Why circles are better than lines

Gone are the days of sustainable design, says Nat Hunter; now we have to think about the lifecycles of what we make, and designers have a key role to play

We live in what’s currently termed a ‘linear’ economy. We dig resources up out of the ground, then use vast amounts of water, fuel and chemicals to magically turn them into glitzy products. When we’re finished with them, we dig a big hole in the ground and bury them. We’re so used to this crazy one-way street that we don’t even think about it, we just keep on making and consuming more and more. However, now we’ve hit a problem: the metals and fossil fuels that we’ve been digging out of the ground to make all this stuff are running out. People are fighting over Earth’s remaining supplies; China owns more than 80 per cent of what’s left, and is rapidly amassing more. So it seems that the way we’ve been living for decades might not serve us very well any more.

As a result of these shortages, resource prices are skyrocketing. For example, copper prices have tripled in the last three years. As a result many businesses making related products are losing profits at an alarming rate. We in the UK could save at least £220bn a year if we designed products in a way that supported resource recovery and eliminated waste streams. With 290 million tonnes of valuable resources becoming waste and going into landfill every day, the economic case for recovery and reuse is stronger than ever. What we’re talking about now is moving from a linear economy to a circular economy. In a circular economy, there is no such thing as waste – everything becomes the raw material for something else.

We designers have got used to working within the linear structure. We’re never asked to think about lifecycles: we just work out how to create something that is attractive to purchase. We mostly work on the product, and its packaging, marketing, advertising, point of sale or website. We don’t think for a minute about what clever things we could do to stop what we make going to landfill, because it’s not been on our agenda; no one’s asked us to apply our skills to this problem. However, this is all set to change imminently – pretty soon our briefs are going to start containing these difficult and unavoidable questions. The challenge is to understand what a circular economy is, and to realise that as designers we play a crucial role in creating this transition.

Designing for a circular economy is complex. The days of ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ design are long gone, when a simple change of material to a recycled alternative would give a project environmental credibility. Now, in order to understand all the facets of the problem, we need to talk to each of the stakeholders involved in the lifecycle of a particular product – chemists, material scientists and people who run recycling plants. If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Well, I don’t make products so this has got nothing to do with me,’ then think again. Brands and designers are going to have to work hand-in-hand with consumers to change consumption models away from the ‘take, make, waste’ model to one of ‘lease the resource, make the product, recover the resource and then remake the product’. This new paradigm requires take-back schemes at the end of the product’s life, repair programmes or products designed specifically for easy upgrade. Each of these systems needs to be embraced, understood and communicated by people like you.

The transition from purchasing to leasing is helping us move to more intelligent systems. Instead of buying a car, I can use Zipcar – a service that lets me use a car whenever I need one. Instead of buying a DVD, I can rent the film from LoveFilm or iTunes. Creating these services is one of the newest and most multidisciplinary design problems, and it requires truly excellent graphic and web designers working as part of a team to ensure that consumers fully understand that leasing or renting will be as good as – or better than – purchasing.

Get curious about product lifecycles. Where did the tantalum in my phone originate, and why were people fighting over it? When I put a biodegradable plastic bottle in the recycling bin, where does it actually go? Start doing this, and you’ll never look at an object in the same way again. Look out for products that you can lease, upgrade or take back, and start talking to your clients about product lifecycles before they start rewriting your briefs. You’ll not only be helping our society change to a life-saving circular economy, you’ll be future-proofing your career as well.

How not to design: discover the 10 biggest mistakes designers make, at Creative Bloq.