Five ways to design for circularity

Key takeaways from Circular Design Forum 2022

On October 25th, Anna Gebala, Mons Langaard, and Georgina Seviour from EGGS took part in Circular Design Forum in Eindhoven organised by VanBerlo. The ambition of the forum is to accelerate progress toward a sustainable future through collaboration. It is a space for honest sharing of challenges, learnings, and tips on applying sustainable strategies to the design process. In this article, they share essential learning points from the forum.

1. Use the donut model as a steering wheel for decisions

The design community can be inspired by how VanBerlo uses the donut model to steer their impact toward a thriving 2-ton society by 2050 (A 2-ton society means that we all live in such a way that we limit our carbon emission to 2 tons per year and person - the limit for reaching carbon neutrality). They urge us to use it as inspiration to design new rituals, as well as to consider that carbon emissions are not the only planetary boundary and we should be aware of how our designs impact other ecological and social factors.

2. Prove that existing products can bring new sources of revenue

Often the default is to design new products rather than explore the circular business potential of what has already been created. This is a wasted opportunity! Dare to challenge your business/clients to explore how existing products can make revenue by matching consumers' needs with the business case. For example, Tommy Hilfiger started making the most of what they had already invested in by exploring different renting and subscription models, embracing vintage collections, and refurbishing clothes to create new items by combing old clothes.

3. See your downstream as your upstream

This is about a shift in mindset about what is valuable. A product can decrease in value over time from the user's point of view, but it doesn't need to from a producer perspective. In fact, seeing your downstream – the part in the process related to use, disposal, and recycling – as your upstream – means you treat broken or unwanted products as valuable goods, not something to be disposed of, but instead something to be regenerated and restored. James Souder from Metabolic recommends starting by mapping the current system and asking; what are all the barriers to being circular? Then map the desired circular system and ask; how can you get around the barriers to reach the desired system?

4. Think of ownership as temporary

We’ve seen it with the rise of Spotify and Netflix; consumers are moving towards access over ownership - it's more important to try many things than to own something permanently. This shift in mindset doesn’t need to be motivated by sustainability. For example, if a person is renting clothes because it is cheaper and gives them easy access to fashion, that’s ok so long as the outcome for the planet is positive. This shift in attitude creates an opportunity to explore different concepts of ownership and to test combining different models; for example, you might combine rental and resale by renting a product until the value decreases to a certain level and then sell it.

5. Repair is a design issue and a legislative opportunity

Legislation can drive direction, but whether a product is repairable is down to product design. The repairability experts at the forum urge us to remove the barriers to repair while also acknowledging that not everyone wants to or should repair themselves. It is about designing a system that enables repair:

  • Make a business case about which parts should be repaired; Consider how often the parts get broken and assess where repairability is most needed. But don't sacrifice durability for repairability; the primary focus should always be durability and functionality. If you make the product repairable, but it breaks all the time, the user will be very demotivated to continue using it. Whereas, if you make the product meet the user's needs and be durable, the user will love the product and is more likely to take care of it.

  • Don't make yourself reliant on one supplier; design the parts so that any supplier can make them. This ensures that, in the long run, you can guarantee replacement parts. Think also about tolerances; in production, the factory uses high-precision tools. However, a user fixing a broken part doesn't have access to such a tool, so the tolerances need to be bigger.

  • Consider software as well as hardware; if we make the hardware last, we need to make the software last. If you cannot do that, you should let your users download software from other providers.

All in all, circularity is about seeing waste as an opportunity – not something to discard. If we use the power of design correctly, we can find profitable, desirable, and sustainable ways to create long-term value.

This article is an attempt to summarise the knowledge shared at the Circular Design Forum, and is a result of the collective knowledge of all the contributors and speakers at the event: Phillips, Microsoft, Fairphone, TU Delft, OneUp, Metabolic, PFI, VanBerlo and EGGS Design.

Sounds interesting?

Georgina Seviour

Get in touch with Senior Service Designer
Georgina Seviour
+47 919 05 664

Mons Alexander  Langaard

You should talk to Lead Business Designer
Mons Alexander Langaard
+47 478 88 266

Anna Gębala

You should talk to Industrial Designer
Anna Gębala
+47 919 27 207

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