Why is the circle a perfect shape?
Because the circle is such a natural shape, it is a strong element not only in visualization design but also in other areas like science, business, education, research. Circles are used to explain concepts. One of those concepts is about the growing necessity for us to start restructuring the way we manufacture by designing products that last, that are not just disposed of after their lifetime is finished but go right back into the supply chain. This concept is known as circular economy.
What is circular economy?
Although the term gained vast popularity couple of years ago, the perception of circular economy is not at all new. The idea about opposing open to closed economic structure dates back to the late 60s of the last century. The English economist Kenneth Boulding recognized the need for balancing the industrial with the ecological system in his essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. Other scholars who acknowledged the importance of shifting from linear to circular economy are Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things focuses on how we can reduce landfill by manufacturing products that feed back into the production loop instead of going to waste.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation
In 2012, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation issued a report called Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition which describes the potential economic benefits of the adoption of a circular-based approach by replacing the make-use-dispose cycle with reuse-remanufacture-recycle one. The report defines the challenges which urbanization and population growth pose on the business world and on the planet. The increasing consumption leads to unstable prices and stagnating demands of the market. And this is not only valid for heavy machinery and automotive manufacturers. This influences all businesses like fashion and electronics industries.
Can the circular economy satisfy everyone’s needs?
We should get a closer look at some of the report findings in order to see whether the adoption of a circular model of production can serve everyone — corporations, consumers, and our planet as a consequence. By reorganizing the way manufacturers operate, the companies will reduce their material bills and the resources used for the production of a particular product. According to a product level modelling research, the turn to a circular economy can result in up to USD 380 billion cost savings at EU level. This translates to 3.9% of 2010 EU GDP. In an active circular economy consumers become users. What does this mean? It means that consumers do not own the products, the companies just lease the products to the consumers. After the lifetime of the product, the consumer (customer) returns the raw material to the producer so that it can be reused to produce new products. This not only decreases the total ownership cost for the consumers, but also gives them more freedom in how long and how exactly they will use the product. I believe the benefits from this operational model for our planet are obvious. A regenerative economy such as the circular economy, is not a one-way solution.
Think about what happens after you die. You just leave your possessions to the earth to deal with. The same happens after I die. And after someone else dies. The coming generations will probably be as much focused on consumption as we are today (if not even more), enjoying interesting experiences and generating waste for the planet to tuck away after they are gone. But we don’t see the waste, do we? On the way to work or school there is no landfill. In the cinema, there is no landfill either. Our everyday life rarely gives us the opportunity to think so globally. Our minds are programmed this way so it will take some effort to re-program them. This sounds like a problem but I’d rather call it a challenge. There are a few other challenges that we need to overcome. They are connected with the current design of the products, the energy prices and other factors, like cultural resistance. The positive thing is that we are already taking the first steps. There are companies who are active pioneers in the adoption of a circular-based manufacturing approach (like Philips, Renault, H&M) but more efforts are needed at corporate, governmental, educational and personal level.
Let’s go back to the way our minds work….
The German architect and entrepreneur Thomas Rau delivered a very insightful speech at a TEDx conference in 2013. He stated that the future is not a gift, but an achievement. It’s not a gift because it’s dependent on our current actions and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. So if we manage to create a restorative industrial system by intention, the future we are building for the coming generations will be an achievement. Thomas Rau referred to M. Braungart and W. McDonough and their ideas about the cradle-to-cradle as opposed to the cradle-to-grave business model. In the cradle-to-grave model we have a product that is produced from raw materials, then it is used by consumers and then it is being disposed of. Then another product is produced and it follows the same lifecycle. As a result, more waste is generated. In the cradle-to-cradle model on the other hand, we have a product that is produced by the same raw materials, it goes into public use, then it is sent back to production to give material for the next product.
Thomas Rau made a very effective statement:
“We are organizing our society in a way that nobody is anymore responsible for the consequences of his own acting”.
