Employing circular economy principles when creating craft products

Joseph Lo

6 March 2021

Joseph Lo outlines the principles of the circular economy as applied to craft products to help combat climate change.

Although the Covid-19 Pandemic has devastated the crafts sector, more crucially, there is another crisis that is looming on the horizon: climate change. This crisis is predicted to be deadlier than the Covid-19 pandemic as it is more intense, irreversible and fatal. Already, signs of this crisis have manifested in unprecedented extreme high variations of seasonal temperatures, large scale wildfires, rising sea levels, greater strength and frequency of storms, and many more similar environmental anomalies and disasters in recent years.

Hence, to avert a potential future climate crisis, it is imperative that humankind responds by immediately halting the aggravation that has led the world on this path and reverse this trend before it is much too late.  One means of action is for the crafts sector to adopt circular economy principles.

This is important because of craft’s role in the global manufacturing sector. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNTACD), Creative Economy Outlook: Trends in International Trade in Creative Industries (2002 – 2015) Report (8), the international trade in arts and crafts totalled $35billion in 2015. World exports increased from $19.9 billion in 2002 to $35 billion in 2015 with an annual average growth rate of 4.42% during the period 2003-2015. By any measure, this is a sizeable sector.

While the implementation of the principle of circular economy necessitates a systematic rethinking of the entire macro-economic system and the re-designing of the entire value chain in which craft products are made, this onerous task will not be addressed in this paper. Rather, this paper aims to introduce some fundamental strategies for craft makers and designers to consider when designing their products; this in itself will serve as a first tentative step to venture into this brave new world. Thus, the paper will first explain the term “circular economy” and outline several ways that craft practitioners and makers may consider when designing their products while adhering to the principles of the circular economy.

What is the Circular Economy?

The best means of explaining the circular economy is to compare it with the linear production process where resources are taken from the environment, processed, turning them into products. After using these products, they are disposed of. Contrasting with this linear production model, the circular economy, advocates a closed-loop system: rather than having a product disposed of after use, it is re-generated as a raw material to be re-used again in the production system.

According to Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the three principles of the circular economy are:

  • Regenerate natural systems;
  • Keep products and materials in use;
  • Design out waste and pollution.

Strategies for Implementing Circular Economy Principles

There is no one strategy that will be able to fulfil all the three principles of the circular economy. Rather, Ellen Macarthur Foundation has identified six strategies. These are:

  • Designing for inner loops;
  • Moving from products to services;
  • Product life extension;
  • Safe and circular material choices
  • Dematerialization
  • Modularity

Significantly, implementing the principles of the circular economy commences from design.

What is “design”?

The Montreal Design Declaration (2017) defines design as “the application of intent: the process through which we create the material, spatial, visual and experiential environments in a world made ever more malleable by advances in technology and materials, and increasingly vulnerable to the effects of unleashed global development.”

Importantly, the “designing” aspects within the circular economy context is not just limited to the end physical form and function of the product. Rather, designing refers to the entire supply chain and the production system, from the selection of materials, processes and production techniques, packaging, logistics, the final point of sale and how the product is being used. In order to close the loop (as obliged by the principles of the circular economy), the after-life of a product also needs to be designed into the product.

In many ways, the crafts sector is already employing such methodologies that echo the principles of the circular economy. For example, the usage of natural dyes in hand-woven textile production and utilising used-plastics materials for making baskets. These are just examples of craft practices that are already observing the principles of the circular economy. Beyond these usual craft practices, the following section provides some suggestions, which may further assist in engaging the practice of crafts with the principles of the circular economy.

Circular Design Strategies for Crafts

1. Disassembly

Most of the time, an entire product is thrown away because a frequently used section has been worn out, while the rest of the product remains in good condition. In this designing strategy, it advocates designing products that can be easily deconstructed for easy replacement, recycling or repurposing. Thus, instead of negating the entire product when only one part has deteriorated, that specific portion can be detached and replaced. In this manner, instead of throwing away the entire product, only the affect area is discarded. This will reduce waste.

For example, we all know how the corners of bags are most often exposed to wear and tear. Thus, will it be possible to design a bag where the corners can be re-enforced and can be easily replaced when necessary?

