Sustainable Business Frameworks for Innovation
1. Circular Design & The Circular Economy
According to architect and sustainability/circularity thought leader, William McDonough, "design is a signal of intention." He further argues that "waste" and "pollution" are a consequence of bad design. Nearly 30% of all carbon released into the air come from our "stuff"; our clothing, chairs, bags, products and goods.
Important choices are made in the design stage. Circular design is about changing the choices we make at the beginning of the design process. Designs also includes how people interact with goods and services and systems along their journey, such as with logistics, collection, and infrastructure systems. In the case of physical products, how different materials are combined and how easily they can be reused, repaired, refurbished, or disassembled is also decided at the design stage.
These crucial choices radiate across the entire design system, affecting sourcing, production, and how we use things. Importantly, they also determine ‘what happens next’ and what is possible after something has been used. Does it become waste? Or can it be part of a circular economy, where waste is designed out and materials are destined for one valuable application after another?
It’s hard to reverse the impacts of design decisions once they are implemented. Design decisions often lead to long-term investments that lock us into a certain model for years to come. As Radjou and Prabhu in their book Frugal Innovation argue, “over 70% of a product’s life-cycle costs and environmental footprint is determined during its design phase.”
Today, most of the materials we lose, and often after just one short use. In industries such as fashion and plastic packaging more than 80% of all materials in our products and services are destined for landfill or incinerators, with a significant amount also leaking out of the system and into natural environments. They are part of a "take-make-waste model". We take finite resources, use them only for a short period of time, after which they are lost from the economy. This is an enormous loss. We miss out on the opportunity to keep products and materials in circulation, and with it all the creativity, labour, and energy that went into them.
That’s why we need to adopt a fundamentally different approach in the way we create the products, services, and systems around us. We need to look ‘upstream’ to tackle the challenges we are facing — tackling them at the design stage rather than treating the symptoms of problems. We need to look at systems as a whole to understand how our creations fit into the bigger picture. And we need to have an inspiring vision and framework that can work in the long run.
Circular Design and the circular economy offer such a framework, built on the principles of eliminating waste and pollution from the outset, keeping products and materials in use at their highest value, and regenerating natural systems. Just like in nature, by design everything is food for something else — materials flow from one (life)form into the next. It is a model that can work for aeons. Just like it has in nature for 3.8 billion years.
By decoupling economic activity from linear material flows, it is a model that goes beyond “doing less bad” (McDonough) to being one of regeneration. Therefore, the more we create within the circular economy model, the better the results — for customers, businesses, society and the environment. It’s about designing better solutions for people and meeting needs within a regenerative system.
At the same time, we have powerful technological tools at hand that we may utilize to design powerfully and responsibly for a regenerative future. Over the last years, we have gained unprecedented technological abilities: From new bio-benign materials, to data-powered abilities to understand and design across complex supply chains, to digitally-enabled business models that address our needs without extractive material flows. We have possibilities to design and work with nature, rather than against it. In conjunction with the rising desire among creatives to use the transformative power of design as a force for good, we have a real opportunity for change.
Strategies to design for a circular economy come in so many shapes, but ultimately what matters most is how we bring new mindsets and practices to the table in our individual contexts, and how we collectively evolve our design practices in the coming years. It’s an exciting journey, and we are only at the beginning of it.
To get started, we can challenge ourselves to answer important questions in the design process:
- How might we design in a way that addresses ‘user needs’ AND that can work in the long term?
- How might we create products and services that fit into our (eco)-systems, and become ‘food’ rather than waste and pollution?
- How might we use design as a force for positive change and address the big challenges of this century, such as climate change and the loss in biodiversity?
2. Cradle to Cradle Design is Circularity in Practice
Below is an excerpt from WIlliam McDonough's website:
In their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and green chemist Michael Braungart presented an integration of design and science that provides enduring benefits for society from safe materials, water and energy in circular economies and eliminates the concept of waste.
The book put forward a design framework characterized by three principles derived from nature:
Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products as technical nutrients without contamination.
Use clean and renewable energy. Living things thrive on the energy of current solar income. Similarly, human constructs can utilize clean and renewable energy in many forms—such as solar, wind, geothermal, gravitational energy and other energy systems being developed today—thereby capitalizing on these abundant resources while supporting human and environmental health.
Celebrate diversity. Around the world, geology, hydrology, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling, adapted to locale, yield an astonishing diversity of natural and cultural life. Designs that respond to the challenges and opportunities offered by each place fit elegantly and effectively into their own niches.
Rather than seeking to minimize the harm we inflict, Cradle to Cradle reframes design as a positive, regenerative force—one that creates footprints to delight in, not lament. This paradigm shift reveals opportunities to improve quality, increase value and spur innovation. It inspires us to constantly seek improvement in our designs, and to share our discoveries with others. Learn more about the power of design to change business into a force for good here.
Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products
In 2005, MBDC created the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program to recognize high levels of sustainability achieved by its clients and to inspire others to optimize their products and “rethink the way they make things.” In 2010, MBDC donated to the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute an exclusive license for the certification program and methodology, and the Institute now administers the program and manages the Product Standard as a third-party, nonprofit organization. Learn more about the Institute and certification program here.
3. Biomimicry & Biophilic Design
According to scientist and Biomimicry thought leader, Janine Benyes: "Biomimicry is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges — and find hope along the way."
The following is extracted from The Biomimicry Institute's website:
For all the challenges we face, nature has a solution.
Biomimicry offers an empathetic, interconnected understanding of how life works and ultimately where humans fit in. It is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies used by species alive today. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies — new ways of living — that solve our greatest design challenges sustainably and in solidarity with all life on earth. We can use biomimicry to not only learn from nature’s wisdom, but also heal ourselves — and this planet — in the process.
Biomimicry brings relief. We’re stressed. Our planet is stressed. Many are losing hope for solving the climate crisis and its many negative effects on ecosystems across the world. Biomimicry gives us hope, because we know the solutions for our greatest challenges are here, accessible, and validated by the many species still alive today. By using nature as our mentor, we get to experience the powerful healing effects it has by connecting to the natural world — while also finding empowering relief to solve these challenges together.
Biomimicry helps us design generously. Circularity, sustainability, regenerative design — it all means that the things we humans make become a force for restoring air, water, and soil instead of degrading it. Nature uses structure to change functions and also uses passive forms of energy, whereas our inventions use brute force like mining ancient carbon and a multitude of harmful chemicals. We can create conditions conducive to life, just like nature does.
Biomimicry gets us to sustainable solutions, faster. Our R&D cycles are slow, and climate change won’t wait – we must look to the biological blueprints that have been successful over millennia to launch groundbreaking ideas, faster. We don’t need to reinvent the strategies that are already here. We just need to learn how to adapt them. Here are a few examples.
Biomimicry changes our lens on the world. Innovators turn to biomimicry with the hope of achieving a unique product that is efficient and effective, but they often gain a deep appreciation of and connection to the natural world. As Biomimicry Launchpad participant and Mangrove Still co-founder Alessandro Bianciardi said, “I cannot help but feel a kinship with these trees now that I have spent years of my life trying to emulate them. In fact, I see all trees differently now.” Biomimicry encourages conservation for ecosystems and its inhabitants, because they hold the wisdom we need.
"Biomimicry is about valuing nature for what we can learn, not what we can extract, harvest, or domesticate. In the process, we learn about ourselves, our purpose, and our connection to each other and our home on earth."
The 3 Essential Elements of Biomimicry
When translating nature’s strategies into design, the science of the practice involves three essential elements: Emulate, Ethos, and (Re)Connect. These three components are infused in every aspect of biomimicry and represent these core values at its essence.
The scientific, research-based practice of learning from and then replicating nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more regenerative designs.
The philosophy of understanding how life works and creating designs that continuously support and create conditions conducive to life.
The concept that we are nature and find value in connecting to our place on Earth as part of life’s interconnected systems. (Re)Connect as a practice encourages us to observe and spend time in nature to understand how life works so that we may have a better ethos to emulate biological strategies in our designs.
4. A Positive Carbon Future
- Living carbon: organic, flowing in biological cycles, providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow
- Durable carbon: locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibers like paper and cloth, to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused
- Fugitive carbon: has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, ‘waste to energy’ plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture and urban development
The new carbon language also identifies three strategies for carbon management and climate change:
- Carbon positive: actions converting atmospheric carbon to forms that enhance soil nutrition or to durable forms such as polymers and solid aggregates; also recycling of carbon into nutrients from organic materials, food waste, compostable polymers and sewers
- Carbon neutral: actions that transform or maintain carbon in durable Earth-bound forms and cycles across generations; or renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower that do not release carbon
- Carbon negative: actions that pollute the land, water and atmosphere with various forms of carbon, for example, CO2 and methane into the atmosphere or plastics in the ocean
Offering an inspiring model for climate action begins with changing the way we talk about carbon. Our goal is for all to embrace this new language and work toward a Carbon Positive design framework; and in doing so we may together support a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world—with clean air, soil, water and energy—that is economical, equitable, ecological, and elegantly enjoyed."
Products that Sequester Carbon
Designer Charlotte McCurdy, Interface Carpets, and Cork Element are pioneering design methods to create everyday products, such as a raincoat, carpeting, and bags and purses to sequester carbon (take it out of the atmosphere!) and store it inside their products. Learn more here about these exciting innovations.