Skip Navigation

Design and the Circular Economy

March 31, 2022
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM

Most of today’s designs for our consumer products and packaging have a shelf life that’s exceedingly short, usually lasting a few uses. In the fashion and plastics industries, over 80% of materials either end up in landfill or have negative consequences for the environment. In our linear world, we extract precious raw materials out of nature, process them into usable goods to satisfy our wants and needs and then dispose of them when they’re no longer needed. We use them very briefly and then we take them out of circulation in our economy, discarding all the creativity, labour, energy invested in them in the first place.

In Canada, we consume materials, energy and water at one of the highest rates in the world. Just 6% of materials entering our economy comes from recycled goods, compared to 30% in the Netherlands that are recycled and reused. According to a recent report for the Council of Canadian Academies, almost three-quarters of what we use goes to waste.

There has got to be a better way. We must come up with a better system for managing our natural resources, making and using products, and then choosing what to do with them afterwards. We need to be more efficient and productive in creating products, services and systems that take the bigger picture into account, to arrive at a solution that will serve us well in the long term.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, circularity is within our grasp. If we’re to get there, our society needs to end its dependency on scarce natural resources and embrace circular economic principles as the foundation of our economic growth. We need to think differently about how we create the products, services and systems around us. We need to ensure waste and pollution are designed out of the system and circular economy principles are embedded in all of our designs.

Our Speaker

Our speaker at the event was Thibaut Wautelet, an informed expert in the field of the circular economy and a passionate sustainability leader in the dialogue on circularity, innovation and transition to a regenerative and resilient circular economy. He is a project manager at Positive ImpaKT in Luxembourg, which provides training and advice on the development and deployment of circular economy strategies to public organizations and the private sector. Since 2018, Thibaut has been leading the international Product Circularity Data Sheet initiative launched by Luxembourg Ministry of the Economy to develop an industry standard for communicating circularity product data across the supply chain.

Wautelet discusses the notion that designers play an important role in the growth of the circular economy with a discussion of the linear economy and commentary on the “cradle-to-cradle” philosophy which he believes is at the heart of the circular economy. This includes examples of the circular economy in practice and the implications for the evolution of circular design and new business models.

The Linear Economy

“In the “take-make-waste” linear economy,” he says, “what you have is really cheap and easily accessible resources.” As a result, under this economic model we’ve made products cheaply that have ended up as waste, creating key challenges – and negative impacts – that face us now. In the clothing industry, for example, every five minutes one million items of clothing are produced and every second of every day one garbage truck is dumping them in landfill.

For the past 20-30 years, we’ve tried to tackle this waste problem by recycling used textiles but only 1% of recycled garments are going into the manufacture of new clothes. The plastics industry tells a similar story with just 2% being ploughed back in Europe. In other words, our recycling focus isn’t working and we need to make a fundamental change on the design side. Currently, our products, services and overall system itself are not designed for it. It’s not that our recycling technology isn’t up to the task, our products are simply not created to be recycled properly and in a high-quality way.

“Cradle to Cradle” Philosophy

The “cradle-to-cradle” approach to sustainability offers insights into creating a more regenerative system that enables the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

The idea is not new. It’s based on an inspiring book called Cradle to Cradle – Re-Making The Way We Make Things written by Michael Braungart and William McDonough in 2002. Simply put, the cradle to cradle philosophy is like looking at a company as a tree, and an economy like a forest. In the state of nature, they’re designed where there’s no waste and a natural synergy between all the trees and other species living in the forest.

In the last 20 years of sustainable development, our goal has been to reduce our CO2 emissions and minimize their environmental impact. Cradle to cradle goes well beyond that. It’s a fundamentally different approach to product design that maximizes social impact by focusing on quality, performance improvement and doing good. It prompts us to ask, can we design products that regenerate biodiversity, or create buildings that generate more energy than they consume?

Cradle to cradle is a totally different mindset which makes it very exciting to work on products that create a lasting positive impact and beyond. One typical example is the DESSO carpet from AirMaster® that actively improves air quality with fibres capable of capturing harmful airborne particles in homes and offices, thereby promoting human health.

Three Principles

Cradle to cradle has three primary principles: first, creating a system built around renewable energy – the sun, the wind and other renewable energy sources. Second, it is founded on biodiversity. So, its design solutions are adapted from different natural resources drawn locally in regions, locations, cultures and species from around the world. Also, the underlying notion that there one size does not fit all. And circular design must embrace biodiversity and celebrate it.

The third principle in the circular economy is the eradication of waste. Today, we design in the knowledge that our products are destined to become waste. This must change as materials and products need to be imagined as future resources. And designed to pass through different phases in their lifecycles and, ultimately, end up as part of new products.

