Image credit: Lacey Williams

Service Design: Can we design for sustainable consumption?

Hannah Thomas
Feb 24 · 6 min read

A circular way of doing business can help us reduce waste and break the ‘make, use, toss’ cycle

Our collective environmental consciousness is getting stronger: more and more people are ‘doing their bit’ to help keep the planet healthy, or at least talking about it. But how much can the end user truly achieve when the tide of plastic just keeps coming? Our ‘make, use, toss’ attitude to consumption loads the end consumer with a huge responsibility to do something green with their waste, like recycle it, and ultimately it isn’t working that well — only 9% of waste is being recycled globally. But what if the consumer’s responsibility to recycle was flipped to instead become a business opportunity?

There is inherent value in what we too quickly label as waste, meaning value is lost at every stage of a product’s lifespan. There is an immense opportunity ahead of us to design creative, innovative services and business models that support a regenerative economy and a thriving planet — in part by rethinking the very concept of ‘waste.’

Humans can be diligent recyclers or dedicated to reducing our personal carbon footprint, but it’s largely a low value-return behaviour for the majority of us, outside of moral fulfilment or staying out of trouble with the council. Remembering to recycle, cycling instead of driving and buying things with less packaging can be difficult, and there are a vast number of people for whom this simply cannot be a priority. The fashionable plastic clean-up surge that’s sweeping the planet now is a win for the green thinkers and a step in the right direction, but how much long-term impact can it really have on its own? Promises like ocean clean-ups or carbon offsetting don’t address the roots of the big, underlying problems. Will they stem the overwhelming tide of single-use plastics that swamp the market every day or dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions? No, they won’t. They clear the way for more and more waste to be pumped in to our seas and breathing space, and consumers can’t possibly recycle faster than the waste is being produced.

What if, rather than saddling the consumer with the responsibility of reducing consumption to save our planet, design could truly highlight for big business the value of changing things at their source, on a massive scale?

Image credit: Matija Mestrov

Take, make, dispose — a vicious cycle

For as long as we can remember, businesses and consumers have been locked in to a linear ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production and consumption. They make it, then people like it, buy it, use it, then chuck all or part of it away and buy another one. Value leaks out of this model at every stage as waste, reducing the overall benefit a business can extract for the resources they pump in. But this model doesn’t plan for the increase in resource prices or the decrease in their availability — it’s programmed to keep taking, making and throwing away. And much of this waste is what’s clogging up our oceans and polluting the air.

It’s almost impossible for the end consumer to break out of this cycle alone — consumption is built into the way we live every single day, and change is hard. Many people want to make sustainable choices, but convenience, price and habit are tricky obstacles to overcome. It feels like a lot of effort to go out of our way to purchase products that are more sustainable, and dismantling endless packaging and diligently recycling it all in the right place takes time. Businesses are perfectly placed to step in here and create positive changes that don’t put all of the responsibility on consumers. As Head of UN Environment, Erik Solheim put it, “Plastic isn’t the problem, it’s what we do with it.”

The service-design solution: a more circular way of doing business

Service design offers up strategic methodologies that can help us continue to grapple with some of the systemic industry problems that are driving this environmental overconsumption and destruction. Service and business designers are able to examine the inner workings of a business, identify inefficiencies and opportunities, and propose solutions to piece it back together again in such a way that’s more valuable to both business and customers. It can be done with a sustainability lens, too — it’s a match made in heaven. Designers create desirable products and services that businesses thrive off and people want. Making them sustainable could be just the mindset shift that paves the way for true behavioural change.

So yes, we can change the cycle! A more circular way of doing business enables us to cycle resources through industries, generating more opportunities for value extraction and reducing our reliance on brand new materials. For the consumer, consumption is possible without excessive waste, and for businesses, growth can be decoupled from the consumption of scarce natural resources — we don’t need to keep making brand new things from brand new materials to keep growing.

A circular way of thinking considers the design of a business model completely differently, unlocking existing, untapped value and capitalising on new opportunities, like renting products out rather than — or as well as — selling them. Businesses can redesign relationships with customers, incentivising them to return products when they’ve had enough, bringing valuable materials back in to an organisation’s supply chain and unlocking access to innovative new products for the customer. They can design products with multiple life cycles in mind, making them easier to take apart after each use. They can even design away the need for single-use plastic, coming up with something better. instead.

There are already great examples in the market of big companies making strides towards this behaviour, generating real value for themselves. Apple’s disassembly robot, Daisy, takes apart iPhones, extracting valuable materials to be repurposed into new products with the aim of eventually having no reliance on freshly mined materials. Dell successfully designed components in their products to be easily taken apart and recycled, and these ‘closed loop’ recycled plastics being 10% cheaper for them to use than virgin materials. Circular thinking and money saving make a great partnership — many countries are now defining national strategies to transition towards a more circular economy, with an estimated saving of £523 billion in Europe alone.

The revenue potential

But it’s not just about businesses saving money; there’s revenue potential there too. Consumers are starting to make choices based on the ethics behind a brand. Sustainable, circular methodologies can make business sense and they’re great for the planet’s health — which more and more people care about. This is no longer something just for the hippies. A Unilever study revealed that over a third of consumers are now buying from brands based on their social and environmental impact, and that percentage is increasing. In fact, 53% of UK consumers say they feel better about purchasing sustainably produced products, 25% expressed ‘extreme concern’ over grocery packaging and 42% believe manufacturers should be doing more to reduce the volume of plastic produced. The Business and Sustainable Development Commission, co-founded by Unilever, asserts that achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — which set out to tackle 17 of the world’s most urgent challenges — will generate market opportunities of at least $12 trillion a year. The numbers don’t lie — people care, and brands that fail to adapt to these trends may fall behind. The concept of environment consciousness is in fact something that many industry experts believe to be an essential consideration for today’s businesses. (There’s more about that here, in Fjord’s 2019 Trends.)

Time to take action

This isn’t something that can wait. Experts have called for action for years, and market leaders are making changes already. Designing for a more circular way of thinking about production and consumption represents a huge opportunity to lift businesses to a new level of innovative, future-proofed operation. It’s part common sense, part moral obligation and a big part good business.

There’s a huge opportunity to design our way towards truly future-proof, regenerative, interwoven business and operating models that can support the development of a world geared towards living abundantly — not destructively.

Design Voices

A publication for designers, developers and data nerds - from the aspiring to the expert, and anywhere in between. Content created and curated by Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive.

Hannah Thomas

Written by

Business Designer and Circular Economy enthusiast

Design Voices

A publication for designers, developers and data nerds - from the aspiring to the expert, and anywhere in between. Content created and curated by Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive.

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