The furniture industry faces a mounting waste crisis, exacerbated by fleeting design trends. As Katie Treggiden said, “the design industry needs to let go of its obsession with the new. (…) We need to lead the transition to a circular economy.” (on Dezeen, October 2023). This is not a new idea, and today is an emergency. Sustainability is imperative.
Design Circular: Sustainable Furniture for a Greener Future
The obsession with the New
Susan Strasser coined the term “the veneration of newness” in her 1999 book “Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash”. This is a phenomenon that emerged in 1950s America, ushering in the throwaway culture that came to define the second half of the 20th century and that has continued with fast fashion, fast furniture, and others.
In 2015, Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouwenberg wrote a Manifest timed to Salone del Mobile in Milan in which they plea for ideals in design and call upon designers to take the lead in a much-needed change of mentality. The designer and design theorist criticize the obsession with the New. In the text, we can read “It is absurd and arrogant to begin the design process with an empty piece of paper. Cultural and historical awareness are woven into the DNA of any worthwhile product.”
In fact, we are still looking for what’s new. Annual stylistic tweaks drive unnecessary upgrades, fuelling an insatiable desire for the new. “What’s new?” is the permanent question that people ask a design brand. If you don’t have news, you are not interesting for a trade show or an interview. But we need to lead the transition to a circular economy.
The Circular Economy
Since 2012, the concept and economic rationale for the circular economy has been thoroughly researched and discussed, and is well documented in publications by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as well as other business, policy, and academic research organizations.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “the circular economy is a systems solution framework that gradually decouples economic activity from resource consumption, and helps tackle global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. The circular economy offers opportunities for better growth that not only contribute to creating more resilient systems but also provide society-wide benefits such as a healthier environment. The circular economy also has the potential to reduce costs of accessing goods and services.”
Understanding Circular Design
Circularity is about transforming the traditional linear life cycle – ‘produce, use, waste’ – to the opposite – reuse, refurbish, remanufacture, and recycle. Circular design principles entail the creation and use of items with the future in mind, ensuring resources maintain their highest utility and value over time, and waste is systematically designed out of the equation. In essence, placing emphasis on an infrastructure that supports longevity, reparability, and ultimately, a closed-loop system.
Not all products have the same possibility to be circular, and therefore, there is no one single recipe for circular product design. Instead, it is a combination of various circular product design principles that together create a built-in possibility for all products to last as long as possible, and eventually become a resource for new products. So, this is a great challenge and an opportunity to reshape how we see value in the things around us.
You can explore more about the subject in “The Circular Design Guide” which is a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO. Or even in the “Making Design Circular” podcast by Katie Treggiden that explores the intersection of craft, design and sustainability.
The three principles of circular design
“Circular design applies and enables the three principles of the circular economy: Eliminate, Circulate, Regenerate”, refers to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Whether we’re (re)designing a product, service or business model, circular design uses systems thinking to create solutions that deliver better outcomes for the entire system.
- ELIMINATE waste and pollution, including toxic substances that harm the soil and water and reduce emissions. Almost every product generates waste, so we need to redesign everything.
- CIRCULATE products and materials at their highest value for as long as possible. A recycled product must be energy-efficient in the recycling process.
- REGENERATE natural systems by returning natural resources to the earth.
Examples of the decisions involved in circular design
- Materials: is it local sourced? and how can we extract it sustainably? is it biodegradable
- Product specifications: is the product easy to care, durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable?
- Manufacturing process: is it energy-efficient, and does it generate any waste?
- Distribution and use: How much energy does it take to deliver and use the product/service? Where does this energy come from? Is the product durable?
- Disposal: Can the product be dismantled? Can we use the parts as-is in the manufacturing process again? Can we return the raw materials to the earth?
- The emotional connection: Together with great functionality, an emotional connection is why people maintain, repair, and don’t throw away a product. Objects that hold memories and tell stories are special because they represent and remind us of the most important parts of our lives. Those memories are more important than the product itself.
Some examples of sustainable furniture for a circular economy
With a goal to establish a circular economy in the flooring industry, Tarkett is invested in cradle to cradle production. The company’s take-back ReStart programme sees it collect not only its own flooring, but also flooring from its competitors – gathering off-cuts and used vinyl, linoleum and carpet flooring to be recycled back into its own products.
Another example is DAM, where the majority of the company’s materials are Portuguese and all of the products incorporate reusable, recyclable or renewable materials. Besides this, DAM manufactures all the products in Portugal around 50 kilometers from the company, keeping the pollution and energy consumption produced from their transport at a minimum level.
TAKT is a furniture brand that has created its own calculator to work out the carbon footprint of its products. This is based on supplier data about how much CO2 is emitted at every stage of a product’s lifecycle, from the sourcing and refining of the raw materials to estimates of any emissions associated with its transport, maintenance and ultimate disposal.
German designer Stefan Diez has created a modular sofa system called Costume for Magis, which is designed to be easily taken apart, recycled and cleaned. The sofa’s structure is made from polyethylene that has been recycled from industrial waste and can itself be further recycled, while its textile cover is washable and replaceable.
What about using waste as a resource? Recycling textile waste is increasingly common. For example, the VARINA side table by DAM includes a circular pillow made with hand-interlaced felt waste from the Portuguese hat making industry. This represents the wheel on the head that facilitates the transport of the basket on the head of the women called “VARINAS” to sell fish. Also, the composite cork of the table is vegetable, biodegradable and recyclable.
New Modern is a modular table system with trestle-style steel leg units that can be paired with different tabletops, created by French furniture brand Tiptoe. Beside this, the tables are made from responsibly sourced recycled or recyclable materials.
Talk with a DAM professional – email@example.com – to find out more specifications about the products, and how they can contribute to making your projects sustainable.