Policy: the circular designer’s secret weapon

Smart policy can inspire better material choices, innovative business models, and the continual circulation of value.

Simon Widmer and Joe Iles

Since its inception in 2010, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has placed design as crucial to achieving a circular economy. In fact, the very first initiative from the Foundation was Project ReDesign, which invited thousands of students to rethink products and systems for a circular economy.

Discussions around the circular economy in intervening years often serve to remind us of the importance of design, namely that the circular economy is a model for an economy that is regenerative by design.

Why is this? If you look at many of the shortcomings of today’s take, make, dispose, linear economy, the eventual negative impacts have been set in motion at the design stage. The decisions made during this process influence what will happen downstream — how a product is made, used, and disposed of, whether it will end up in an incinerator, landfill, ocean or unused in someone’s garage. These choices could also set an item on the path to being shared, repaired, recovered, remanufactured, or composted. Ultimately, is the creation fit for a circular economy? Does it reinforce the status quo of extraction and consumption, or aspire to circulation and regeneration — putting back more than we take out? This is only made possible upstream, at the design phase. As materials expert Alysia Garmulewicz once quipped, “you can’t unscramble an omelette”.

Such design choices could include the type and variety of materials a product is made of, whether it’s assembled using glues or screws, and if it can be upgraded or improved in the future. Extending beyond the product itself, decisions relating to the business model play a crucial role. For example, is a detergent sold in tiny sachets, disposable bottles or a refillable system? For some products, sales and ownership are no longer the only option, and new methods like rental, sharing and incentivised return are all possible.

Material selection, safety, durability, repairability, business model, product information…design choices influence the final destination for our creations. Photo by Ben Neale on Unsplash

The impacts set in motion at this design stage can be profound. Dealing with the symptoms of a linear economy “end of pipe” and cleaning up downstream is often more costly, less effective and at times not possible at all. We can see this clearly today with the near-irreversible symptoms of the way we make and use plastic. Once it has arrived in landfills and oceans, it is difficult to clean it up.

On the other hand, building in circularity from the start can unlock safer or improved products and services, better relationships with customers, and resource and energy savings that benefit the bottom line. It’s through design that we can address the cause of today’s economic, social, and environmental challenges, rather than just treating the symptoms.

It should be clear by now that this has relevance far beyond the realm of the classical industrial designer. IDEO CEO Tim Brown has long maintained that “design is everywhere, inevitably everyone is a designer.” So this phase is crucial not just to one department but to the entire organisation, if they are setting their sights on a circular economy.

Without a focus on design, the circular economy will not happen. However, there’s a stalemate. Designers — and all those involved in the creation of new products and services — face competing demands. Even if they design with the circular economy in mind, their efforts can be overwhelmed by the linear systems in place today. Elsewhere in the system, businesses that recover products for repair or recycling, for example, need to have the processes or technology in place to handle what designers are sending their way. This disconnect hinders sincere efforts to move towards a circular economy.

This is where policymakers play a vital role. Policymakers are uniquely positioned to put in place enabling conditions that allow the whole value chain to transition towards a circular economy. With a systems view, they have the power to connect the upstream and downstream, and set optimal conditions for the overall system to work. Focusing policy measures on the design stage can reconcile economic, environmental and societal demands, creating and distributing the rewards of a better approach.

As well as designers coming up with new circular concepts, there needs to be corresponding ‘pull’ factors to align efforts. Designers need confidence that their latest creations will be handled in the right way further down the chain, whether that’s how items are collected or if they can be recirculated without regulatory hurdles. This may involve removing non-financial barriers to designing for the circular economy, such as definitions of waste that hinder trade and transport of products for remanufacturing, or imperfect information that prevents businesses engaging in repair, disassembly and refurbishment activities.

Users will also need to be nudged in the right direction. During this shift in our economy, even products and services designed for a circular economy could fall into more well-trodden linear pathways, such as improper disposal or underuse. In 2017 the Swedish government demonstrated an elegant example of how policymakers can set this direction. The amendment saw value-added tax, or VAT, reduced from 25 per cent to 12 per cent for repairing items like bicycles, clothes, household linen, leather goods, and shoes. Actions like this could have positive ripple effects throughout the economy. For a start, reduced VAT should make repairing items more affordable and appealing for customers. On top of that, designers are provided with an added incentive to design for this new arrangement, making their products more repairable.

Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

While policies like this can trigger new behaviours from designers, manufacturers and businesses alike, a common vision and approach would have a unifying effect across the design industry. To date, the European Commission’s Ecodesign directive has been effective in terms of decreasing energy consumption. Now is the time to broaden the scope of the directive to consider better material choices, innovative business models, and activities like repairability and recyclability.

Signals throughout the economy tell us that the time is right to unite behind this shared ambition. Designers are becoming more and more familiar with the circular economy, and thousands of them have used the Circular Design Guide and are building a movement by connecting online. Ranging from designers in corporates, to students and professors, to freelancers or those in agencies, they want to use their creativity to redesign products and services for the circular economy.

Developments in technology are unlocking new possibilities for circular products and business models, including tracking the status and performance of assets using internet of things, the communication of material composition through digital watermarks, optimising material use with 3D printing, and sharing product information via blockchain. Business leaders from all industries are committing to ambitious circular economy targets. Throughout society, more and more citizens are aware of the shortcomings of the linear economy, whether it’s the impacts of pollution, badly designed products, or demands for better service and transparency from business.

During Project ReDesign, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s first educational project, the response from students and teachers throughout the country revealed how the circular economy can make people optimistic about the future. With this new way of seeing the world comes the passion and agency to redesign it.

We all know that individual passion and drive can achieve great progress. If we match this energy with incentives, knowledge building, and a clear license to explore these possibilities, we will truly usher in a new era of design.