Do we need new products or new systems for a circular economy?

??????????Last week, I attended ‘Redesigning the future‘, an RSA Great Recovery debate on the role of design in a circular economy.

Redesign certainly makes circular systems cheaper and more effective. In the case of end-of-life vehicles, design for recycling will help to turn previously unrecycled plastic, glass, and electronics from old cars into nearly £40 million of recovered resources in the UK by 2015.

As a result, I was keen to learn how to encourage better design. The RSA’s debate started from two, relatively straightforward, premises:

1. resource constraints will shape the future of business, both because primary extraction is getting more expensive and environmentally damaging, and because consumption is growing;

2. most of a product’s resource use and environmental impact is locked in at the design stage.

Both these assertions are well grounded. On the face of it, they put designers at the forefront of making our economy more circular and businesses more resilient to resource risks. This leads to the conclusion that designers are the hotspot in a circular economy. If we can just get them to design better products, then the circular economy is sorted.

But, as Nat Hunter pointed out, designers work to a brief set by the companies that employ them. Often, the brief is set by departments who are either not aware of, or not concerned about, the impact of resource constraints on the business. This complicates the picture a bit, but procurers and designers are still individuals, and therefore relatively easy to influence…

‘The system’
…Or not: Rich Gilbert, of the Agency of Design, explained how his company was “excited” at the prospect of applying closed loop thinking to redesigning products. He even said he thought it would be “easy pickings” to redesign electronics, partly because WEEE legislation is helping to create the conditions for a closed loop. But, in doing his research, he visited a WEEE recycler and saw that waste electronics were, in essence, smashed to bits and melted down for scrap. His background in industrial design taught him about the finesse, complexity and effort put into the assembly of products. In contrast, shredding electronic waste felt “bizarrely crude”. It’s also terribly inefficient: standard shredders lose nearly 75 per cent of the gold and palladium in waste electronics. In contrast, disassembly can yield over 90 per cent recovery of precious metals.

Although he had the right motivation and wasn’t working to a brief set by others, Rich’s conclusion about designing a more easily disassembled product was that the value gained from better recovery would pass to the companies doing the recovery, making better design hard to sell to a manufacturer. This points to another factor: the system.

What can companies do on their own?
Faced with these factors, I asked the panel where the power to make a circular economy lies: is it with the designer, the brief or the system? One response pointed to Orangebox, a company which has shown that changing the brief makes closed loops possible. It takes back old office chairs for reuse and remanufacturing, and has redesigned its chairs to make remanufacturing easier. A similar story could be told about Interface, which has redesigned carpets so the facing nylon can be easily separated from its backing. Both companies also take back products designed by others, which are more expensive to recycle or reuse. They’re closing the loop despite the barriers that a predominantly linear system creates.

More than just the right thing to do
As Jonny Hazell outlined in a previous post, the Japanese have changed their linear manufacturing and consumption system into a more circular, collaborative system that is highly effective. Business collaboration may feel alien to the UK, but it would be a mistake to think that the Japanese system works just because the Japanese are enlightened, lovely people (though this helps).

Japan’s system is built on the assumption of collaboration, but the system incentivises everyone to do the right thing:

  • Consumers pay fees up front to dispose of electronics, and can recycle old electronics via home pickup or a drop off service at any post office or electronics retailer. Penalties for fly tipping are stiff, making participation in the recovery system the easiest thing to do.
  • Manufacturers co-own the recovery infrastructure. They know about the components inside the products coming back to them. Because they keep the proceeds of better recovery, it’s in their interest to design products for reuse and better recovery.

This model, neatly summarised as ‘honesty, with incentives’ in a fascinating analysis, shows effective Japanese systems in a less culturally essentialist light: honesty and lack of looting following the Fukushima earthquake was the result of consistent and strong rewards for honesty and strict punishments for the dishonest, not just Japanese character. The same factors apply to the Japanese appliance recycling and reuse system.

The lesson, it seems, from both the RSA’s ‘Redesigning the future’ debate and our work on Japan is that it is market structure that limits (or enables) better design. This isn’t to say that product design isn’t necessary. It is. Educating designers and those who brief them to create better products is essential. But we need to design circular systems, not just circular products.

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