Sustainability and the Circular Economy

05 August 2013

Chris Sherwin gets up close and personal with the principles of The Circular Economy and discovers that they provide valuable guidance for sustainable design

Every few years, the sustainability movement gets a rebrand: the current one being the Circular Economy.

I’ve had some fascinating exposure to this emerging concept, as it gains traction with business and industry. 

Central to the Circular Economy is the idea that current economic and business models use linear processes — essentially we ‘take, make, waste’ to produce products — but should transition to more cyclical ones. The underlying premise is that all industrial activity is utterly reliant on and interconnected with nature, thus must adhere to natural principles, planetary limits, etc.

The Circular Economy (CE) concept is driven by former-yachts-woman-turned-green-campaigner Dame Ellen MacArthur.

How far she’s managed to push this in a short space of time is hugely impressive; with a number of notable CEO signatories to Circular Economy principles - Renault, Kingfisher/B&Q, Unilever, among them.

The Circular Economy also got some serious airtime at this year’s World Economic Forum, so it’s flying at high altitude. Design issues, and specifically redesigning products and services to fit within a Circular Economy, are major factors in the debate.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation states, “A circular economy seeks to rebuild capital, whether this is financial, manufactured, human, social or natural. This ensures a continuous flow of technical and biological materials through the ‘value circle’.”

In practice this means that economic activity, goods and services should be seen, and designed in two separate cycles: both a technical cycle (man-made nutrients), and a natural cycles (biological nutrients).

Wherever possible these cycles or loops should be closed, all-but eliminating waste, then in time becoming environmentally restorative.

Examples of this would be: designing rented or leased washing machines, that are durable and optimised for use, then easily taken-back, disassembled, reused and recycled into valuable materials. Or else ‘fungal’ grown packaging for electronics packaging used as a biodegradable substitute for Expanded Polystyrene or egg-carton.

Much of the Circular Economy’s progress is down to a solid economic grounding and quantified business case, which is delivered by McKinsey.

This American global management consultancy firm estimates that the global consumer goods sector could save $700bn PER YEAR by adopting CE principles: designing-out waste, switching from product to service models that reuse and recycling of goods, creating industries in which waste becomes a valuable resource.

My own recent experiences around the Circular Economy are obviously around design aspects. I was lucky enough to participate and speak, as a design expert, at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 (CE100) programs kick-off event. 

Aimed to speed and scale up Circular Economy innovation over the next three years, and joined by 50 or so corporate (i.e. Renault, Coke, Ricoh, IKEA) and entrepreneurial members, this session was a fascinating early insight into how companies are grappling with these challenges.

My invitation was to share with CE100 network members our experiences of designing for the Circular Economy. Three of the points I made to the audience included:

Holistic design needed: clients tend to cut projects up into manageable pieces but a holistic view is needed when Circular Economy designing. The ultimate solution may emerge from product, packaging, supply chain, business model, so you need the space and opportunity to redesign any of these aspects as part of your brief.

Go visit the recycling facility or end-of-life system for which your product is destined at the very start of your design project

Consider circularity at the early stages: We’ve learnt that the best way to tackle waste and end-of life issues is to consider them at the very early design stages, not just build a new recycling infrastructure or technology for the end. Ironically, the best way to learn this early-on is to see and understand what will happen at the end.

Go visit the recycling facility or end-of-life system for which your product is destined at the very start of your design project.

Don’t forget people: though people and consumers sit at the heart of the theoretical models, Circular Economy practitioners often forget about them in their drive to optimise cycles.

So while sustainability challenges globally remain serious, we must not lose sight that we design products for people; as poorly designed, bad quality or malfunctioning products are about the most wasteful thing you can deliver.

Where might all this go and what does it means? Firstly, it’s no bad thing for sustainability to get a Circular Economy brand refresh.

The CE concept is, in my opinion, a valuable step in our move to a sustainable future. Its principles certainly help to cut sustainability up into more manageable pieces, making it more practical and easier to grasp, which can only be a good thing.

I also believe that Design for the Circular Economy is the same, but a bit different. We can apply much of what we do now, but will need new skills and knowledge too: particularly around the science and chemistry of material impacts, and around systems thinking inspired by nature.

Finally, there will be opportunities for designers as our clients wrestle with Circular Economy principles and particularly how these transfer to the redesign of products, services and business processes.

Designers will need to be prepared for and proactive on this, in ways that I’m not convinced they currently are. I left a recent Design for the Circular Economy discussion at the Product Design & Innovation conference disappointed at the level of discussion on these issues, with our panel questioning, almost to the point of denial, the underlying science behind the Circular Economy.

It’s a concern that if designers aren’t at the races, then this work will fall into the hands of McKinsey, Accenture and the other management consultancy’s sniffing around CE concepts. The Circular Economy represents an opportunity for designers that we should grab with both hands.

Chris Sherwin is head of Sustainability at product design consultancy Seymour Powell.

Comments on this article:

Nice article, thanks! I agree with your initial statement "Every few years, the sustainability movement gets a rebrand". Hopefully this time things will turn differently, for all I have read, researched and understood so far, the key issue is the macroeconomic structure; we designers, or by that matter anyone, can dream the most beautiful solutions, but if what drives the whole is a nonsensical ad infinitum economic growth, and even worst, linked to the consumption of physical matter in a closed system such as Earth, we wont get anywhere, I cheer for MacArthur's initiative. If you are interested in this please help me with my research: www.trophec.com

Posted by Victor Martinez on Monday 12 2013 at 12:16 PM

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