What if you could redesign everything? Designing a circular economy
Continuing to save resources alone will not be enough:
we must learn to use the earth’s resources more intelligently. The circular
economy is guided by the precept that used materials can be
recycled over and over again without waste, thereby protecting the environment
without any detrimental effect to consumerism.
“What if we lowered income taxes and instead, raised taxes on materials and waste? In a world of too much stuff and diminishing resources, raw materials would become more precious, which means we’d have to use them more cautiously. Meanwhile, we would no longer be able to throw things away with impunity–it would cost us. At a glance, you can see how this might solve the problem of the disposable goods economy, a world of hyper-consumption and hyper-waste.” This quote is attri-buted to author and critic Justin McGuirk, who has served as Chief Curator of London’s Design Museum since 2015. According to his hypothetical 10 kg Institute, everybody would be rationed a limited amount of material, which would be just enough to cover our needs. In this future scenario, an international agreement governing the rationalisation of materials would be in place under which we would all be allocated 10 kg of plastic material—known as polyblocks. This could be used to produce any type of object, such as chairs, plates or spare parts for domestic devices, in a rapid manufacturing printing process. Later, when the objects had lost their appeal or served their purpose, they would be melted down and the raw material thus recovered could then be used to produce something different, something that was especially needed at that specific moment. Adopting this model would certainly presuppose careful deliberation and prudent use of the available resources to ensure that nothing is wasted: the polar opposite of our current growth society, with its hyper-consumption and hyper-waste. The idea be-hind the 10 kg Institute was conceived by McGuirk for an exhibition entitled Material matters: a future furniture fair and held by Dutch design company Droog in 2012. The imaginary future fair pre-sented alternative business models developed by designers and design theoreticians, mindful of—material shortages and radical economic change, and aimed at highlighting the urgent need to rethink the way in which we deal with the environment and natural resources if we are to combat environmental pollution, exploitation of nature, unequal distribution of commodities and natural disasters.
Produce–use–discard is often the sequence driving our contemporary product world. In a linearly structured economy, the raw materials used are not recycled at the end of their service life in order to manufacture new products. Instead, they are simply disposed of. Thrown away. Only 6 percent of products and goods today are manufactured from recycled raw materials; the remaining 94 percent are produced using brand-new material.In light of the fact that finite resources may already be exhausted within a few decades and that the world generates a volume of 3.5 million tonnes (and rising!) of waste every day, this wasteful economic model is no longer sustainable.
While the circular economy is certainly not a new concept, it is becoming increasingly important. This is because it proposes solutions along the lines of upcycling, recycling, decomposition, re-assembly, conversion, repair, composting or smelting of products and materials which have served their purposes. The overarching aim here is to find useful ways of returning them to the production cycle, thereby joining the two ends of the linear economy to close the loop.
15 years ago, Michael Braungart and William McDonough unveiled their Cradle to Cradle (C2C) principle, aimed at establishing circular biological and technical systems. They posited the bold theory that we could continue to produce and consume without the need to go without anything–provided we design products that could be returned to nature by ensuring that they are biodegradable and leave no harmful residues. Or as long as manufactured products could be disassembled into their individual component parts over and over again and then be re-used without compromising on quality. As Michael Braungart wrote in Die Zeit, a leading German weekly newspaper, “Saving resources alone isn’t enough: we must learn to use the Earth’s resources intelligently. In this way, we can protect the environment without foregoing anything.” Braungart and McDonough drew their inspiration from nature. Adopting the term eco-effectiveness, they explain how we could still produce effectively, albeit very inefficiently, if we transferred the principle of eco-effectiveness to our current manufacturing and consumption behaviour. Nature produces many thousands of flowers and leaves which do not pollute the environment when they have withered or died, despite their excess number. On the contrary, in fact; they make another key environmental contribution by providing nourishment to the planet’s soil. In this way, we might well buy mountains of clothes and throw them away with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they could be left to decompose or be recycled in an environmentally friendly way.
