Sustainable Product and Service Design Strategies for Enterprises in a Circular Economy

Systems thinking in environmental design

Why do we Need a Circular Economy?

The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, consisting of food, paper, plastic, metal, glass and wood. This amount of industry production inevitably means accelerated depletion of resources, global warming, ecosystem collapses and more serious environmental disasters. The UN’s Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goal 13 for climate action aim to slow down the rate of global average temperature to 1.5 C° above pre-industrial levels, the driving factor in the mentioned climate change issues. Although the rate of 2020 was 1.02 C°, the inertia of consumer choices and industrial processes has already made the target a difficult one to achieve.

One solution is to shift towards a circular economy: an economic system that aims to redefine growth, decoupling activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. It keeps products and materials in use for longer, reducing environmental pressures. As opposed to take-make-waste extractive industrial models which diminish product life-cycles and end up in landfills or incinerators, processes designed for circularity using methods such as ‘Re’ (reuse, repair, recycle, remanufacture) can be regenerative for natural systems and make a significant impact.

Enterprise Outlook on Circular Systems
Circular or green strategies are already in motion due to the increasing demand for sustainable transitions by consumer demand and various organizations driving competition, market prices and new regulations. Fiscal policies, monetary policies and investors are increasingly valuing ideas that create motivating experiences for customers using environmentally positive solutions. Enterprise-specific design strategy researches and analyses user needs, market trends, new technologies, industrial and human factors, supply chains, information systems and governing policies to create a suitable plan for the product or service. For billion-dollar businesses, the transition from a linear to a circular economy is often suppressed due to the large financial and operational momentum. New enterprises and startups are uniquely positioned to utilize their agility to meet customer needs sustainably without having to re-design, re-engineer and implement systems on a massive scale. The challenges here are availability, scalability and profitability in logistics of raw material, parts and products within the reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycling systems.

Sustainable Product & Service Design Strategies

51% of Apple users buy a new iPhone as soon as it is launched and most people buy a new phone every 2 years on average. Many businesses reap the benefits of perceived social status and fashion while creating large amounts of global waste. During the design phase, human factors such as aesthetics and ergonomics should aim to redefine emotions and trends, create standardized interactions, build product attachment and trust, and be ‘timeless’. Along with the various behavioural design and industrial design factors (described later in 3, 4), companies such as Fairphone have successfully demonstrated that smartphones can be sustainable. With similar perspective shifts in consumers, products in circular systems can last much longer.

Extending the life of the product is in the strongest loop in circularity, the ‘reuse’ cycle, by meeting long-term customer needs with a single product. It focuses on providing maintenance, repair and upgrading of components. Products that are transferred from one user to another such as second-hand furniture, electronics and vehicles are also an example of an extension strategy. For design and development operations in businesses, product life cycles can also be extended by restorative practices between maturity and saturation. This could mean rebranding, upgrading, repricing and seeking new markets.

In life-cycle intensification, multiple users use a single product. Pay-per-use service-based models for public bicycles within a community is a product intensification strategy. One example is a company called Yulu in Bangalore, which has affected the decision making of users who are starting to opt for healthier, zero investment and more sustainable options. This type of ‘leasing’ system also allows the provider to do routine maintenance of the machine and increase its lifespan. Eventually, at the end of the product life, it can be transported and processed at a recycling facility.

Unlike industrial repair where products need to be transported to the manufacturer or provider, domestic repair empowers users to fix their products at home. Online platforms such as IFIXIT help people fix gadgets with minimal time, cost and experience. This has affected the frequency of purchases of either new products or spare parts in many businesses. While making an enterprise around domestic repair, provisions for spare parts and maintenance are a new revenue stream. Products made for both industrial and domestic repair need to be designed in a way that is easy to disassemble (modular components using standard screws or snap fasteners) and easy to clean, repair and replace parts.

Materials are what products are made of, so the selection and usage of them need to be thoughtful. In a lightweight design, recycled aluminium, reclaimed wood, bamboo, cork and bioplastics are relatively sustainable options but depend hugely on the application. Features in design for manufacturing using artificial intelligence such as Autodesk’s topology optimization and generative modelling can produce structural compliance with minimal material usage. A closed-loop ‘Re’ system is an extended strategy to recover materials, redesign and remanufacture products through multiple lifecycles and reduce resource and energy consumption, emissions and costs in the process.

