Most of the products we use every day are influenced by the ideas and mindset that originated from the industrial era (when resources seemed infinite, and sustainability was a mere niche). Designing to produce at the lowest cost (i.e. for products differentiating on cost) or the optimum cost (i.e. for products differentiating on quality and optimizing economies of scale opportunities) are at the heart of this industrial era design mindset. Manufacturing products with superior performance that earns a competitive edge in the market is also a similar aspect. In trying to optimize costs, aesthetic appearance, and performance, incorporating aspects that consider the environment in that era is given little thought.
The trade-offs of that model are evident. A few would be, economies of scale that need excessive resource extraction or manufacturing in regions that offer the lowest cost and shipping across the globe. Both have detrimental impacts in terms of resources and emissions respectively.
Regenerative design that aligns with circular economy has a different line of thinking. One such concept is to design for end-of-life management from the perspective that it will be converted to a different product. End of life in this instance does not necessarily have to be dismantling the product into components and recycling the components to recover the materials. The design of the primary product can be considered enough to take into account the design of the secondary product that uses the same components as the primary.
One such example is the do-it-yourself (DIY) projects of IKEA, which provides design challenges to use the components and remanufacture new products. Another example would be designing a gift wrapper to be wallpaper or a calendar, or designing an envelope to be a file cover at the end of its first useful life.
With all that said, as consumers, we have our part to play as well.
1. Question the end of life of the product at the time of purchase
We should be able to visualize what would happen to the product and how we use it during and at the end of its life. If you are buying a souvenir and branded merchandise, for example, a thorough questioning will help you understand whether it will be a dust collector at the use phase and end up as a mixed waste following spring cleaning.
2. Demand end of life information
A product design that has carefully considered the end of life and has at least provided disposal or recycling instructions is worthy of your consideration. Products that go the extra mile and encourage upcycling are even more desirable.
3. Embrace creativity
Though some products have detailed upcycle pathways, the majority of products do not. Does this mean we must throw away the products that are reaching their end of life? No. If we sprinkle in a little creatively and look at the products in a different light we can give them a new purpose and a new lease on life. For example, teapots to flowerpots or old ladders to bookshelves, and many more. The safety and practicality of the new use of the product is the only aspect needing a little extra consideration.
4. Patronise products with multiple service cycles and designed for secondary life
Buying a product makes the consumer a custodian of the resources that it constitutes. Better performance for the resources paid for comes with multiple cycles of regenerative use. Products that provide a specific material pathway that caters to two different needs of the same consumer would indeed be a prized buy.
For example, Patagonia, in one of their Black Friday Sales campaigns in 2020 had the tagline “buy less demand more.” Making a statement about the consumer’s power to ask for more things in a product rather than buying more things to fill in the needs.
Using the discretionary power of consumers and asking the manufacturers to rethink the optimum resource use through multiples cycles of regenerative products is a reality not too far away. So let’s take our first steps to achieve this goal.
If you’re interested in the other articles in this series please feel free to read my other work,
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