The C2C concept is by no means a futuristic vision. Clothes, trainers, vacuum cleaner bags, cosmetics, packaging and detergents that can be returned to the natural cycle to decompose into biodegradable nutrients are already in existence. Trigema is among the pioneers who worked with environmental institute EPEA to develop the world’s first biodegradable T-shirt in line with the C2C principle ten years ago. Completely biodegradable and sustainable fashion collections made of toxin-free 100 percent cotton have been manufactured and developed under the TRIGEMA Change brand name ever since. Hess Natur, with its fair trade organic fashion, and Patagonia, which offers a repair and renewal service for its outdoor clothing, are exemplary pioneers in this field. Innovative company Ecovative has developed a fungal-based self-growing and cost-effective packaging material that offers similar properties to polystyrene—yet unlike polystyrene, this is a 100 percent natural product that does not pollute the environment as waste and therefore also makes a contribution to the circular economy. Indeed, there are courageous pioneers, tenacious alternative thinkers and radical trailblazers all working towards this objective, with a goodly portion of idealism and the awareness that their projects might also fail. However, this is not nearly enough to initiate a global shift. It won’t be easy to overturn a system which has been primarily focused on growth, profit and a linear economy for many decades.
What would happen if we could find a way of designing products, services and business models that could benefit human beings as well as the environment and the economy? This question has been addressed by IDEO, an international design and innovation consultancy group. Its prime focus is on a radical commitment to replacing traditional principles of industrial production and the throwaway economy with a philosophy rooted in the circular economy model. In conjunction with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the company has set itself the task of using a Circular Design Guide to show companies and designers how they might potentially implement circular processes to retain data, nutrients and materials in the cycle. The hope here is that they may ultimately be convinced to switch to a business model which responsibly and successfully balances economic, social and ecological factors. “We don’t have the answers about the future: no one does. But we hope this guide helps you reframe your mindset, ask the right questions, take on projects, and start exploring the extraordinary possibilities”, invites the Mindset chapter of the Circular Design Guide. In this context, words such as rethink, reframe, reuse, refurbish, re-manufacture and recycle take on relevance by challenging us to stop assuming anything is merely a matter of course. The hope is that the interdisciplinary, iterative and inquisitive nature of the design thinking process will help us to overcome the massive challenge of effecting an economic transformation towards a circular economy. Of course, there is no rote recipe for design thinking; rather, it implies something akin to a very open and receptive attitude. Only when we are prepared to leave the baggage of the past behind, shed our prejudices and start questioning everything around us can creativity find expression and innovation emerge. In other words, reframe your thinking!
Neither design thinking nor the circular economy are new ideas, and they are essentially firmly anchored in classic product design. However, it is only since we have begun to understand user-centred research and creative methods—somewhat one-dimensionally, primarily as tools for innovation—and since sustainability has become a popular cause that both these approaches appear to have become socially acceptable for entrepreneurs, as well as spawning a lucrative line in corporate consulting. Irrespective of what individual motives may be, change is on the way.
Until recently, design had been dismissed—or lauded—as a discipline which fuelled markets and skilfully promoted economic growth by means of advertising, brand development and ongoing product innovation. Yet designers are particularly sought after in times of crisis because of their capabilities as intermediaries and interdisciplinary researchers as well as their ability to focus on the bigger picture. By examining and rethinking complex interrelationships, designers can set important trends and provide genuine momentum in terms of production, distribution and consumption. This allows them to transform the systemic scale of a product or company into an entirely new, holistic and globally networked system or organisational structure. To achieve this, alternatives to existing configurations and hierarchies must be sought. A change in perspective and innovation is possible only if the sole focus of attention is not on consumers and their needs, but if all the interest groups along the entire value creation chain, including the environment, are factored into the process. Only then can social as well as ecological value-added be generated.
