Transitioning to a circular business model with design

The need to change the systems that perpetuate climate change has snapped into sharp focus, and one doesn’t need to be an activist to see its urgency. Consumer movements to reduce air travel and meat consumption or go on “plastic diets” have become mainstream; investors regularly ask questions about corporate carbon footprints and sustainability efforts that would’ve raised eyebrows even a few years ago. Government policy is gradually shifting as well, to incentivize less wasteful business practices—not just in wealthy European countries, but worldwide.

In addition, the linear business model that’s governed commerce since the Industrial Revolution has created fatal flaws, which limit how much design can improve processes and products to reduce environmental impacts. As a fix, more companies are reaching for a circular business model, where products are thought through from use, to reuse, to recaptured values where the outputs of production are also inputs for the next production run.

This is a huge opportunity where embedded design teams and departments within businesses can create a competitive advantage while also contributing to sustainable solutions that require collaboration across industries.

Designing the process, the product, and the structure of the teams matters most. Sometimes this means designing products for reuse, or for disassembly and remanufacturing. It can also mean shifting to new consumption models, like embracing refills over disposables, or creating platforms that make used products as easy to purchase as new ones. In some cases, it means getting rid of the whole notion of purchase, use, and disposal, and replacing it with a service-based model. Early adopters of this model – like car sharing and clothing rental services – figured out how to make this work for excess product with pay-for-use and subscription models transforming how we cool our homes, change our tires, wash our clothes, and even manufacture products.

None of these shifts would’ve been successful without significant design effort: to help users embrace these new experiences, and to de-risk the model before being implemented at scale.

Upending your business model is no simple task. The consequences of getting it wrong can be severe, which is why a design-led approach is so attractive. Here are five key dimensions of inserting design processes and thinking to achieve results:

  • R&D and Design: Traditionally, design teams develop a product to spec or from a design brief. In a circular model they develop an ecosystem, of which the product is one part. A circular ecosystem includes production and distribution, purchase (or rental) and use, plus everything that comes after: reuse, resale, refurbishment, or disassembly and reclamation. Design skills and tools like empathy, journey mapping, and iterative prototyping are still relevant, but teams need to apply them at the system level.
  • Sustainable Material Sourcing: Choosing recycled or recyclable materials is an obvious step but far from the only venue. If you’re looking to go circular, designers and materials experts could rethink the product itself, and the way it’s packaged and shipped. There may be an alternative model (like a durable container + refill for CPG), packaging that is integrated into the product itself (zero waste), or a product redesign that takes advantage of advances in materials technology.
  • Circular business models: The way a product is designed partly dictates the way it’s produced. For example, when energy moves to renewables, and transport moves to electric, the main emissions from the lifecycle of a vehicle moves from its use phase to its production. To further reduce emissions designers can help by creating circular business models that reduce the need to produce new products with new materials. To achieve a circular business model, they must design for longevity, remanufacturing or reclamation. It will take engineers, materials experts, and designers working together to achieve advances.
  • Distribution and Providing Access: Smarter distribution models can reduce the carbon footprint of transporting goods, but even more effective is to design and test new business models, as in some of the resale or service-based examples above. Designers have long known that “people don’t want lamps, they want light”, and this perspective has a role to play in rethinking the value that companies are providing—and that customers are willing to pay for.
  • Use and Reuse: Reuse and repair are user experiences, just as much as purchase and use are. For consumers to embrace these behaviors, they must be designed to be easy, accessible, and rewarding. We already have a broad toolkit for nudging users to adopt new behaviors. To shift away from disposability, we’ll need to apply it to the end phase of a product’s use-cycle too.

Improvements in each of these dimensions can make a company’s offerings more sustainable. But, a truly circular business model depends on addressing them holistically. Any design-driven change, at any point in the process, impacts the model as a whole, which is likely to require new capabilities development in addition to enticing users to embrace a new offering. Therefore, leading designers are thinking of circularity as a whole-system design challenge.

Organizations with integrated design teams are accustomed to prototyping and refining products and services, as well as redesigning the how teams and companies are structured to take on new challenges and opportunities. But you wouldn’t typically prototype just one component of a product, or one moment in a service journey— the insights you gain aren’t useful unless they’re put in context. The same goes for new business models. A lack of holistic thinking is one of the reasons industries have been stuck in linear business models up to now; it’s only through rethinking at the system level that we’re likely to get unstuck. Which means, to implement a more circular model, a company should apply design talent and design thinking to its entire system, start-to-finish … or, for a circular model, start-to-finish-to-start.

Connect with Design