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Professor Martin Charter, can you please summarise the principle of circular design?

“Circular design is, in my opinion, part of an overall and broader approach called eco-design, which is about reducing the environmental impact in product development and design whilst minimising life cycle impacts.

With eco-design, depending on the product and its biggest environmental impact you need to think about different environmental aspects e.g. reduce energy consumption, improve dismantability, etc., which sometimes means trade-offs.

Key issue behind ecodesign is lifecycle thinking, spanning from where the materials are extracted to where they end up in the end.

Circular design, within eco-design, means thinking about designing to retain value in products, materials and components for as long as possible in economic and social systems with the key focus on the user and not on the end of life. You are looking at how you design for preventative maintenance of the product, reparability, refurbishment, remanufacturing; and materials recycling is actually much further down the line than what one normally would think about.

What are the already proven benefits of such an approach?

“There is growing interest globally in the circular economy with, for example, the European Commission publishing its Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0 which follows on from the original plan in 2015.

Despite this growing interest, there is still no agreed definition of what the circular economy is. It’s important to define what circular economy means at the level of the economy, as well as, at the level of the organisation and the product.

ISO, the International Standards Organisation, is jump starting work on standardisation through TC323 around terms and definitions, measuring circularity and also new business models. Within the work on terms and definitions, there is a need for more clarity on definitions of the issues such as remanufacturing, refurbishment, and so on.

This became clear from a standard that I was involved in developing called BS8001. It is the first standard around circular economy and organisations. When we were looking at the standard, we found no definition in standards or in law for upcycling of a product. But in practice, upcycling of products is happening in many areas especially clothing. By upcycling, I mean taking a product that has been designed for a particular use and reuse it for another purpose. So there is still a lack of clarity even over the terms that needs to be clarified.

Many of the issues are quite new, there is a lot of discussion around circular economy and organisations, but many companies are struggling with how they implement this, especially when they are large, complex organisations. Benefits of more circular approached can related to reduce costs, improved reputation, security of supply of materials, innovation, legal compliance and in some instances new revenue streams, or protecting existing revenue streams.

What are the key steps for implementing circular design?

“It is perhaps not as simple as that in many ways. In my opinion, circular economy is part of sustainable development. The sustainable development goals 2030 lay out 17 key goals. A number of those goals relate to circularity. Some countries and organisations are trying to completely re-orientate towards circular economy and say that sustainable development is an out-of-date concept. I think that is a dangerous strategy to take, particularly as the circular economy emerges from thinking about materials and resources we used. It is important to recognise that circular economy builds on many concepts that that evolved from the 1990s e.g. eco-efficiency, and resource efficiency and productivity. So it is important to place circular economy within the sustainable development context at a policy level.

At a company and product level, companies need to identify what the issues that are relevant for their products and services. Companies that want to transition to become more circular within a more sustainable approach firstly need to engage with staff and other stakeholders to gain clarity about what circularity means for their organisations and products.

It is very important to define what you mean by circularity and what is relevant for your products, services or business model. The issues are different if you are manufacturing a piece of furniture out of locally grown wood compared to a supercomputer with lots of complex electronics with long, complex value supply chains that also include critical raw material.

Is this approach already included in design training?

“Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, product design in engineering and design schools is including more content on environmental issues. However, much still depends on the individual lecturers and professors to get sustainable development, circular economy and ecodesign into the curriculum. There is still a need for leadership teams and heads of schools within universities  to prioritise these issues. More should be happening.

Two new ISO standards have been recently been published on ecodesign. ISO 14006 was published in February 2020. It shows organisations how to manage ecodesign within their management system; so it is guidance on how to manage eco-design.

In December 2019, there was the publication of IEC 62430 version 2. This provides guidance to designers on how to design products to have a lower environmental impact. Within that, circularity aspects are also considered.

There is now the emergence of specific courses in different universities around the world on circular economy and circular design However, it is still relatively new. Research groups are also evolving that are focusing on the topic. Some of the issues, however, are not new.

A lot of work was for instance done in design for dismantability and reparability in the early 2000s. This was driven by the fact that there was the prospect of ‘individual producer responsibility’ clauses, that would stimulate ecodesign, in the so-called WEEE directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) which dealt with electronics waste and the ELV directive (End of Life Vehicles Directive) that dealt with automotive waste

So a lot of work started on how to design for recyclability and reparability. But those clauses were not implemented in the law. A lot of the researchers who had generated new knowledge around in effect, circular design issues, then moved on to new topics So for many of these issues there are plenty of lessons from the past, that have been forgotten or are unknown to the organisation and people who have joined the circular economy discussion over the last 5 years

Is it easier to implement these lessons in a small country such as Luxembourg?

“Sure. One of the key things is of course for policy makers to prioritise circular economy as a key issue and define the policies to facilitate the transition to a circular economy within the country. There might also already be many good things going on in the country and there is a need to collect these good examples.

Firstly, there needs to be a typology of what e.g. Luxembourg understands as a circular economy and what is outside the scope.

For example, a quite controversial question is whether materials recycling is considered to be within circular economy. Various key questions need to be asked and answered, in my opinion, before one implementing a strategic approach. The European Commission is still really pushing the circular economy and sees the circular economy as part of the Green Deal.

Recently, the Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0 was launched, five years after the first action plan. This has laid out a whole series of actions that the Commission will be promoting together with member states. Finally, Luxembourg might partner with other governments and organisations to fill gaps in knowledge and experience.

Professor Martin Charter MBA FRSA has worked as a manager, researcher and trainer on sustainable innovation and product sustainability for 30 years in academia, business and consultancy. He is the founding Director of The Centre for Sustainable Design® at University for the Creative Arts (UCA), Senior Associate, Business School for the Creative Industries at UCA and is the author/co-author of Greener Marketing 1 & 2, Sustainable Solutions, System Innovation for Sustainability, Eco-innovate and Designing for the Circular Economy.

He is the Chairman, Board of Trustees, Farnham Repair Café and is a regular speaker in conferences worldwide.

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