The world’s economy is linear. We “take, make, and dispose,” using vast quantities of energy and resources in the process. As a civilization, it’s something we’ve been doing on a massive scale since the Industrial Revolution, so it’s going to be a hard habit to break. But break it we must, say campaigners including Dame Ellen MacArthur, the round-the-world yachtswoman-turned-environmental-champion (see interview on pages 34–35), because this is an unsustainable way of consuming and living which will ultimately have dire consequences for our planet and future generations.

Recycling, cutting back, conserving energy and resources, buying sustainable products – this is our current reaction to the problems we face. But to change things at a fundamental level, advocates of a concept called the circular economy say that every individual and every business needs to stop thinking in a linear fashion and start thinking in the round. Literally.

For example, careful innovation at a product’s design stage would allow it to be disassembled and remade at the end of its life, thus eradicating waste. Leasing goods from manufacturers rather than buying products outright would make us think differently about ownership. This is the circular economy in action – a restorative industrial system that designs out waste and minimizes energy so that everything goes around again, rather than heading for landfill. It offers huge growth opportunities, too. The latest estimate is that the circular economy could be worth $1 trillion annually by 2025, and savvy businesses are already signed up to its principles.

Circular economy thinking has been around for decades, and its practical applications have been championed since the late 1970s by various academics, thought leaders, and businesses. In the last few years, however, the idea has grown and taken on a new urgency, particularly with MacArthur’s charity – the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – working with global business and education to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

Closing the Loops at IKEA

Swedish home furnishings giant IKEA is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100, a platform “bringing together leading companies, emerging innovators, and regions to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.” As part of a Close the Loops project, which it ran with WWF until 2012, IKEA set up recycling points in pilot stores and offered an incentive for customers to bring back old and unwanted products. These points proved useful as a way to raise customer awareness of material recycling even if the amount of materials collected was often low, says IKEA. Learning points from the projects included “the need to take social and economic factors into account, and that recycling of renewable resources such as wood and textiles can be just as important as the recycling of non-renewable materials.” IKEA has tested a number of recycled materials and their potential to be down-cycled and/or up-cycled. It now has numerous products with recycled content, some made from 100% recycled materials, and others with a mix of virgin and recycled.

Let There Be Light

Philips – a world leader in health care, consumer lifestyle, and lighting, and a partner with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – has been exploring circular innovation within its company for some time. Philips’ Pay Per Lux model develops the concept of light as a service – which means selling light rather than light bulbs. In effect, with Pay Per Lux, Philips does not sell products to the customer; rather the customer keeps the product for Philips by leasing lights and paying for performance. For example, when architect Thomas Rau wanted to buy light – rather than lamps, cables, and controls – for his offices at the RAU architectural agency in Amsterdam, Philips designed a system for him that could be adapted, reclaimed, and recycled. Philips’ Diamond Select program, meanwhile, which refurbishes complex medical equipment, is a circular breakthrough in the health care market.

The Circular Network

To make the shift to the circular economy, designers need to consider the system as a whole, rather than focus on individual components or products. To make circular co-creation viable, however, designers and material experts, manufacturers and resource managers, brands and retailers, consumers, policy makers and government, investors, and academics need to work together. The mission of the Great Recovery project is “to create a neutral space where all disciplines can learn from each other so that we can create initiatives which move us toward a circular economy.”

Sophie Thomas has been working in the field of sustainable design for more than 15 years, and is Co-Director of Design at the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in London. She is also Director of The Great Recovery Project which, in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board, a U.K. public organization, is investigating the role of design in the circular economy and building new partnerships to include designers and material experts, manufacturers and resource managers, brands and retailers, investors and academics. In September, the project will open an innovation hub in London, where businesses can present design challenges to a team of experts who will aim to solve them in a circular way.

Thomas emphasizes the importance of making things better by design so that products can be easily disassembled and remade. The trouble is, most designers are only used to our current linear structure and rarely have exposure to what happens to a product after it leaves their workbench. “I went on a government mission to see how the Netherlands – a country with a landfill ban – was dealing with resource efficiency,” she remembers. “We went to various reprocessing plants and, at one of these, I watched someone trying to get a compressor out of a fridge on a disassembly line. He was really struggling to do it, which I thought was a ridiculous state of affairs. Imagine if that man had been able to talk to all designers of all fridges. They would then be able to understand his problem and come up with an easy design solution which would enable him to simply remove the compressor at the end of the fridge’s life.”

Currently, says Thomas, a design brief from a manufacturer will usually include specifications on usability, ergonomics, price points, aesthetics, and longevity – but not disassembly or recyclability. That needs to change because, according to The Great Recovery Project, some 80% of a product’s environmental impact is predetermined at concept design stage. “So we know this is a very powerful place for designers to be in terms of circularity,” she says. “But, really, it’s not just about redesigning a product. Switching to a circular economy is about redesigning our entire system. It’s about switching from a model which derives profit from selling more and more units, to a circular model which is about leasing and strengthening lifelong relationships with a brand.”

The Great Recovery Project has taken designers and businesses to recycling and sorting facilities so they could see for themselves the huge issues around waste. “The reactions were incredible,” says Thomas. “People who had been working in design for 30 years said to me, ‘I’ve never been to one of these places before and never talked to a waste manager. I had no idea it was so complicated. But if I’d known then what I know now, the products I’ve been designing would be totally different.’ It really opened their eyes.”

Building the circular economy isn’t going to be easy. It means business model disruption at every level – and it needs political will. It is, however, vital and necessary, says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if we want a world where “nothing is wasted, and everything is transformed.”
Tony Greenway

Published: September 2014

Illustration: Stuart Briers