Guide to Circular Design

The road to circular product design can seem complex. This guide gets you started.

June 23, 2021

When designing products with sustainability in mind, people often think of the basics: zero waste, recyclability, and limiting a carbon footprint.

What if there was a way your company could go farther than just making products and services that minimize global waste? Or what if a product requires updating over time – or has elements that will ultimately need to be replaced, like cell phones with broken screens?

With a circular design and the circular economy, designers aim to create products and services that don’t contribute to global waste.

In a circular design, products:

  • Follow a circular, rather than linear, lifecycle
  • Are given a continuous life
  • Go cradle-to-cradle, rather than cradle-to-grave
  • Are created with the aim of ultimate sustainability and zero waste

With a few key steps, designers can ensure that products are being made for the ultimate sustainability. This creates a happier planet and fights over-consumption and waste worldwide.

What is Circular Product Design?

With circular product design, products — and services — are created with the aim of recycling and sustaining all elements of the item. This means rather than having an entire product  — or parts of a product — that end up in a landfill, all the pieces are re-purposed or put back into the environment in a healthy way.

In a common linear product design, items follow the steps of being made, used and disposed of.

With a circular design, however, products don’t have a beginning, middle and end. Elements and designs are constantly updated as needed, with continuous design and innovation. Products are designed with the purpose of eliminating waste and pollution.

With circular design, products and services are:

  • Recycled
  • Reused
  • Re-purposed
  • Repaired
  • Refurbished
  • Remanufactured
  • Returned to the biosphere (back to the planet)

Items — or elements of items — can be broken down and either put back into nature, or re-purposed, recycled, or reused in other items.

Technical and biological elements are combined to create products that can continuously be maintained or re-used.

Designing for a Circular Economy

In a circular economy, products and services follow cycles – rather than linear processes.

This allows brands to utilize items and services for the optimum value — rather than creating ones that have a single use and will be tossed after.

A circular economy aims for the planet to be protected – without using up resources that can’t be replaced.

Many governments and organizations — like the European Union — have set forth plans that aim to create a circular economy.

When businesses, organizations, and local, national, and international governments work together to create products and services with sustainable designs, a circular economy can go from a goal to reality.

Why Consumers Care About Circular Design

According to research from IBM, nearly six in 10 consumers said they are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce their environmental impacts.

Eight in 10 said sustainability is important for them — and nearly 70% of those who said they care about sustainability said that they would pay a 35% premium for sustainable and environmentally friendly brands.

Consumers are increasingly pushing for brands to be more sustainable.

Circular design is the ultimate way to make products that truly fit this bill. It taps into a market and values that people want to support — and one that they’re willing to pay more for.

Circular Design and the Circular Economy

Circular design is essential in a circular economy. But why should businesses care about circular design?

When products are constantly being cycled through the circular process, it creates a system that is better for the planet. A majority of consumers also say they want to support businesses that are committed to sustainability.

In addition to saving the planet, it’s estimated that circular design strategies could have a cost savings of around $1.3 trillion across different industries in the European Union alone.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates:

  • Complex Medium-Lived Products (cell phones, appliances, etc) could save up to $630 billion per year
  • Fast Moving Consumer Goods (like household cleaning supplies) could save $700 billion per year

Not only does circular design save the planet, but it is also estimated to save trillions worldwide in the coming years.

Circular Design Guide

In the circular design process, there are a few key steps product designers and brand managers can follow as they create these sustainable products and services:

  • Understand: Learn about what circular design is, what it means, and know who is using your product or service.
  • Define: Establish what challenges you may face and what you’re trying to accomplish with your circular design.
  • Make: Create models and prototypes to show how the product will function.
  • Release: Send your product or service out into the world. Share your story with other businesses and consumers. Tell them why it’s important and the value it brings.

With circular design, the process is never-ending. You should constantly be working to make your product better as it goes through the steps of being recycled, repurposed, and/or reused.

Aim to always find ways to make your product better and more sustainable.

Circular design process

The circular design process can seem incredibly complex. From gathering materials to creating products with elements that can be recycled, repurposed, reused, or returned to the earth, to re-introducing the products to the start of the cycle, it’s full of constant innovation and updates.

While circular designing can be broken down into dozens of micro-steps, businesses can follow a few key ones when they begin a shift to this process:

Resources:

  • Biological and technical materials are gathered to make products
  • Biological elements include materials produced directly by the planet (trees, plants, water, etc.)
  • Can be returned to the planet (composting, etc.)
  • Technical elements include those that are commonly used in manufacturing processes (glass, plastic, metal, etc.)
  • Cannot be returned to the environment

Manufacturing:

  • Products and services are made and manufactured
  • They are designed in a way that is meant to last, with elements that can be broken down and repurposed, recycled, and reused

Consumption and Use:

  • Products and services are bought and used by consumers

Recycling:

  • Materials are broken down, returned to the earth, or repurposed and recycled for use again

The cycle then continues. Whereas after consumption and use, products in the linear cycle would go to a landfill and the cycle would end, with a circular design, it’s continuous.

As products are manufactured, they are constantly updated. They are designed to be more sustainable, better for the planet, and better for consumers.

Circular design principles

When creating products with a circular design, innovators and businesses follow a few key principles:

Design products and services to get rid of waste and pollution

  • Eliminate these elements from the product cycle
  • Forget a linear, cradle-to-grave cycle
  • Create products and services that don’t leave a carbon footprint

Ensure products and materials are being constantly used

  • Don’t create products that are meant to have a one-year life span
  • Design for cradle-to-cradle
  • If items wear down over time, make it so elements can be repaired or replaced
  • Make items that can be reused or recycled and made into other products

Regrow natural systems

  • Rehabilitate and regrow the earth’s systems
  • Create products that can help the earth bloom and grow – rather than exhausting natural systems and resources

Circular Design in Action

When making products with a circular design, it creates the opportunity to develop relationships with consumers and other businesses.

With sustainability becoming increasingly important for both businesses and consumers — not to mention the planet — circular design and the circular economy play a crucial role.

When designing, manufacturing, using, and updating products, using the circular process can not only help your business ethically but also save you money.

Examples of Circular Design

Many companies have already embraced a circular design process with their products.

1. Clarios: Recycling Batteries

  • This innovative company is aiming to have 100% of car batteries recycled
  • Up to 99% of their lead-acid batteries can be recycled

2. Loop & TerraCycle: Sustainable packaging

  • This company takes materials that are hard-to-recycle (like ocean plastic) and making them into new products
  • Partnerships with different companies to create refillable, zero-waste packaging
  • Consumers purchase everyday items from brands they already use and the packaging is cleaned and refilled to be reused over and over

3. Vigga: Children’s Clothes Subscriptions

  • This company has a clothing subscription service for infants and toddlers
  • Where kids would typically grow out of sizes quickly and lots of articles of clothing would be tossed after a short period, parents rent them instead
  • Multiple families use the same clothing items, extending the life
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