Virtuous circles of conscious consumption

UnknownIn the midst of exhibitors proudly displaying their new wares at May Design Series, Stephen Gee, Director of Resource hosted a discussion on the circular economy with Sophie Thomas, Co-Director of Design, RSA, Mark Shayler, Managing Director of Ticketyboo, and James Bell, Environmental Consultant at FIRA.

Our industrial economy can be described as a series of massive conveyor belts (“Remaking the industrial economy“, McKinsey Quarterly, Feb 2014), sucking in raw materials and resources at one end, channelling them through manufacturing and production processes, often located in different geographies, pushing products into retail networks, where they are consumed, then discarded and replaced with surprising rapidity.  90% of all products are waste within 6 months of purchase.

Resources are increasingly limited, and ever more in demand, so their prices are rising, and volatile.  As well as increasing costs of supply, demands for resources are growing with three billion more middle-class consumers forecast  by 2030 (from a presentation by Dr Markus Zils, CEO Returnity Partners).  The linear, one-way production model is under increasing under strain.

A circular economy aims to recover and restore products and materials, eradicating waste.  This is not simply recycling,  when large amounts of embedded energy and value are lost, or efficient manufacturing processes, but systemic redesign to create a continuous flow of products and components.

Circular-Economy-Concept“The circular economy is a generic term for an economy that is regenerative by design. Materials flows are of two types, biological materials, designed to reenter the biosphere, and technical materials, designed to circulate with minimal loss of quality, in turn entraining the shift towards an economy ultimately powered by renewable energy.” The Ellen McArthur Foundation

The system diagram (pictured above, from the Ellen McArthur Foundation) illustrates the necessarily distinct paths of biological and technical components or nutrients.  Biological nutrients can easily return to the biosphere without depositing synthetic materials or toxins. Technical nutrients can continuously circulate in closed loop industrial cycles.  We have some way to go.  At the moment, in the fast-moving consumer goods industry roughly 80% of the $3.2 trillion worth of materials used each year is not recovered.

sthomas1To illustrate what that means, the toothbrush, that humble, innocuous aid to our daily routine uses 1.5 kg of material in its manufacture (see the slide from Sophie’s presentation, left). We replace our toothbrush every few months, so that is 6kg per person, per annum, just on toothbrushes.  Sophie Thomas, designer, co-founder of the Great Recovery, is on a mission to create more circular systems through good product design.  “Waste really is a design flaw” (Kate Krebbs, ANRC), quotes Sophie, and a Design Council report notes that about 80% of environmental costs are pre-determined during the product conception an design stage.

cc09a86259a7649b0ce694a3d5ac4650The Great Recovery project has sketched out four design models for a circular economy, represented by the multicoloured loops at the top of the page.  The inner loop is ‘design for longevity’.  Designing products that can be repaired or upgraded.,  Products that are well made and reliable so users have a strong emotional attachment, like your favourite pair of jeans.  If they are Nudie Jeans then you can get them repaired for free at Nudie Jeans Stores, or they can send you a repair kit free of charge.  If beyond the point of repair, then Nudie reuse them (and gives you 20% off a new pair), or recycle them.

20140531_WBP003_0The second (orange) loop is ‘design for leasing or service’.  Companies are constantly trying to deepen their relationship with us, urging us to register accounts, and sign up for newsletters. They might even speak of compelling customer service, but often still conceived as a linear consumption pattern.  But it is services, rather than the products themselves that we use, so voice calls, videos, hot water, and clean clothes rather than phones, tablets, boilers, and washing machines.  A service-based model changes the relationship.  The manufacturer owns the products, and materials (increasingly valuable assets), so keeping the value in the system.  Think Zip Car or Google’s vision for its driverless car,  Leasing products could allow for higher design specification.

1399989163490A02_ADEN_LargeThe third (yellow) loop is ‘design for re-use in manufacture’ where products are returned to the manufacturer for upgrade or new components.  These products are designed for disassembly via a reverse supply chain.  Two recent winners of the Furniture Makers’ Sustainability Award have taken responsibility for their products’ end of life to the heart of their businesses.  Senator International (2013 winners) and Orangebox (2012 winners, Aden chair pictured left), both suppliers to commercial clients, have their own dedicated recycling plants, and both target zero landfill.  Sometimes simple things, such as marking parts with a material identifier, means they can be recycled properly, other interventions require a more thorough design appraisal.  Good design means less material, more durable products, and less manufacturing time, easier to dissemble, repair and update.   What if legislation required producers to have responsibility for the end of life of their products?  When they don’t it is a cost to us all, directly, and indirectly to deal with the waste.

umbrellaThe outer (green) loop is fast-flowing products, such as packaging, that can be reprocessed (recycled) into new materials.  Designing with this in mind increases the value and ease of material recovery by reducing contamination.  For example a spray dispensing bottle made sole out of one type of plastic is easier to recycle than a bottle with multiple types of plastic and metal components.  Trying to recycle my child’s broken umbrella illustrates the challenge of mixed materials!

UnknownImprovements in technology and efficiency are central to more sustainable lifestyles, but there are other parts of the puzzle.  Mark Shayler challenges us think about our relationship with consumption.  Currently, around 80% of products are discarded after a single-use.  ‘Disposable’ products are a myth.  As Michael Braungart and  William McDonough, authors of “Cradle to Cradle: Re-Making the Way we Make Things, note the “away” in throw away does not really exist.  What is more, in spite of the fact that, we consume twice as much as we did in 1974, but we are not as happy.

206Shayler describes a transition from unconscious consumption to conscious consumption to conscious unconsumption, urging us to “buy right, buy once”.  For a revealing illustration of consumption in contemporary society visit the Victoria & Albert Museum to see the Prix Pictet, the global award in photography and sustainability.  I was captivated by Hong Hao’s My Things (pictured left), the result of daily scanning his consumed objects.

There is much to be said for moderation in all things.  This chimes with the first design model of longevity, through physical and emotional longevity, and the second loop of re-envisioned service-based business models.  There is value in the customer relationship.  What is more there are opportunities for companies to be champions through editing customer choice (removing unsustainable products), influencing customer choice through marketing messaging that reiterates a brand’s value, and production innovation.  Average, or ‘a bit less bad’ is not really an aspirational brand value.

And now I’m off to try and to upgrade and repair my laptop!

Image credit: Google, Hong Hao, Nudie Jeans, Orangebox

Related links:

Will Google’s self-driving pods spell the end of the road for car ownership? from the Guardian

Driverless cars: In the self-driving seat from The Economist

 

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