How circular design can change the world

What Design Can Do’s MAKE IT CIRCULAR CHALLENGE: Designing a socially just and ethical circular economy

Circle Economy
7 min readJan 25, 2023

By Mayya Saliba, Strategist, with contribution from Laxmi Haigh, Editorial Lead, at Circle Economy

All our stuff and how it is designed causes most greenhouse gas emissions — a circular economy can combat this

The circular economy has emerged as a strong tool to combat global warming by preserving and extending the functional lifetime of materials. This is significant as 70% of the 59.1 billion tonnes of annual total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are tied to the lifetimes of materials: extraction, processing, use and disposal. Essentially, as consumption continues to rise — fuelled by the extraction and use of finite resources — so will global GHG emissions. The social and environmental footprint of a product or service is determined by the decisions taken during the design phase. So, to truly reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere and live within planetary boundaries, we must look at how we use, dispose of and, most importantly, design all of our stuff.

The circular economy mimics nature as a model of ‘living within our means’. Just as living beyond our economic means can be risky and lead to issues that can affect our daily lives, living beyond our planetary means is threatening the planet and how safely it can function. By designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems, a circular economy allows us to collectively reimagine and redesign our systems to ensure a safe and just space for us all. Designing products and services with circularity in mind is therefore paramount for the transition to a circular economy.

This is why What Design Can Do (WDCD) teamed up with fellow Amsterdam-based impact organisation Circle Economy, and design research institution STBY, to challenge creatives from across the globe to design new circular innovations. The resulting WDCD and IKEA Foundation Make it Circular Challenge is based on analysis conducted by Circle Economy and STBY, which outlines the criteria for winning projects aimed at envisioning and building a more circular society. By enlisting a holistic approach, the competition aims to provoke a circular transition that is not just good for the planet, but good for people.

The circular transition will not be socially just or ethical by default

Circular economy strategies will not support social justice and equality by default. With the circular economy’s traditional focus on economic and environmental impacts — such as resource depletion, resource efficiency, innovation rates and air pollution — the link between circular economy and wider social and ethical issues are still considered weak, and blindspots should be addressed. The circular economy is also often linked to green growth, a model which still supports infinite economic growth — albeit grounded in more sustainable practices.

The current global second-hand trade is an illustrative example of how the current circular economy transition, especially in higher-income nations, does not always deliver on a strong social foundation. Reuse and recycling efforts in high-income countries largely undermine the quality of jobs in lower-income countries, as well as their own capacity to become more circular — a phenomenon increasingly referred to as ‘waste colonialism’. Circle Economy research has identified that circular business models can fall short on true pricing or be overly dependent on technology and data, thereby making circular products or businesses unequally accessible to all. Circular businesses can also mirror linear companies with their male-dominated leadership, non-inclusive processes, gender pay gaps and eurocentric knowledge bases.

We can’t continue along the path the linear economy has forged, framing our relationship with the world solely through production and profit — even if the initiatives are based on circular strategies.

Working towards an ethical and holistic circular economy

The circular economy can be a holistic concept. Besides its positive environmental impacts on material use, GHG emissions, and air, water and soil pollution, it can also help shape a more just, equitable world. If implemented in an integrated and thoughtful manner, it can bring more equal access to resources, equity within and between countries and a range of decent jobs.

Now, practitioners are crucially exploring this more holistic approach: a circular economy with social and ethical concerns. Doughnut economics, for example, aims to transform traditional capitalistic economics with a roadmap that utilises many circular strategies to satisfy all human needs within the means of the planet. The circular economy has also been found to support the implementation of many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as SDG1: no poverty and SDG5: gender equality — proving that when implemented holistically, it can bring benefits beyond the environmental and economical. Holistic circularity is closely linked to the concept of a just transition. This means boosting the social and economic opportunities of climate mitigation by carefully managing and minimising any challenges, especially through effective social dialogue among all groups impacted, with respect for fundamental labour principles and rights.

