integrates the means of collaboration with the stakeholders, to sell, produce or use the product, or to collect it and upcycle it at the end of its lifecycle.
We must design more inclusive and regenerative business models
Let’s go back in time. In 2008, Alexander Osterwalder published Business model generation. A book in which he describes a canvas made to improve the value proposition. It considers the infrastructure, clients, and finances of a company or a product to create the best possible revenue streams.
He created the concept of a business model, and shared his method with the public. Just 9 years later, this tool was downloaded over 5 million times and was used to create or overhaul countless structures. This success was well deserved because the Business Model Canvas is a powerful tool allowing organizations to understand, analyze, improve, transform… the company’s value proposition.
However, this tool has its limits. It’s anchored in a linear economy, putting forth an overly simplified structure for business models, without looking much further than the company’s financial interest. Such a tool provides solutions for linear economic profitability objectives, where resources are not optimized at different points in the value chain, representing a loss of value for the company as well as for the entire ecosystem. Looking at this “waste”, one can easily understand the economic opportunity offered by the circular economy, but also its social and environmental appeal.
“A business model describes the ways in which an organization creates, delivers, and captures value”.
Looking at Osterwalder’s definition, one should note that the notion of “value” is to be understood broadly. We need to consider a more extensive definition of value outlined by the circular economy.
Let’s look at the case of the company Nouvelle Attitude, a subsidiary of the La Poste group.
In 2011, the certified rehabilitation company, specialized in paper recycling was bought by the La Poste group, to co-create a service to companies and local authorities: Recy’go. The venture had two objectives: optimizing returning truck streams, which leave empty, and diversifying their offer with a paper waste collection and management service.
Recreate value(s) with the same structure and flows
With this new offer, La Poste redesigned a different business model. They developed new partnerships. It provided a more vertically integrated product offering, with positive economic, social, and environmental impacts. Beyond reinforcing the heart of their trade by enriching the postman’s craft, it now offers a full-fledged paper waste management service. It ensures the sustainability of its primary source of revenue, while creating new opportunities via the sale of recycled paper. Once the paper is collected, it is sorted by social inclusion employees. Then, it is delivered to paper makers who will in turn recycle the paper, so it can be distributed. Thanks to this new service, the La Poste group creates a resilient virtuous cycle. It benefits the structure’s growth, the company’s partners, and the environment. The value created is shared, and guarantees a paper manufacturing and distribution service via optimized material and product streams. La Poste achieved a full overhaul of its business model at each step of the paper value chain, both in terms of target resources and key activities, to fulfill its “information transmission” mission.
Such a solution implies a deep change in the ways in which we cooperate, innovate, and think.
“You can’t solve a problem with the thought process that created it.”
As a company, non-profit organization, or public entity, if we want to rise up to today’s societal challenges and innovate in a changing and uncertain world, it seems obsolete to look at products and services as the cause of the issues, and to try to solve the issues by making the products lighter and more energy efficient. Indeed, the problem lies mostly in the ways in which we have imagined these objects and their position – or lack thereof – in the environment in which they are created and exist. This type of thinking is what is harmful to our economy, and to the health of our planet.
Today, our economy consumes way too much resources. Most organizations follow a strict vertical hierarchy with a short-term and non-inclusive thought process. Tomorrow, we need to evolve in an economy that creates brand new economic, social, and environmental opportunities. We need to completely rethink the ways in which we create value. If we get together, we can think about the best ways to create shared value. While considering all the different types of externalities emanating from the activity, we can build positive value propositions. They will open up new economic, social, and environmental opportunities, at each step of its construction.
Let’s play to redesign our system
Here at Wiithaa we created a methodology to help you get started: Circulab. With its fun and collaborative tools, Circulab lets you contextualize your organization’s ecosystem to create resilient solutions. Our approach is centered around cooperation rather than competition. The Circulab tools push you to open the dialogue by cooperating within your own structure and with your key partners. Indeed, the circular economy requires all stakeholders to be involved and incentived, to ensure better performances. You can thus create, capture, and deliver comprehensive and shared value.
To achieve a circular economy, one must rethink the business model by involving the key stakeholders, which means developing partnerships while integrating change, or in other words, by innovating.