We are often unable to take responsibility and admit that the way each of us lives has a direct impact on our planet in its entirety. Why are we choosing not to? Because it’s easier. It seems unbearably difficult to admit that one person’s actions have such a tremendous impact for billions. And it doesn’t per se. The problem comes from when everyone tries to convince themselves in this. This is what makes the impact so great. The inability to accept our responsibility is multiplied.
Rau used a powerful allusion between the consumer’s focus on possession and the leasing nature of airplanes. We do not have to own something in order to use it, we don’t buy an airplane in order to get from Paris to Sydney. It’s the same with products, we don’t need to have the ownership of the products in order to be able to use them.
Another interesting point in his speech was when he talked about how products/possessions that seem to be so important for the consumers — like computers and mobile phones cannot operate on their own. They need electricity. But electricity is a raw material and it is a finite resource. This makes the whole idea of having this and that mobile phone at any cost, quite fragile. As Rau concluded in his speech, nobody can change the world. But we can change our perspective of it.
What’s on the design side?
We’ve identified the benefits of the circular economy model. We’ve pointed out that this model is at the center of living sustainably. But where do we start? The shift from a linear to a circular business model is a massive change which requires restructuring not only the production chain and people’s mindset. This process concerns also the way we design the products, the way we educate ourselves, the way we run our everyday activities. On the design side, we have the perception that designers should design products which have a long lifespan. We need products that are designed with the intention to be remanufactured. The authors of the book Products that last, (C.A. Bakker, M.C. den Hollander, E. van Hinte, Y. Zijlstra) argue that designing for sustainability differs from designing for a long lifespan. The latter requires maintaining the value of the product over time, as opposed to simply recycling it. They describe 6 strategies for lifespan extension which can help in keeping the value throughout the whole cycle:
#1. Design for attachment and trust
This explores the connections that consumers establish with the products they use.
#2. Design for durability
It is based on defining optimum product reliability — it should match the product’s economic and stylistic lifespan.
#3. Design for standardization and compatibility
It has to do with the technological evolution and the reality of personal customization.
#4. Design for ease of maintenance and repair
This is a sensitive field as the maintenance and repair of a product is divided among the manufacturer, the service provider and the user.
#5. Design for adaptability and upgradability
Currently adaptability is common — you can easily change a part of a product. Upgradability is limited as digital technology develops very fast.
#6. Design for dis- and reassembly
This is relatively new. Easy disassembly is a central requirement for sustainability. The reassembling of products may include assembling with other products to become something new.
The authors also claim that there are 5 business models which benefit from a longer than average product life. They are:
• The classic long life model — it includes products with high quality and long lifespan, they are known as “good value for money” products.
• The hybrid model — it includes cheap products with short lifespan which function together with a dedicated high-quality durable product (like cartridges and coffee pads).
- The gap exploiter model — it does not propose anything new. It feeds the value gap in the existing system. It includes the people who sell second hand products and repair smartphones.
- The access model — here the leasing of products is included, providing of access to a service/product — like car renting and hotel booking.
- The performance model — the responsibility for the product/service is with the provider, the users are interested in the quality of the service, not in the product providing it — for example printing, transportation.
Most companies and corporations are primarily focused on generating profit. It’s how business life works. This is one of the reasons why the idea of re-manufacturing is still struggling to find its way to decision makers on a global scale. However, products and services are designed by designers, (and here I mean not only product designers). It seems that designers are not given enough credit for the role they play in the economic world but this is a subject for another article. What matters here is that the way businesses operate does not exist in isolation. This process can and should be influenced by both managing directors, consumers and designers and by governments and educational institutions. It will take time and efforts to re-program people’s minds, as I specified earlier. History testifies to the reactive line of action which we, as human beings tend to have. We are not proactive enough, we take measures far too late. But everything has limits. Our life. Our success. Our resources. Will we stop generating waste if we adopt the circular economy globally? No. Will this have a positive impact on us and our planet despite this? Definitely. I started my article discussing the perfection of the circle. It is a simple and explicit shape. Primarily, it is a natural shape. We don’t have to call it circular economy for it to work though. It’s the idea behind the name that matters. Let’s close the loop.