In this scheme, there are two cycles, the biological and the technical. The biological cycle covers all materials that will eventually be returned to the biosphere and so-called “biological” products need to be designed to facilitate their return safely. Other products that belong in the technical sphere are designed to ensure their constant reuse and eventual return as new products in a virtuous regenerative cycle.

What does this mean for actual products? Well, consider the case of a tire which could be in either the biological or technical cycles. Whether it is either biological or technical, the product must be designed in a circular way to prioritize positive impact. This was the thinking behind the design of Goodyear’s “Concept Tire,” a product with two constituent parts – a biodegradable or biological tread designed to wear out over its useful life, and a technical casing to be reused and eventually recycled in the product’s technical cycle.

We have to eradicate this notion of waste. Currently, we are designing products in a way that we know at some point will become waste. But we should rethink this, and say this product is a resource. “How can I design this in such a way that it could go through different cycles, back into a new product?”

Circular Economy in Practice

How can the principles of the circular economy be put into practice? Positive Impakt’s implementation approach focuses on the concept of value. In the linear economy, products are designed to become waste, which leads to the destruction of their value. At the same time, recycled materials are of lower quality, making their increased use in the economic system difficult. In the circular economy, the challenge is to use products more effectively throughout their lifecycles and accomplishing that begins in the design phase.

How can we design products to last longer and have different applications, so they can be reused, their components refurbished and then recycled for use in other products? This is a question of emphasizing value at the design stage that will have a positive impact throughout the lifecycle, as follows:

In conclusion, the circular economy is not an end goal for us to achieve. Rather it’s a design philosophy that sets out a range of innovative tools for us to address business challenges while at the same time achieving a positive impact.

Selected Q&A

What’s the nature of the relationship between the circular economy and circular design?

The circular economy is really a design philosophy, so design is fundamentally connected to it. As an example, in the case of a school building project we’re currently working on, our goal is to create a positive attitude, rather than just achieving reduced building costs or lowering the carbon footprint as would be the case in a traditional school. We’re actually looking at ways to create a positive healthy environment where students can thrive and grow by figuring out ways to add value through the application of circular economy principles.

From the policy perspective, what’s needed to accelerate implementation of a circular system?

More is needed to provide incentives that will encourage businesses to invest in the circular economy. Currently, in Luxembourg right now, there is a lot of incentive to manage linear businesses, so there needs to be a focus on rewarding those taking the circular route and investing in these types of products. However, awareness is growing among European Union countries and a new package of proposals to promote the circular economy was released very recently, including digital passport regulation, to promote its recognition.

Are we close to establishing global standards for ESG reporting to help investors make informed decisions about company commitment to sustainability, diversity and ethics?

At the present time, what’s missing in ESG reporting standards is uniformity to allow investors to make informed investment decisions around companies. There’s a “data gap” around the circular economy and a lack of information around company performance in this area. At Positive Impakt, we’re working on how to be more transparent in communicating information on the circular economy and how products are designed and produced to promote awareness. Too often, large companies see ESG standards as a compliance tool rather than asking the question, how can we do better? There need to be higher standards for regulating the flow of information, to help companies be better informed about the product design and new business models and what they can do to contribute to the circular economy.

Is there enough awareness around circularity and its benefits among climate-engaged young people in Europe? How do we advance from a trend to something more intentional or actionable?

There is growing awareness of circularity and protection of the environment but what’s missing is detailed knowledge around circular economy products and solutions. I’d encourage consumers buying products to ask if what they are purchasing are designed for refurbishment and recyclability. We need to ask suppliers for more information about recycled content and whether their products are designed for disassembly and lifecycle extension. By asking these questions, we can raise awareness of growing interest and demand to facilitate change.

The Takeaway

The circular economy is an idea whose time has come. The cradle-to-cradle philosophy provides the economic framework for designing waste and pollution out of our system from the very beginning, allowing us to keep materials and products in circulation, enable them to hold their value and regenerate our natural systems. The more “circular” we become, the better it is for everybody– customers, businesses, society and the ecosystem.

Design sits at the apex of this transformation and is the key to creating sustainable design solutions that will better meet our needs within a closed-loop regenerative system while investing in the long-term future of the planet.

As designers, we have a critical role to play here. It’s on us to embrace circular design and actively contribute to the next generation of products that are not only aesthetically appealing to the eye but also highly functional – durable, repairable, reusable, adaptable and modular. This transition will take time and much still needs to be figured out but our industry needs to act now if we are to secure a productive and resilient future.

Read the recap from part II of this event:

Design and the Circular Economy II Recap


Sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop.