Circular Design


Circular Design involves the design of sequential processes in which resources are continuously circulating in various forms, following a reuse and recycled loop. These resources therefore do not go to waste. The concept of Circular Economy involves thinking in systems, keeping in mind the whole life cycle of products and services. It implies a real change of scale in the design process, encompassing even the re-design of economic systems. At the roots of circular design there is a “radical, restorative, regenerative approach to business: It is a new way of thinking” (The Circular Design Guide), as the implications of design affect not only a single user, but a connected web of people around the world.  

The mindset for this new kind of design can be summarized in four changes: from product to service, from temporary to permanent, from waste to resource, and from siloed design to collaborative design.  

Up to 80% of product’s environmental impacts are determined at the design phase (EEA, 2019). This is why circular design is getting prominence when trying to promote sustainability in our development. 

In fact, it is easy to find the connection between the Sustainable Development Goals and the 3 Principles of Circular Design: 

  1. Design out waste and pollution (SDG 6,7,8,11,12,13,14,15). 
  2. Keep materials and products in use (SDG 8,9,12). 
  3. Regenerate natural systems (SDG 6,7,13,14,15). 


A lot of opportunities can be found in circular design: balancing supply and demand, reimagining packaging and delivery systems, enabling digital inventory, tracking traceability, etc. It is estimated that it represents a new kind of emerging business that is worth about a trillion dollars and will drive innovation in companies (The Circular Design Guide). 

It is at the design stage of a product when the consideration of a circular business model should be incorporated, applying the five fields of action: take, make, deliver, use, and recover. The design phase should also contemplate the potential for reducing, reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, and recycling.  

Circular Design has connections and implications with broader aspects of design and society: new tools such as artificial intelligence, the internet, and biomimicry prove that our design ambitions are limited only by our imagination. To name only a few of these connections:  

  • Social changes: circular design is open to an engaged society, committed to social innovation. Some brands use open-source tools to allow the consumers to co-create their purchases, personalizing them (e.g. Nike sneakers). This way, circular design becomes intertwined with participatory design, inclusive design, gamification, etc. 
  • New design: circular design introduces new business models based on offering services instead of products and extending the life cycle of the products by repairing, renting, offering a sharing service, remanufacturing, or recycling. 
  • Design thinking: this concept represents a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown. This methodology can also be used to design with a circular approach, as the user’s experience has to be taken into consideration to comprehend and approach the phases of use and recover/enrich involved in circular design. Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation, as it is anchored in understanding customers’ needs. By incorporating this concept,  the decisions surrounding design are made based on what customers really want, avoiding risks and, consequently, minimising waste. 
  • Downcycling: The process of recycling consists of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. It can be done by upcycling, when the new materials or products made from the recycled waste are perceived to be of a greater quality than the original object, or by downcycling, when the recycled artefact is not as structurally strong as the original product made from virgin materials. Downcycling usually involves using the recycled parts or components as materials for new products, without being able to recover most of the properties of the virgin material. However, downcycling is a very useful process, very well developed in our industry. A common example is the transformation of plastic bottles into fibers for carpeting or fleece, or even into new polyester yarns for the textile industry. Downcycling has a lot of benefits, since, even if it doesn’t recover all the materials, it implies a reduction of: the energy cost of operations, pollution, and manufacturing costs, as well as promoting environmental protection.  

Fashion and food share a strategy of circular design by trying to eliminate packaging: Lush as a cosmetic brand (packaging free), and many supermarkets don’t offer packaged goods anymore, and instead they ask the customer to bring their own containers.   

Even in the production of food and textiles, the aim towards a green manufacturing process is a common feature of both the fashion and food industries. 

The same can be said of the process of recovering and recycling waste, but with the particular feature that some of the waste form the food industry is regarded as a resource in the fashion world: hides and skins of cows → leather; vegetable and fruit residues (orange, pineapple, banana) → new materials like Orange FiberTM  PiñatexTM, or BananatexTM. 

  • Too good to go is an app designed to eliminate food waste, connecting the surplus of perishable food with potential buyers in close proximity to the venues where the unsold products are found. It is a good connection between a circular design and food. 
  • Jeans Redesign initiative 
  • Lush 
  • Piñatex