The circular economy therefore benefits from considering legal systems, culture, quality of life, impact beyond borders, values and behavioural norms, and governance and political considerations. In this way, a fully circular approach should also embed holistic systems thinking: addressing growing inequalities, actively integrating social justice into its work, and leaving no one behind.

How to get there

Circular design must seek to satisfy the needs and wants of the global population within planetary boundaries by utilising key, circular strategies. But it must also go further by embedding a social dimension in the process — as described above. Without this, we risk an economy that is circular, but repeats many mistakes of the current linear economy and perpetuates inequalities within and between countries — hardly a systems transformation.

WDCD is an international organisation that seeks to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, fair and just society using the power of design. Based in Amsterdam, with hubs in São Paulo, Mexico City, Delhi, Nairobi and Tokyo, WDCD started in 2011 and is initiated, curated and organised by creatives. Since 2015, WDCD has challenged the international creative community to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. Each Challenge provides creatives with the connections, resources, skills and funding needed to pilot, test and scale new innovations. WDCD has reached 126 countries with its Challenge programme. From 2017–2019 alone, the 33 winning projects attracted around ten million euros in funding and led to the creation of 96 full-time jobs.

Last January, WDCD embarked on a six-month journey to build the next big Challenge: how to embed circular economy principles in design? To do that, they partnered with STBY and Circle Economy. Together, they co-created robust and inclusive foundational research to better understand current challenges and solutions, looking at different perspectives from around the world.

Circle Economy provided expertise and insight on the circular economy concept — including the societal changes needed to accelerate it — to build the local and global design briefs. Circle Economy drew inspiration from its dedicated programmes for cities, finance, textiles, jobs and skills, and the built environment, and its delivered projects in many sectors such as: agriculture, automotive and packaging.

Circular Design Jam, a co-creative workshop reimagining products and services, organised during the WDCD Live Amsterdam in October 2022. Source: WDCD

Circle Economy led in-depth analysis of the environmental and social footprints, barriers and circular opportunities across several of the most impactful value chains. Expert interviews were conducted with local and global stakeholders to inform and validate the findings. These findings were then translated into criteria and considerations for circular design and for building a ‘circular society’ — a society that is not only regenerative and restorative by design, but also socially just and ethical. Case studies of existing initiatives that consider both the environmental and social dimensions were added to the design brief to spark designers’ inspiration. For example, MINIWIZ redefines the construction of hospital wards with innovative modular systems and sustainable materials to fulfil the demand from pandemic outbreaks.

The Make it Circular Challenge calls on designers, creatives and startups from all over the world to envision and build a circular society. Until the 31st of January, you are invited to submit imaginative ideas that radically rethink the status quo across five areas in which design can make a big difference:

WHAT WE EAT | covers the ways we grow, distribute, shop for, consume and discard food. So much could be gained by rethinking farming practices, redesigning the modern diet, or creating initiatives that encourage food sharing within communities.

WHAT WE WEAR | is about the clothes we put on our bodies and the textiles from which they are made. What if we could change the way we value these materials and make it easier for sustainable alternatives to be produced, used and reused? And how could doing so also address the social inequality that is rampant in the fashion industry?

WHAT WE BUY | refers to the countless consumer goods we use every day, from furniture to toys, home cleaning products and electronics. Here it’s also essential that we address why we buy in the first place. Could design help to repair people’s relationship with things?

HOW WE PACKAGE | asks you to rethink the flawed world of packaging. Because there are better ways to protect products using materials that are truly ethical and sustainable. Here we can think about innovating new materials, but also about making disposable things less desirable, and working with policymakers to enact change from the top.

HOW WE BUILD | reimagines the built environment and looks at how we construct the places where we live, work and play. This includes making circular decisions in new buildings for the growing population but also exploring ways to adapt existing structures and save precious resources.



Circle Economy

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