Convincing major industrials of a good idea is not always a simple matter. Their corporate structures are often too complex and hierarchical, and they can take years to implement effective change. Fairphone, a start-up from the Netherlands, wasn’t prepared to wait for the major players in the smartphone market to change their approach. The company is a good example of how today’s firms can use digital networking to create history by initiating change from the bottom up. The internet is not only a platform for sharing winning business ideas, but also a place for securing financing, for example using crowdfunding concepts. Fairphone also benefited from this jump-start to get things off the ground, launching production of the first 15,000 ethical mobile phones after receiving a whole spate of pre-orders. In this way, all of us can decide what comes onto the market and what doesn’t in line with democratic principles. With its insistence on fair trade production of a robust, recyclable mobile phone, Fairphone sent out an important message to the industry. In order to do things both differently and better than other companies, Fairphone scrutinised the different stages along the value chain. The Fairphone approach is to produce a modular repairable design supporting longer-term use of the product, using fair trade materials from certified mines that do not pollute the environment or perpetrate human rights abuses, which offer socially responsible working conditions, and where the devices made can be re-used and recycled. In order to prolong the product’s service life, Fairphone has invested in research into new recycling processes as well as supporting companies such as Closing the Loop—another social enterprise from the Netherlands—which collects scrap phones from Asia and Africa and recycles them in an environmentally friendly manner. Yet even Fairphone cannot be claim to be 100 percent ethical; the supply chains of the globalised smartphone world are simply too complex. Moreover, given the fact that some 300,000 Fairphones are sold every quarter compared with 75 million iPhones, it is clear just how much remains to be done if an entire economy is to be transformed.
Fairphone represents a new generation of designers and entrepreneurs who are letting their actions do the talking. This generation is adopting a cooperation-based corporate culture, not only to implement alternative business ideas more flexibly and more quickly, but also to usher in a new era in which sharing attitudes take centre stage in the business world. Swiss brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag structured their company along horizontal hierarchies, where staff are encouraged to speak up and voice their opinion in collaborative processes. As early as two decades ago, the two entrepreneur designers caused uproar with their collection of Freitag bags made from old HGV tarpaulins, and have contributed tothe circular economy through upcycling processes ever since
—even though to be fully consistent, they would need to pay due consideration to the afterlife of their trendy bags. To achieve this end, they eagerly embarked on F-ABRIC. The Freitag team took five years to produce a range which fulfilled their stellar standards. Their main focus was not on creating hip or stylish products, but on designing a textile which was 100 percent biodegradable and made from European raw materials, meaning that the manufacturing processes would not entail a journey halfway around the world. F-ABRIC is composed of hemp, flax and modal fibres as raw materials. Once a F-ABRIC product has come to the end of its useful life, wearers do not have to dispose of it as rubbish, but can simply toss it onto the compost heap; F-ABRIC biodegrades fully within three months, including sewing threads and selvage. Only the button on the trousers remains, but of course that can be removed and recycled as well. The dye and the finish of the fabric likewise had to be carefully considered. What is remarkable is the company’s willingness to voluntarily shoulder the burden of so many restrictive conditions instead of waiting until politicians troubled themselves to put legislation in place. Ultimately, however, this is the only way in which a pair of trousers costing EUR 200 instead of EUR 20 can be justified on the market. F-ABRIC remains a niche product, yet this story is so heart-warming and convincing that the noble cause at the heart of the project will be eagerly shared, regardless of whether we actually wear F-ABRIC or not.
While switching from a linear economy and consumerism to a circular economy appears to be a tough nut for global corporations to crack, multi-layered concepts which are successfully rooted in a basic understanding of a circular or new economy are being developed in many towns and cities in parallel. Such ideas may include repair cafés, food-sharing projects, lending or swap exchanges, and development of local forms of production focusing on exploiting local resources and short supply paths, production on demand or combining of high and low-tech methods with traditional forms of craftsmanship. All these alternatives start out small, but can have a huge impact in setting an example for many others to follow. Digital networks also play a significant role, although the precondition here is a new attitude, a way of thinking, a new perception of prosperity rooted in a notion of social solidarity and commoning. Or, to conclude with the words of Simonette Carbonaro, an Italian consumer psychologist and corporate consultant: “Me, myself and I is a thing of the past!”