Companies will see benefits from reviewing their entire production life cycle for opportunities to improve efficiency and circularity, as this can lead to reduced costs and additional revenue streams while also enabling compliance with environmental laws, according to a design expert.
Amelia Juhl, design director at global industrial design firm IDEO Tokyo, said in a recent online forum that the shift towards a circular economy has become a global priority amidst worsening climate change and pollution, and that this calls for a “need to design new systems for the industry and economy” to address these challenges.
There are three principles of circular economy, she said at the e-forum organized by the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions.
The first is to “design out” waste. “Think about the entire life cycle of a product or service and design in a way that does not produce waste to begin with,” Juhl said.
Another principle is to utilize existing products and materials. “Keep materials in circulation at the highest value so that they can be reused as much as possible,” she added.
The third principle is to regenerate natural systems. “Create designs that restore natural materials by returning them to the soil.”
She said that this basically means “subtracting materials, circulating them and using the power of nature [to] reduce costs in the medium to long term and also improve the quality of services and products we provide.”
Juhl said the world’s largest companies are exploring circular systems for several reasons. One is for future-proofing in anticipation of tightening environmental regulations, an unstable climate, and rapid changes in consumer mindsets.
Circular systems can also help firms build new revenue streams by shifting from selling products to selling circular services. As an example, Juhl said global brand Philips has made that shift from selling lighting hardware to selling lighting as a service to derive the benefits of circularity.
Another reason for experimenting with circularity is it allows the retention of the value of existing materials to lessen costs. Apple, noted Juhl, has committed to create products without extracting new resources from the earth and is developing ways to make it easier to collect, take apart and reuse products and materials.
“If you’re not using virgin material and you’re reusing material that you’re collecting, then that means lower costs in the long term, but there are investments that need to be made in the short term in the transition,” she said.
Another reason to implement circular systems is to establish a purpose-driven organization. “The strength of a circular and sustainable company is that its purpose is clear, which makes it easier to motivate employees and recruit the Gen Z, who are much more sensitive to the environment and social causes,” the executive said.
She advises companies to think ahead about how to be sustainable without waiting for their customers to demand that they do it.
“Look at your entire production life cycle and find opportunities to change and create a better consumer experience out of it instead of trying to change consumer behavior,” Juhl said.
Greater impact could be realized in upstream designs, she said. “So instead of trying to figure out what to do with waste at the end of the product cycle, there’s much greater impact in thinking how not to create waste in the first place.”
She also tells companies to be creative about waste reduction by considering redesigning their packaging. She cited as example toothpaste that could be sold not in a tube but as little tablets in a refillable glass jar and that could be crushed in the mouth.
The tablets can come in a monthly subscription to be delivered to the customer’s mailbox to refill the jar.
Storytelling is another important aspect of circularity, Juhl said. Consumers are not aware of how products are produced and how they arrive on the shelves, so it is necessary to provide information about all the activities in bringing the product to the store and what happens to the product after consumption.
For a cotton shirt, for instance, processes can include soil degradation, exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals, copious consumption of water and electricity for production and utilization of fossil fuels for transportation to different countries. Post-purchase, the used clothes often are driven to the landfill later on without being recycled or reused.
“As producers responsible for the ecosystem that you’ve built, you can identify opportunities for improving your business processes, the lives of your workers and the communities and the environment your factories are in,” said Juhl.
“There are many models of doing that and if you can story-tell that process then people will slowly awaken. Everyone has different timelines for when they make that sustainability switch, but it does happen so we just need to keep telling these stories.”
Juhl also shared that IDEO has built a website in collaboration with charitable institution Ellen MacArthur Foundation called The Circular Design Guide (www.circulardesignguide.com), which provides content related to circular mindsets, case studies, methodologies, worksheets and workshop facilitation for those looking for resources and materials on the circular economy.