Let’s Think About a Circular Economy

Increasingly, we are realizing that the way we live, eat, travel & consume doesn’t really make sense in the long term. The world provides for us in abundance, but we do live in a world of limited resources. Yet, we are using energy and materials as if there is no end. At the same time we are generating a lot of waste in our throw away culture – every year all of us waste $2 trillion dollars worth of materials… As problems like climate change and peak oil are quickly becoming a growing threat to a pleasant future, we need to come up with a more sustainable model for the economy.

That is what Circular Economy aims to do, by looking at nature. If we look at nature there are no limitations or waste. In nature there is abundance, and waste serves as food, because there is a circular model at work. In the Circular Economy, this model is applied to our economy. Hopefully in the future, this will be the only way of thinking when designing products and services, because we have to care for ourselves and future generations. William McDonough says it well:

How can we love the children of all species–not just our own–for all time? Imagine what a world of prosperity and health in the future would look like, and begin designing for it right now.

William McDonough on Cradle to Cradle

The Circular Economy

Where Permaculture provides a set of ethics and principles, the Circular Economy really is very practical. The Ellen McArthur Foundation is leading the way, and has made a convincing case that – as resources are becoming more expensive – this model is more profitable and future proof then the current. With the tried and tested process of Life Cycle Assesment environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life can be assessed. Following that, the Circular Economy model provides an overview of circular opportunities and examples, for every stage. In the very center of all these opportunities we could place ‘Product as a Service’ as an all encompassing solution. With car rental schemes, or renting light, jeans, whatever you can imagine, all the boxes in the model can possibly be ticked.

Circular Opportunities

What does it look like?

Some great examples of design in the Circular Economy are about repair, reuse and recycling. Like Patagonia’s Clothes the Loop, which features a repair service and a partnership with iFixit, and a collaboration with eBay to buy and sell used clothing. Or IKEA’s online flea market, a multi channel campaign in which IKEA provided a platform for customers to sell used furniture. ‘Product as a service’ solutions like ZipCar or Philips Pay per Lux includes a lot of goodness, since the company remains the owner of valuable resources, and maintenance and repair, and sometimes running costs are part of the plan. It makes sense for the company, is convenient for the customer, and better for our world. Of course Ecovative’s mushroom material fits into this concept perfectly as well!


How to get involved as a designer or business owner

For architects, product designers, service designers, and really anyone running a business, thinking through the circular model should be a must. First, there are plenty trained professionals out there who know how to do a proper Life Cycle Assesment, and free online universities like Coursera even provide courses to learn Life Cycle Assessment yourself. The Ellen McArthur Foundation provides information and toolkits for finding opportunities in your business. And there are a growing number of consultants that can help as well. 

If you are a business consultant or designer and want to get some fun practice, London will host a Circular Jam on 21-23 November 2014. Spend a weekend brainstorming, designing and prototyping to solve issues around sustainability. It will be worth looking for a Circular Economy Design Jam close to you, if you are not in London, or maybe even host one yourself.

Feel free to ask me for tips and tricks on how to organize a Circular Design Jam, me and a few colleagues from ustwo™ New York organised a Circular Design Jam in January 2014, so I can help you get started!


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