Circulab is an approach offered by over 50 independent consultants in 18 countries worldwide. This methodology lets you design business models which regenerate the economy and the ecosystems. We truly integrate Company Social Responsibility (CSR) in the process. By rethinking your business model with dynamic and collaborative tools, you can move from a linear to a circular economy.
On Wednesday, December 2nd, the European Commission announced a series of measures aimed at supporting the development of a circular economy in the EU.
The European Commission wishes to send a clear message to the key players
First of all, people start to realize the great potential of circular economy. With an estimated potential gain of 630 billion euros per year for the industry, and about 600,000 new jobs created, the stakes for the transition to the circular economy are high for Europe. Such a transition would benefit the environment as well, because it could reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by 6.3 million tons. This is why the European Commission wishes to send a clear message to the key players in the economy. The new package includes interesting incentives to eco-design the products and improve waste management.
This package of measures dedicated to the circular economy includes:
– New funds representing about 6 billion euros via the Horizon 2020 program and the structural funds,
– New regulations on the food market, with the objective of cutting food waste in half by 2030
– The creation of regulations for the second-hand material market, encouraging synergies among manufacturers
– An action plan for eco-design promoting the sustainability, upcycling, and repair of new products created.
– A section on plastics aiming at reducing their transformation into waste
With these measures, the European Commission is showing a clear desire to switch from a traditional linear economy to a true circular economy in which one person’s waste becomes another person’s resources.
As an illustration, Brieuc Saffré, the cofounder of Wiithaa, gave an interview contributing to a video of the Commission on the circular economy. In this video, Brieuc describes the Recy’go project on which we worked with La Poste, designing the second generation of the paper waste collection and upcycling service. He talks about the ways in which we have optimized streams of empty returning trucks to gain access to new resources, upcycle them, and create a new activity for La Poste.
It is essential to include sustainability in the design of products
In this video, the Commission defines the circular economy by using the example of natural cycles, looking at trees, dirt, or the light, to illustrate the notions of waste and reuse. Indeed, according to the Commission, we are the only species on this planet creating raw material waste. To avoid creating this waste and to transform trash into new resources, it is essential to include sustainability in the design of products, to lead the way for a true loop system.
Finally, Walter R.Stahel, one of the founding fathers of the circular economy also shared his opinion and definition of this concept in the video.
To support the transition towards a circular economy, Wiithaa makes presentations and methodological tools available in Creative Commons, organizes events and conferences.
From waste to resources
We created this new chapter to help you understand the current approach to the issue of waste (on the waste production side as well as on the reuse side), and to present the concept of design. When we mention design, we are referring to design thinking and the ways in which this design process can be a powerful tool to create a more circular economy. In other words, we are introducing the notion of circular design. As a result, circular design goes beyond user experience and includes nature and the regenerative aspect of design.
What does design have to do with the circular economy?
In other words, it includes a systemic, creative, and positive thought process. Steve Job once said: “design is everything working well together.”. For our firm, this holistic approach includes the product, the user, but also the human and natural ecosystem that surrounds it.
Adopting a design thinking thought process in a circular approach means:
> changing our behavior towards waste to imagine new products and opportunities.
> designing safe, durable and resource efficient products.
> improving user experience as well as people’s well-being.
Here is a simple diagram to help you understand the relationship between design and the circular economy:
If you look at the circular economy as a system, then design opens the possibility of “closing the loop” at different levels. Indeed, it ensures value and resource use are optimized throughout the product’s lifecycle:
- First, designing a durable product impacts the use of the product or component to increase the length of its “1st life”.
- Designing services impacts user experience by creating a high-quality monitoring of the use. Therefore, it increases the rate of collection at the end of the lifecycle and client loyalty.
- Then, designing for upcycling impacts the upcycling loop to create new uses.
- Designing for raw material upcycling impacts reuse and manufacturing, therefore focusing on the industrial side of the process.
- Finally, design is a powerful tool for change. It allows us to shape the path we are on. It ensures our specie and economy has a positive impact on our environment.
In our opinion, the pinnacle of design thinking is integrating the last missing piece to the thought process: nature. By doing this, we can reach a design practice which, beyond improving user experience, impacts our natural ecosystem’s resilience.
To sum up, Chris Grantham, Portfolio Manager at the IDEO firm, tells us about the importance of design in a circular economy. What he calls circular design. It is the second episode of activating the circular economy: