Three stories from the frontline of circular design

Joe Iles
Joe Iles
Jul 19, 2017 · 10 min read

If you don’t look too closely, you could convince yourself that the linear economy kind of works on a day to day basis. Inertia is understandable: the circular economy might seem like a great idea for the future, but making meaningful investments in re-thinking, re-designing and re-tooling now can seem like a risk.

Incumbent business can, should and are taking a leading role in the shift to a circular economy, and will get attention for doing so. However, there’s another important tier of the economy that plays a vital role. Entrepreneurs and startups are taking a pioneering position, using creative freedom to design new products and services that take the principles of the circular economy as core. These inventors might not shift an industry by themselves, but their presence and mindset can set the direction for others.

A product design graduate, Thomas Leech has been freelancing in design and design consultancy for the last decade whilst refining a new vision for children’s footwear. Shoey Shoes are aimed at alleviating the massive wastage associated with the production of children’s shoes. Children’s feet grow up to half a shoe size every three months, and at that rate there is an inevitable deluge of unwanted shoes. With such fast turnover, often these shoes have miles of use left in them, but since most of today’s businesses operate on a ‘one time sale’ model, there’s no system to redistribute valuable products that are fit for use. Naturally, this fuels the demand for new resources: according to Thomas, a staggering 38 billion children’s shoes are produced every year.

Taking a blank slate, Thomas has designed a model for footwear that keeps products and materials in use. Rather than buying the shoes outright, customers subscribe to a footwear offer that grows with their children’s feet. This means the manufacturer can get their products back, and a dismantlable design allows worn parts to be replaced, unworn pieces salvaged, and materials separated for proper reprocessing. It sounds like common sense, and along with some tactile prototypes, has gained positive reactions in testing and stimulated conversation.

But the concept hasn’t made it to market yet. For better or worse, today’s customer has come to expect certain features from their shoes, and designers compromise these at their peril. Adhesive is a common issue when trying to improve circularity — if you want to be able to take something apart and reuse it then industrial glue isn’t helpful — and in creating shoes without traditional adhesive Thomas has found that they tend not to be waterproof. “The big irony with shoes is that we say we want them waterproof, but there’s a big hole in the top where you put your foot in anyway. Because my shoes did not create that fully waterproof seal that you can get with adhesives I was always cautious about how far the project could go”.

Throughout the process, Thomas has also had to grapple with the bigger challenge of negotiating systems change, and materials selection is one illustration of this dilemma. The inspiration for Shoey Shoes came from a desire to reuse byproducts from the leather industry. However, Thomas says that in an ideal world this wouldn’t be the material he would use. “If you were to try and make a really ‘circular’ shoe you wouldn’t use leather — I used leather because I was making use of a wasted resource.” So do you design for the system currently in place, or for an ideal future system yet to be established?

A cynic might say that despite some charming prototypes, Shoey Shoes remains hypothetical. But to hear Thomas describe it, the iterative, circuitous design process that he has gone through continues to be key. “Almost every day a conversation comes up where I drop in the project. A project like this has worked so well for engaging people and getting a conversation going, leading to all sorts of other things”. So whilst it might not be the most efficient way to go about developing a new idea, maintaining a fluid and open approach could have a disproportionate impact on the wider industry. “I’m a designer at heart, who is trying to find better ways of doing business”, Thomas admits. “And I want to use these products and their story to go and speak to bigger manufacturers to facilitate a whole new way of doing things.”

In the long run, speedbumps are little more than temporary delays to Thomas. “The shoe is still progressing — my project is not going to be hung out to dry. It’s still going on and it’s actually gathered quite a lot of momentum” he says, adding “I know that something will happen in the future with this and I’d like to be a part of that story”. There’s a sense that although the shift to a more circular economy is inevitable, someone needs to test the water and explore different possibilities.

Oftentimes, the best method to get started with circular design is to ask whether a product could be re-imagined with the circular economy as a guide and goal.

That’s what happened in the case of Dutch startup Gerrard Street. Three years ago, designers Dorus Galama and Tom Leenders were asked by a client to try and create a television which was able to be repaired and upgraded over time. But the trend for screen dimensions becoming ever more vast quickly forced them to rethink.

That didn’t mean Dorus and Tom gave up on the idea of modular, upgradable electronics. Dorus explains that “the concept of a circular economy really grasped me because if it all plays out you are able to not only reduce waste but also have a cost reduction in your business model. I found that combination very interesting.”

They went on to found Gerrard Street, with a new target in sight: headphones.

“After the experience with the TV concept, we figured we would lower the bar a bit. We are both music lovers and we throw away a ridiculous amount of headphones so it seemed like a product in need of a re-think”.

Gerrard Street know that they aren’t yet a household name like Beats or Sennheiser, but they also know that there’s a market in people who want the sound quality of top-end headphones, without breaking the bank. What’s more, it’s often the high-end product that’s able to be maintained and repaired; a real convenience if you’re lucky enough to be in the position to make the initial investment.

Gerrard Street headphones are produced to rival low-end headphones on price, but with a guarantee of high-fidelity sound, materials and build quality. Such a combination would seem impossible if a manufacturer was selling products in the traditional way. But Gerrard Street sell their customers performance, rather than product.