Remanufacturing is the rebuilding of products using a combination of reused, repaired and new parts. The main drivers are profitability, competitiveness and policy. One possible barrier is market cannibalization, where a loss in sales is found due to the demand for remanufactured products displacing one of the existing ones. Other areas that need to be addressed in remanufacturing are product tracking and quality insecurity. The latter experience can be improved with awareness, trust and customer-friendly return policies. A life-cycle perspective in remanufacturing includes the previously described design and engineering principles along with a guide manual for properly planned remanufacturing cycles.

The main drawback of circular products and services is the financial and infrastructural strain of setting up a ‘Re’ facility. Since each product is made up of different materials and joined by different processes, recycling is not very profitable. Standardized mechanical design, manufacturing and automation are needed in recycling systems for complex products at a large scale. Moreover, the millions of products that are disposed of require different tools and methods to disassemble and segregate the materials for proper recycling. For enterprises such as 3D printing, in-house material recyclers are low-investment can serve as a viable thermoplastic recycling system from waste or unusable parts. Strategic partnerships with established recycling facilities can be an advantage. For the same reason, products should also be minimally designed in terms of materials, parts and joints.

If the construction of a building or industry is going to be sustainable, it cannot be constructed on prime farmlands, historic sites, in the habitat of wildlife or close to wetlands. The selection of the site location must ideally be in vacant lots, redevelopment sites or brownfields, to avoid degradation of natural land and ecosystems. Site planning strategy can produce significant environmental benefits using simple tactics such as building orientation, which can be designed for natural light and cross ventilation. Typically it saves 20–25% of direct energy, where smart air conditioning is used to counteract the heat produced by artificial lighting. Landscaping is another cost-effective green strategy to reduce the heat island effect in sub-urban localities. Infrastructure should be surrounded with green screens (plant-based lattices) and a green roof that cleans the air, filters rain for flood prevention and serves as a mini wildlife habitat. Sustainable site planning and architecture can save costs both upfront and over the long run, and benefit the business image exhibiting LEED certification.

The global energy industry is estimated to grow from 1 to 1.5 trillion dollars by 2025, with a major shift towards renewable power sources. This opens opportunities for new products to be made using and run on clean energy, on top of design for ‘Re’. With the incremental advantages in energy capacities of Li-ion batteries, electronic devices have an optimum life after which it would be more efficient to buy a new product. Here, the actual sustainability needs to be calculated against the continued use of an old product. Another strategy is combining a modular design with energy systems where customers should have access to replace only the energy module with more efficient upgrades, instead of an entirely new product.

When materials, parts and products are moved for ‘Re’ purposes in circular systems, there are costs involved with packaging, transportation and human resources. In some cases, the carbon footprint of the extended supply chain diminishes the pro-environmental cause of the new system. In each case, the environmental and economical footprint of the circular model needs to be compared to the existing one to make sure the combined system of activities is sustainable.

In this fast-paced world, many products are having digital interfaces and internet connectivity. Consumer electronics such as phones, laptops, washing machines, dishwashers, air conditioners, microwaves etc. are essentials in urban homes. Even if products are designed to be robust and durable, aspects like wear indication can inform users about potential problems after long use. Being able to track the health, predict failures, and recommend fixes to the user beforehand is a preventive step and can increase the product's value proposition for sustainability.

The advantage of having a green policy at the core of the enterprise creates a healthier, safer workplace, engaging employees and customers, building awareness and adopting a green future. Having the ability to meet contractual requirements around sustainability, such companies also gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. A sustainability-driven culture and brand image are more likely to be productive, attract potential customers and return an improved financial bottom line.

What Does a Circular Future Look Like?

Under mindful and efficient management of businesses and governments, the production, use and disposal of physical product systems can gradually be turned sustainable. Consumers play a critical role in pressurising industries and organizations to create strict policies and practise circular systems. We must opt for products that are truly sustainable, even if it costs us more. With technological advancements in materials engineering, it is also possible to build products that are carbon-neutral or carbon-negative (that remove more carbon dioxide than what they emit). A circular future has the potential to blend such new technologies around good design with conscious direction, redefining economic systems and the way products are used to create a greener and safer future for all life.

Thanks for reading!

-Arvind Bhallamudi (LinkedIn | Instagram)



Arvind is a design engineer Mastering Industrial Design at RISD, investigating green products and systems at the intersection of healthcare and sustainability.

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Arvind Bhallamudi

Arvind is a design engineer Mastering Industrial Design at RISD, investigating green products and systems at the intersection of healthcare and sustainability.