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Creative Startups’ framework to incorporate circularity in product design

Circularity is a concept that has gained a lot of traction in recent years as companies and designers have realised its importance to create sustainable businesses because the design of a product can significantly affect its environmental footprint throughout its lifecycle - from manufacturing to disposal. Such a choice mitigates the negative impacts of a product on the environment and people’s health. For example, when companies reduce the amount of energy and natural resources used in the manufacturing process, minimize the use of toxic materials or avoid them and design products for longevity and recyclability, they are benefitted economically as the overall cost of a product’s life cycle is lowered. Another benefit is the reduced dependence on virgin raw materials. Furthermore, consumers are also becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of the products they buy and opt to pay a premium for products that are clean, that is , designed sustainably. In this post, we discuss a framework for creative startups to incorporate circularity in product design to optimize a product’s entire lifecycle, from manufacturing to disposal, including its lifespan.

1. Material sourcing

One aspect of circular design is to use materials that are renewable or recyclable. This means, materials such as bamboo or recycled plastic must be used for designing products. Commonly used materials in circular design are recycled materials made of plastic metals or glass , bio-based materials made from bamboo or organic cotton and upcycled materials that include repurposed, wood, metal or discarded textiles. When companies consciously choose their raw materials for production and design, they create a market for sustainable materials. This encourages innovation and development of materials that are better suited for circular design.

2. Regenerative business model

A regenerative business model is one that goes beyond minimizing negative impacts and instead aims to create positive social and environmental impacts.   In 2002, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart published a book titled ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things.’ The book present a unique design framework that integrated design and science to create enduring benefits for society. This framework emphasized the use of safe materials, water and energy in circular economies and sought to eliminate the concept of waste.

The authors proposed three principles for this design framework, all of which were inspired by nature. The first principle was that everything is a resource for something else. In nature, waste from one system becomes food for another. The second principle is based on the premise that everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients or re-utilized as high-quality materials for new products. By making it easy to take products apart or disassemble, designers can increase the chances of them being repaired, reused or recycled. This approach has been adopted by the Dutch company Fairphone which has designed a smartphone that is entirely modular. The third principle was that design should focus on systems rather than individual products. By designing entire systems, rather than just products, it becomes possible to create closed-loop systems that are regenerative and sustainable. These systems can be continuously improved or optimized over time.

3. Longevity of the product

The longer a product lasts, the less waste it creates. If a product is designed to be durable and made with high-quality materials, it can last for many years, reducing the need for new products to be made and the resources required to make them. For example, a company that produces furniture can design its products to be long-lasting by using high-quality materials, such as solid wood or metal, and by designing them to be easily repairable. By doing this, the furniture can last for many years, reducing the need for new furniture to be made and the resources required to make it. In addition, the company can offer repair services for its products, which can extend their lifespan even further and reduce waste. The German company ‘Miele’ produces high-end, durable household appliances such as vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and washing machines. The company is increasingly using ‘circular’ models to augment the use of recycled  and recyclable materials.

4. Closed-loop system

A closed-loop system is a system that operates in a cycle, where the output or result of the system is fed back into the system as an input, in order to improve or refine the system’s performance. In a closed-loop system, the input and output are interdependent, creating a circular flow of information or resources, that is, resources or materials are continuously circulated and reused with minimal waste or leakage. It is interesting to note that ‘adidas’ - The German sportswear company has set a goal to use only recycled polyester in its products by 2024. In its closed-loop system called ‘Futurecraft Loop’, which uses only one material type for its shoes, the company optimizes the scope for recycling as customers can return their used Futurecraft Loop shoes to Adidas, which then will grind them up and turn them into new shoes. Creative startups have an edge over big companies in incorporating circularity right at the initial stage of development and consciously taking steps to make optimal use of resources.

5. Energy-efficiency

In a circular model, products are designed to be as energy-efficient as possible. This involves using materials and components that require less energy to produce and consume less energy during their use phase. For example, products that are designed to be lightweight require less energy to transport and products that use renewable energy sources reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy sources. Circular design considers the entire lifecycle of a product, including its end-of-life phase. By designing products for easy disassembly and recycling, the energy required is minimized and the materials can be reused efficiently.

6. Biomimicry

Biomimicry is the practice of looking to nature for inspiration in design and seeking solutions to human challenges.  It involves designing products and systems that work in harmony with nature’s circular systems. By studying natural processes and systems, designers can gain insights into how to create products that are not only sustainable but also regenerative. One example of biomimicry in circular design is the use of mushroom-based materials as a sustainable alternative to traditional materials like foam and plastic.  Ecovative, a New York based company has developed a technology that uses mycelium, the vegetative part of a mushroom to create a range of products, including packaging materials and insulation since mycelium is biodegradable and can be grown in a matter of days unlike plastic and foam that can take hundreds of years to break down.

Creative startups have the unique opportunity to embrace circular design principles right from the beginning and set standards for sustainable product design. By doing so, they can not only benefit the environment and society but also improve their bottom line by lowering the overall cost of a product’s life cycle. By adopting circularity, startups can move away from the linear, wasteful models of the past and design more resilient and regenerative systems for the future.


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