Through business model innovation, Gerrard Street are able to simultaneously compete with both budget and premium competitors, with unique advantages over both.

In a similar fashion to a Spotify account, the headphones are rented on a monthly basis. You pay to use them, for less than 10 Euro a month, and keep this up for as long as you want the headphones. Following a period of user research, Dorus and Tom found that over a year of standard use, most headphone faults occur in the same few components, with the cable and jack being the most common culprits. For most of us, when this basic part fails it means it’s time to stump up for the purchase of an entirely new pair. In the Gerrard St offering, the product and business model are designed to work together.

The modular headphones avoid the use of adhesives; the parts slotting together like a kit which makes individual components easy to replace. The user simply removes the broken part, sends it back to the company and they send a replacement — for free.

This business model also give users flexibility and freedom. “It’s hard to assess the sound quality of headphones before you buy them, so that for some people is a reason not to buy a high-end headphone. They’re interested in premium sound but they wouldn’t go over the barrier of 60–80 Euros.”

Gerrard St currently offer two choices of headphone, but Galama says that there’s plenty of room for future expansion. Many of us already subscribe to a service for music itself, so why not include the listening equipment for the complete experience? Re-thinking the service along circular economy principles has unlocked an imaginative approach to business model development with practical benefits and a very real competitive advantage.

So when the challenges of designing and manufacturing a product have been negotiated, what does the end product look like? The insight here comes from Amsterdam, home to over 800,000 bicycles.

The bicycle is one of the most meticulously refined and beautifully simple feats of engineering known to mankind. Viewed through a circular economy lens, it’s a product that throws up some thought-provoking observations. The humble bike is about as repairable as it gets, with the mechanical parts constantly on show. Spare parts are easy to come by, with the internet and workshops making further support accessible. Despite this, many bikes are still underused, poorly maintained, and abandoned. The canals of Amsterdam are a favourite spot for the latter, according to Tiemen ter Hoeven, Founder of Roetz bikes.

“The idea for Roetz actually came from a manufacturing project which I was a consultant on — it was a large automotive company who were scaling up their remanufacturing operations. We did a big study for them — how big could this business get; how could you capitalise on it?” Tiemen was curious about the idea of remanufacturing and thought about how it might work in other industries. The bicycle industry was an obvious choice; “In the Netherlands you have huge amounts of free scrap — in Amsterdam you literally tumble over old bicycles!” He realised that not only was this material available on a large scale — with over one million bikes discarded in the Netherlands each year — but that the bikes all tended to have the same parts going to waste.

So Roetz take bikes which have been cast to the the city’s waterways, as well as various other locations, and strip them for parts. The company then take those parts, tyres, frames and even wheel spokes, remanufacture them to as new standard, and then use them to build new bikes to be sold. If you’re picturing some two-wheeled Frankenstein’s monster, think again. The bikes are fashionable and desirable, with no hint of ‘make do and mend’ in the final result. In fact, the company use the remanufactured element to their advantage, giving customers a chance to create a customised bike with the unique details of its previous incarnation. A five-year warranty adds confidence and sweetens the deal.

Tiemen believes that properly maintained bikes should never end up as waste. But just like headphones, there’s a common temptation to avoid initial investment and buy cheap — bikes assembled in Europe made of parts imported from Asia. It’s a classic false economy: you can pick up a new bike for less than £200, but with cheaper components wearing more quickly and requiring replacement, it’ll probably cost more in the long run. Tiemen speaks to customers all too often who have spent more on their ‘cheap’ bike than they would have on a quality one — and that’s not even accounting for the second-rate experience.

Ter Hoeven says that this is a difficult custom to shift. “There is still a very good business case around importing parts”, evidenced by the budget bikes that still flood the market. Roetz are taking on these bikes, using salvaged parts to compete on price whilst offering a unique, bespoke alternative. It’s a clever approach to bucking the trend of cheap parts which go down the drain.

Zooming out further, by applying the principles of a circular economy to deliver a better service, keep resources in circulation, and build social capital — worth investigation in its own right — Roetz is openly asking what value the company provides to the economy as a whole.

All of these innovators are at different stages of their own design processes. They all, however, share common goals; to lead a revolution in the production of everyday goods, bringing circularity to the forefront of their respective industries. And ultimately, there’s a sense that their own personal success isn’t the most important factor.

Thomas Leech openly embraces this mentality. He is reluctant to describe his venture as a business, which he says would “put his head on the line”. Instead, Leech repeatedly refers to Shoey Shoes as a ‘project’.

With that mindset, the enterprise becomes more about exploring and highlighting possibilities than making a quick profit from a gap in the market. Thomas says “if no-one’s really sure how to transition to a circular economy, we need people with the energy and enthusiasm to explore it. My intention is to create value with Shoey Shoes but if it doesn’t do that through the logical business route then that’s fine”. So whether they succeed or fail, these pioneers occupy a hugely important tier of the innovation space. It’s not so much what they design, but how they do it. Just having their ideas out there can be the catalyst for something much bigger.

This story, co-written by Rory Lemmon and Joe Iles, was originally published at on July 19, 2017.

Circulate News

News and thought-leadership on the circular economy

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store