The future of the everyday
The importance of design in business has become more apparent in the past decade or so. The well-known story of Apple will spring to mind for many, but this has undoubtedly been a much broader trend, as Fast Company explained in 2012:
“Innovation today is inextricably linked with design – and design has become a decisive advantage in countless industries”
– Cliff Kuang, Director of Product Innovation, Fast Company
With this wider understanding of its influence, it makes sense that design would be a crucial aspect of the transition to a circular economy, too. Throughout the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Towards the Circular Economy volumes, four key building blocks were identified in the form of innovative business models, reverse cycle, system conditions and radical design. In this context, radical design referred to materials selection, as well as “standardised components, designed-to-last products, design for easy end-of-life sorting, separation or reuse of products and materials, and design-for-manufacturing criteria that take into account possible useful applications of by-products and wastes”. These themes continue to be part of the circular economy dialogue, overlapping with business models and reverse logistics, for example in car sharing, where “higher rates of utilisation would drive vehicle design with remanufacturing, durability, efficiency and easy maintenance into account.”
Actual examples of design for circularity are however in relatively short supply. There has been some isolated development in medium lived goods such as electronics, whilst aerospace and machinery have traditionally benefited from products that can be remanufactured. Startups have also led the way in some areas, with the luxury of starting with a blank slate when considering product design. In fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), however, there have been perhaps fewer nods towards progress. Overarching trends suggest that for the foreseeable future the FMCG sector will be, as is often heard, about ‘stuff, in packets, on shelves’.
This innovation lag shouldn’t be too surprising. Radical design puts a company ‘out there’, shifting focus – and sometimes investment – while competitors continue with the bread and butter trade. It is by its very nature disruptive, requiring businesses to tackle linear lock in – where supply chains, incentives and internal culture are all set up to support throughput efficiency.
But free from these restraints, how might products and services look in a circular economy?
Mark Buckley was studying for his A-levels and gardening part time when he first heard about the circular economy. He had gained a place on the B&Q Youth Board, a pioneering project from the DIY retailer. Run in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the aim of the Youth Board was to inject fresh thinking into the business. The nine board members sat for an entire year, during which they focused on responding to the challenge of “re-thinking and re-designing B&Q’s business model for a future of volatile energy and resource prices and growing population”. During this time, the board members were exposed to the circular economy as a framework with which to think about their business challenge.
This experience had a significant impact on Mark’s design process, and when studying 3D design at the Plymouth University, he had a new set of guidelines that influenced his own design briefs. When designing a desk fan for example, user repair was a key priority: “all 8 parts could be available to replace, or upgrade simply by purchasing from the retailer….with 75% less components of a typical desk fan (around 35!), self diagnosis and rapid and intuitive disassembly is made incredibly simple”. The emerging circular economy discourse was also a source of discussion with tutors and peers seeking new inspiration to design in a positive manner.
At the 2015 New Designers exhibition, Mark displayed his final project: Future of the Everyday.
What’s your toothbrush like?
Even without looking around your bathroom, it’s probably not that hard to guess…it’s likely to be made of three main bits that you can see: a plastic stem, some rubber grips stuck on in various places, and some bristles. There’s some metal staples in there too, to stop the bristles falling out. It might have a flexible head, some special bristles for your tongue or even a nice jazzy colour scheme. This is largely the state of play for fast moving consumer goods: incremental, sometimes superficial innovation that gives the product a fighting chance when placed on the shelf amongst competitors.
So current design priorities can make it difficult for manufacturers to truly differentiate their offerings. But these design, manufacture and sales processes also use a great deal of resources, with some estimating that around the world 3.5 billion toothbrushes are sold annually.¹ Figures for the FMCG sector as whole give an even better sense of scale: taking up 23-28% of US citizens’ household budgets, and 52-64% of those in China, consumer goods account for large share of societies’ spending, amounting to $12 trillion in annual sales globally.² In terms of weight, the average European citizen will purchase 800kg of food and beverage, 120kg of packaging, and 20kg of shoes and clothes annually.³ The key statistic however is that in the current linear model, 80% of this material is not recovered.⁴
In the case of toothbrushes, there are aspects of the design and business model that contribute to this resource loss. Ubiquitous rubber grips are often heat-welded to the handle, making them almost impossible to separate and preventing the creation of a pure materials stream. Once they leave the supermarket, these products become completely dispersed, making collection and aggregation unlikely. So with no system with which to capture this material, and a low perceived value in the eyes of the consumer, most old toothbrushes are destined for the bathroom bin.
For Future of the Everyday, Mark Buckley approached the design of the common manual toothbrush with seven distinct strategies.
As other projects have shown, there is no ‘one size fits’ all method when designing for a circular economy, and these different attitudes explore the multiple ways that a company can design with circular principles in mind.
The seven attitudes produced seven very different results, including a ‘plantable’ toothbrush designed to restore nutrients, a 3D-printed model that gains strength through structure whilst reducing plastic by 60%, and one that functions like a mechanical pencil, with extendable bristles running through the entire handle taking the lifespan of the brush to 4 years.
For a design project, it may seem ironic that it is actually the business model leading the design, as is the case in many of Mark’s concepts. But for practitioners, this is nothing new. Service design is one of the core skills of the designer, and the following three examples highlight how designing for a circular economy requires understanding of context and the wider system.
To hold, these objects are entirely plausible, and Mark has to point out to those interested that they are prototypes, and some proposed features are yet to become a reality. However, this does not undermine the validity of the project. Firstly because the concepts are realistic, and not reliant on some yet-to-be invented material or technology. They demonstrate how businesses can use existing technologies with new thinking to catalyse product innovation, reduce resource inputs and create circular material flows.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, to assume that the goal of the project was simply to create seven ready for retail toothbrushes misses the point. The purpose of work like this is to give physical form to a set of design principles that can be applied not only outside of toothbrushes, but outside of FMCG altogether. The study builds on existing work to explore and communicate a set of overarching guidelines in design for a circular economy.
- Are There Really More Mobile Phones Than Toothbrushes? Jeanne Hopkins, 60 Second Marketer, 2011
- Towards the Circular Economy Vol.2: opportunities for the consumer goods sector, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013, p 14
- Towards the Circular Economy Vol.2, p 7
- Towards the Circular Economy Vol.2, p 17