2. Modularity

Similar to the design strategy above, modularity in design divides a product into smaller parts so that it can then be independently created, used and replaced. In this manner, it also provides more choices for the end-user. For example, creating handbags with detachable handles so that they can be modified accordingly to the needs of the user, to use it as a clutch or with a sling to be hung from the shoulders or turned into a back-pack.

3. Longevity

This design strategy advocates creating products that are timeless in their style and aesthetics while using durable materials and the ability to retain value over time. Therefore, rather than designing a product that resonates with current fashion trends to reflect colours, patterns, forms, etc., longevity considers and prioritises function, content, heritage and the cultural authenticity from which the product will be able to retain its relevancy and meaning over time.

Reflecting the wise words of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent “Fashions fade, style is eternal.”

4. Durability

Durability here suggests the quality of the material in contributing to the lifespan of the product. Beyond this, it is also important to consider potential weak points in the design of the product that may require repairs. For example, choosing a good quality fastener over poor quality zips for bags, re-enforce joints such as handles of ceramic pots or movable hinges for wood cabinets, etc.

5. Dematerialisation

Expanding further on the notion of materials, another circular design strategy is to consider dematerialisation. Dematerialisation in design is to examine how to lessen the weight, size and variety of materials used in the product. Generally, the more materials you use, the greater the impact it will have on the environment.

In terms of crafts, consider employing ties or hand-knotted buttons over plastic buttons, Velcro and metal zippers for garments, bags, pouches and purses.

6. Multi-Functional

As a design challenge, will it be possible to consider turning a scarf into a bag, or a table into a bed? Thus, if a product has more than one function, it reduces the need for more products. Furthermore, it will also add value for the user.

7. Life Cycle Thinking

Considering the life cycle of the product, examine each stage of production (including the supply chain) where negative environmental impacts may occur and explore how to reduce these through design. For example, designing garments where waste is minimal during manufacturing or thinking about how broken pieces of pottery can be re-used as mosaic decoration for other pots.

Finally, considering how to embed “end-of-life” design into the product. For example, can a product be used again in another context or be transformed into something else? Significantly, it is better to establish channels where the product can be returned to the maker so that the maker can convert it into a brand new product. For example, can a knitted product be returned to the maker so that the item can be de-knitted and the yarns used to make a new product?

Conclusion

As many conversations have been directed to explore the resilience of the crafts sector in a post-Covid world, it is imperative for the discussion to include the circular economy, especially in view of the current climate-change crisis.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the global craft sector growth trend, nonetheless, it is a force to be reckoned with, especially when the world recovers from this current pandemic. Hence, as a major consumer of natural resources and producer of goods and services, it is necessary for the crafts sector to start implementing the principles of the circular economy in its practice.

The adaptation and application of the principles of the circular economy necessitate the review and re-designing of the entire macro-economic system and the value chain in the manner in which craft products are made. It requires the involvement of multiple agencies and the political will of governments.

However, focusing on individual craft practitioners and designers, this paper has suggested several strategies that can be adopted and implemented at the ground and grass-root levels. Although these may look insignificant, collectively, as a sector, their accumulated impact can be substantial.

By no means are these circular design strategies finite, restricted to those identified in this paper. These are some of the most primary and basic ones. Rather, combined with one’s imagination and creativity, and propelled by the conviction for the need to halt climate change, circular design strategies are infinite…

References

Working Committee, World Design Summit, (2017) Montreal Design Declaration. Accessed 23 January 2021

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, (NA) Home Page.  Accessed: 23 January 2021

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, (NA) Learning Path: Circular Design. Accessed: 23 January 2021

Weetman, C., (2016) A circular economy handbook for business and supply chains: repair, remake, redesign, rethink. New York: Kogan Page Ltd, 1st Edition.

About Joseph Lo

Working as a consultant, Dr Lo designed the Culture-based Product Development Training Course to support UNESCO/WCC Award of Excellence for Handicrafts; this course has been conducted throughout the Asia-Pacific. At the end of 2020, together with WCC International, he organised a series of webinars to explore how can the crafts sector build greater resilience to mitigate against future crisis. Dr Lo has worked for numerous UN agencies and is currently serving as a curator for Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC and the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan, Thimphu.

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