Many companies are facing the challenge of changing their linear business into a circular one. How to do that and at the same time gain more customers, loyal to your business? How to make this necessary change into a win-win situation for all stakeholders? And the bottom line: how to make sustainability into profitable business?
Designers and innovators from three countries, Finland, Estonia and Sweden discussed circular design and transition to more sustainable living in an online workshop called Speed up transition with Circular Design on 29 March 2021. The webinar was organized by Design Forum Finland, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation (SVID) and Estonian Design Center. The seminar was part of the Eco-design Circle 4.0, an international project with the purpose to strengthen awareness and practical application of circular design and to enhance the capability of small and medium-size enterprises to make use of eco-design.
It is not only about recycling
While the linear business is based on the idea of “take, make, waste”, a truly circular economy relies on the notion that each step throughout the entire life cycle of a product or service is reviewed against a set of circularity criteria.
For many goods and materials, sufficient infrastructure exists for recycling them. But not for all. For example, there are no industry standards defining composition for plastics, and plastic goods are also added other substances to provide or improve performance characteristics. This makes their recycling very complex. Hence, the circular economy is not only about recycling the materials, but also keeping what we have already processed viable and in use for as long as possible, and reusing what we’ve already extracted and processed.
In circular economy, all materials should circulate and the circular loops should be as closed as possible, not allowing leaks of usable materials. Every time the loop leaks, you lose value. In a perfect circular economy, waste simply does not exist. Before recycling the materials of the product, we should try to find ways of using the waste product in an efficient manner. Thinking innovatively, this “waste” can be valuable material for either your own company, or to some other organization.
During the webinar the main areas of circular design and the benefits of using it were discussed. The participants were provided with tips on critical parts of the process, and a few tools to make one`s business become circular were presented. The most inspiring part of the seminar was the presentation of case examples from different industries that concretized the topic providing us first-hand experiences of the journeys that organizations had taken to become more circular.
From Product Thinking to Service Thinking
Astonishingly, 80 % of the environmental impact of a product is already determined in the stage of its design. Hence, it is very important that designers are familiar with the principles and possibilities of eco-design and circular economy. The first thing to do is to ask: do we really need this product or service? If the answer is positive, we have to make sure to give longer life to products – designing from the beginning how to make sure the product stays longer in use. In short, we need more service thinking instead of product thinking.
When designing new products or services, the materials should be selected so that their impact on the sustainability (environmental, climate, social etc.) can be minimized.
The distribution and packaging are another major issue when defining the sustainability of the product or service. It goes without saying that light weight helps reduce CO2 emissions. It is worth optimizing and designing well the delivery and packaging. An example given by SVID`s Project Manager Anna Velander Gisslen was about Kinnarps which managed to reduce their transport needs by 50 %, using old blankets in the packaging.
Service design thinking is a key strategy into circularity. Co-creation in the design process helps identifying the needs and possible ways of becoming sustainable. What should you prioritize, what areas are the most critical ones in your business, and how to measure change and impact? Participating in a design sprint, or other type of eco-design co-creation forum will provide insights on how individual companies can start to implement circularity, and what must change to achieve its widespread adoption and implementation in the company.
The importance of analyzing thoroughly customers` ideas, hopes and expectations was raised by several speakers. Going circular is not only about the company; it`s even more about its customers. Circular solutions should be user-tested and gain true user attraction. They should not be solutions that are OK: they should be the most desired solutions for both the customers and the company. Co-design is possible also through virtual means (Zoom, Teams etc.). Hence, it pays back to put time and resources to a proper co-creation in the design process.
Strengthening the circularity is not something you are expected to do alone. Guides and tools are available. The Design Forum of Finland has used a set of tools with organizations aspiring to become circular. These include for example Eco-design learning factory, Eco-design audit and Eco-design sprints. In addition, there are tools and services that help organizations to create strategy roadmaps, certification systems to guarantee circularity, and marketing and communication tools to tell the customers about the perspectives and steps taken. According to Aino Vepsäläinen from DFF, in the beginning the focus was more on products, while lately it has been mainly on services.
Design Forum has implemented several design sprints on circular design. The sprints usually involve coach, a client company and a design agency. Eco-design Sprints usually consist of 3 phases: Understand, Ideate, and Deliver. Understanding phase may include identification of the lifecycle of the product or service, circular value mapping, context analysis, and discovering possible circular strategies. Delivery phase normally comes a couple of weeks later and includes identification of next steps.
According to Estonian Strategic Designer Joel Kotsjuba, key takeaways from eco-design sprints are that they provide good ground understanding of circular design (its theory, concepts, strategies and methodologies), build momentum for change, find key opportunities, help engage decision-making structures, allow constructing a follow-up plan, give insights into implementation, provide numerous ideas to improve customer and employee satisfaction, and help in evaluating and selection of first ideas for testing. These small wins and proofs of concept will help “selling” the idea further.
The New Normal
One third of all food produced globally is thrown away, and the impact of food waste is 4 times greater than the impact of all flights in the world combined. These were some of the facts that inspired a group of young Swedes to create a company that focuses on reducing food waste. Through their Karma mobile application restaurants, cafés and grocery stores can sell their waste food. While helping them to sell the waste, Karma also advises companies on how much to produce. Less production means less waste. By now, Karma has rescued over 1,200 tonnes of food, saved more than 4 million meals and eliminated over 1,800 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Another concrete example of circular economy initiative came from Helsinki city. Think Sustainably is a new service that lets users select service providers that are committed to responsible operations. It helps consumers prioritise sustainable services and thereby motivates a wide range of different actors and service providers to focus on sustainable ways of doing business. This online tool covers services, transport and experiences: restaurants, accommodation, events, shops etc. There are now 130 companies participating in this initiative, and the criteria for circularity is a “fits all” model – the companies are committed to doing changes that require long-term commitment but are not extremely difficult to implement.
Changing linear business into a circular one must have tangible impact and at the same time be profitable. To be truly sustainable means being sustainable also economically. There`s a remarkable business value for companies to find and commit to new sustainable solutions. Companies have constant fight over consumers` time and money and by becoming more circular they will improve their competitiveness. From the consumer point of view, sustainable choices must be easily embedded in their daily life. Sustainability has to be effortless. As Karma puts it: “You can now save the planet by doing the simplest thing on earth. Eating.“
More information can be found:
EcoDesign Circle 4.0: https://www.ecodesigncircle.eu
Karma Sweden: https://karma.life
Think Sustainably Helsinki: https://www.myhelsinki.fi/en/think-sustainably