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Bending the line: How better design can transition a linear economy to a circular one

Engineer designing

Excerpted from “Mid-Course Correction Revisited: The Story and Legacy of a Radical Industrialist and his Quest for Authentic Change,” by Ray C. Anderson and John A. Lanier (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019). All rights reserved.

If you want to keep material from becoming waste, a good place to start is to keep material from becoming a product in the first place. This circular economy practice is called dematerialization, and it comes straight out of the Interface QUEST playbook. By creating the same-quality product with fewer raw material inputs, a business saves money and reduces demand for materials that might end up becoming waste. Dematerialization comes down to being as efficient as possible with what goes into a product.

It is a design challenge — one that Interface’s principal designer, David Oakey, took up. When Ray had his epiphany, Interface carpet tile had at least 24 ounces of face fiber per square yard, and often quite a bit more. David and his team set their sights on driving that number down without sacrificing product performance. In the following years, they have been able to strip out more than 4 ounces per square yard, saving not only material but also the energy that would have been used in manufacturing the superfluous nylon fibers. On top of that, the weight savings generate subsequent fuel savings when Interface products are shipped. David’s hard work generated multiple wins for the company.

Another recent example comes from Starbucks. In 2018, in response to growing public awareness about the massive quantities of single-use plastic straws that are used and disposed of every day, Starbucks announced its intent to stop using plastic straws by 2020. In their place, Starbucks has redesigned the lid they use for cold drinks, making it look like an adult “sippy cup.” While the new lids use slightly more plastic, the extra plastic is still less compared with the plastic straws, and they are easier to recycle. Less plastic is used for effectively the same user experience.

Admittedly, it would be even better if customers brought in their own reusable cup and skipped a single-use cup in the first place. That point brings up an important observation about a lot of circular economy practices. Just because they are better, that does not make them the best, so we must keep working on improving. Still, marginal improvement helps to bend the line.

Dematerialization is also about preparing for a future with rising input costs. In “The Big Pivot,” Andrew Winston observed that while commodity prices generally declined in the 20th century, they have tended to increase in real terms this century. In his words, “Commodity prices, while volatile, are now fundamentally heading higher . . . The imperative to reduce material use is rising. The only practical path for countries and companies that want to keep functioning profitably, or at all, is radical efficiency.”

Circular economy product design is not just about designing for less, but also about designing for long. Resource needs are reduced when a product can last longer and can be used more times. I will grant you that many consumable goods cannot be designed this way. The last time I checked, I only get to drink a glass of wine once. Durable goods can be designed this way, though, and so we bend the line toward circularity when products are designed for durability and repairability.

Patagonia is an exemplary company when it comes to designing products for the long haul. In his memoir “Let My People Go Surfing,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard wrote, “As individual consumers, the single best thing we can do for the planet is to keep our stuff in use longer.” To encourage the repair rather than replacement of their products, Patagonia has a garment repair facility in Nevada, an archive of most fabrics and trims they have used, and online repair guides for their goods. The company wants customers to be “owners” rather than “consumers,” and Chouinard emphasized the difference. “Owners are empowered to take responsibility for their purchases — from proper cleaning to repairing, reusing, and sharing. Consumers take, make, dispose and repeat — a pattern that is driving us toward ecological bankruptcy.”

Many CEOs might shudder at the thought of discouraging customers from making an additional purchase from their company. I think this reaction is shortsighted, though. Durable goods can command a price premium, and offering repairability for a fee can diversify revenue streams for the business. Encouraging customers to trade in their products, as Patagonia does, can also allow businesses to generate multiple sales from one product. Further, as more customers become sensitive to environmental issues, companies that have an environmental ethic have a market-share advantage. Finally, when customers need to purchase a new product, they’re more likely to return to the company that has provided them with high-quality goods in the past.

When simple repairs are not possible, the next best option is to remanufacture or refurbish durable goods. This is also a design challenge, in that both products and business models can be designed to make refurbishing easier. Doing so reduces energy and material demand, just as Walter Stahel observed in 1976. This practice can be particularly valuable for businesses in the electronics industry. Hardware and software advancements are incredibly rapid today, so refurbishing devices with the latest capabilities offers an opportunity to sell an even better product than the first one that was sold, while still using many of the original components.

When even the most durable product reaches the end of its useful life, we need it to be designed for disassembly. Doing so would be a significant enabler of the recycling industry, which needs material types to be properly sorted in order for them to be recycled. Plenty of products end up in landfills simply because the plastics and metals cannot be easily pulled apart. There is opportunity for value creation here as well, as a lot of high-demand materials could have resale value if producers and consumers could easily disassemble products.

From dematerialization to durability to disassembly, products can be designed for the circular economy. All of this comes with a hidden benefit as well: It helps enable the transition to renewable energy. Let me connect the dots, with Andrew Morlet’s help.

“Think about an engine in a car,” Andrew said. “You have a massive amount of embedded energy and resource intensity in that engine, everything that was used to make it. If you keep it in use longer and you can remanufacture it, you retain that energy. Embedded energy is all around us, and the more you can keep an engine, a phone, a table, or a building in use, the more of that embedded energy that stays in use. You lower the demand for energy in the system.”

This logic is similar to that for energy-efficiency improvements. From a global warming standpoint, reducing the need for fossil fuel energy through efficiency improvement is effectively equivalent to replacing the fossil fuels with wind and solar power. From a financial standpoint, many energy-efficiency improvements have a faster return on investment than wind and solar. That makes energy efficiency an attractive renewable energy investment opportunity, and the same can be said for the circular economy.

Capturing the value of embedded energy could be a new frontier for our energy-intensive economic system.

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