Sometimes it can feel like the circular economy is only discussed at a theoretical level, with few practical examples. While this is often true, concrete examples of the circular economy can be found almost everywhere today, regardless of the sector. In this article, we go as practical as possible with real-life circular economy examples.
But what is a circular economy? Ellen MacArthur Foundation sheds light on the three pillars of the circular economy. They are:
Eliminating waste and pollution
Circulating products and materials
Regeneration of nature
So, from a business perspective, strategies that aim to extend the life of products, increase the efficiency of their use, eliminate waste, and reuse and recycle the materials used in them contribute to the circular economy.
As discussed in another article, circular design strategies can be categorized into product development and business models. Based on Bocken et al. (2016) work, these can be further divided into circular design principles that either slow down the circulation of materials or create closed-loop systems where reused materials circulate and get a new life.
We've organized the upcoming examples into two main categories: product design and business models, with additional subdivisions under each. Keep in mind that many of these examples could fall into more than one category. Now, without further ado, let's dive into the fascinating realm of circular economy examples.
Examples of circular economy principles in product design
Designing circular products focuses on creating high-quality, durable products that make use of the resources already in circulation. In the next section, we will look at examples that incorporate strategies to create long-life products and take into account the product's end-of-life during the design phase.
Designing long-life products
The core principle of designing long-life products is to create emotionally and functionally durable products.
Briggs & Riley
This luggage manufacturer focuses on creating durable, high-quality luggage with a lifetime guarantee — a pretty powerful way of communicating your products' high quality and longevity. Their products are designed for easy repair, with replaceable parts and a "Simple as That" warranty that covers functional repairs for the product's lifetime. This approach has earned Briggs & Riley a reputation for reliability and customer satisfaction, which drives repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
Le Creuset, a French cookware manufacturer, is known for its durable, high-quality, enameled cast iron cookware. Their products follow a timeless design, are made to withstand a lifetime of use, and come with a limited lifetime warranty. The durability and performance of Le Creuset cookware have made it a favorite among professional chefs and home cooks alike, allowing the company to charge a premium price for their products and enjoy strong brand loyalty.
L.L.Bean, an outdoor clothing and equipment retailer, is known for its high-quality, long-lasting products. The company emphasizes durability in design and materials and offers a generous return policy that guarantees customer satisfaction. L.L.Bean's commitment to product longevity has helped the company build a loyal customer base and maintain a strong reputation for quality and service.
Designing for product life extension
Designing for product life extension is about incorporating strategies into the design process that promote repairability, standardization, upgradability, and disassembly.
Fairphone designs modular smartphones that enable users to replace and upgrade individual components easily, extending the life of the device. The company also sources conflict-free materials and promotes recycling. This approach has garnered Fairphone a niche market of environmentally-conscious consumers, resulting in a loyal customer base and a positive brand image.
iFixit is a company that provides repair guides, tools, and replacement parts for various electronic devices, encouraging product life extension by making it easier for consumers to repair their devices. By providing repair resources and promoting a repair culture, iFixit has positioned itself as an industry leader in the right-to-repair movement. It has built a thriving business based on sales of tools, parts, and repair kits.
Nudie Jeans is a Swedish denim brand that designs jeans for longevity and offers free repairs for life at their repair shops. The company also encourages customers to resell or donate their jeans once they no longer need them by offering customers 20% off a new pair of jeans when handing in an old pair of Nudie Jeans. This approach has helped Nudie Jeans create a loyal customer base and differentiate itself as a sustainable, quality-focused brand in the crowded denim market.
Modular Robotics designs and manufactures Cubelets, modular robotic toys that can be easily reconfigured and expanded upon as children grow and learn. By designing products with a focus on modularity and upgradeability, the company extends the lifespan of its products, providing customers with long-lasting value and fostering customer loyalty.
Designing for recycling
Designing for recycling focuses on creating products and packaging that can be easily and effectively recycled at the end of their useful life. By considering recycling requirements during the design phase, businesses aim to create closed-loop systems where materials are either reused or recycled at the end of their useful life.
Interface, a global flooring manufacturer, designs modular carpet tiles using fully recyclable materials. To close the circle, the company has a program called ReEntry, which takes back used carpets to recycle them into new products. This circular approach reduces waste, conserves resources, and prevents carpets from ending in landfills. Decades of work towards net zero impact has positioned Interface as an industry leader in sustainability, attracting environmentally conscious clients and driving innovation.
Apple has developed a recycling robot called Daisy, which disassembles iPhones to recover valuable materials for use in new products. The company also designs products with recyclable materials and has recycling programs in place for consumers.
Apple plans to become net zero by 2030. Their recycling efforts reduce the pressure on the environment and extend resource value by recovering valuable materials used in old devices, which can lead to cost savings.
Coca-Cola has introduced the "World Without Waste" initiative to make 100% of its packaging recyclable by 2025. The company invests in recycling infrastructure, improving packaging design, and promoting consumer awareness of reusable packaging. This focus on circularity helps Coca-Cola mitigate its environmental impact and align with regulatory requirements.
HP has implemented a closed-loop recycling process for ink cartridges, which involves collecting used cartridges, disassembling them, and recycling the materials to create new cartridges. This approach reduces waste, conserves resources, and supports a circular economy. By designing for recycling, HP demonstrates environmental stewardship, differentiates its products, and meets the demands of eco-conscious consumers.
Examples of circular business models
Several examples of circular business models inspire greener, more sustainable production across the entire product life cycle. Look at some of these innovative companies and how they have driven circularity through their business model.
The product-as-a-service model shifts the focus from selling ownership to providing access through, e.g., rental, pay-per-use, and subscription models. There is nothing new about renting and lending. In fact, we can say that many traditional rental companies, for example, in the fields of sports equipment, formal wear, or construction, are pioneers of the circular economy. However, in the following examples, we will focus on cases that represent a newer way of thinking in industries that traditionally operate on a linear model.
Bundles is a Netherlands-based business that designs subscription and pay-per-use services for home appliances. Mass production of items like washing machines and coffee makers leads to cheap products with high turnovers. However, quality, long-lasting goods have a barrier to entry due to high costs.
Bundles solve these issues by making quality products accessible by removing the upfront investment and using internet-of-things (IoT) technology to charge per use. Together with free maintenance and repair services, Bundles also eliminates the burden of ownership and takes responsibility for keeping their machines running without faults because if customers can't get their laundry washed, Bundles doesn't make money.
Philips Lighting (Signify)
Philips Lighting, now known as Signify, offers a circular lighting service called "Light as a Service" (LaaS). Customers lease lighting systems, and the company retains ownership and responsibility for maintenance, upgrades, and end-of-life recycling. This approach supports circularity by encouraging the efficient use of resources and extending product lifespans. Signify benefits from recurring revenue streams and long-term customer relationships.
Michelin, the tire manufacturer, offers a "Tire as a Service" model through its Michelin Fleet Solutions. Companies pay for using tires based on mileage, and Michelin manages tire maintenance and replacement. This model encourages circularity by incentivizing Michelin to produce durable, long-lasting tires and promoting proper maintenance. The company benefits from a stable revenue stream and stronger customer relationships.
Xerox, a print and digital document solutions provider, offers a Managed Print Services (MPS) model, wherein customers pay for printing services per-use basis. Xerox manages the equipment, supplies, and maintenance. This approach optimizes resource use, extends product life, and promotes equipment recycling while Xerox gets to enjoy recurring revenue and the opportunity to upsell additional services.
Rent the Runway
Rent the Runway is a fashion rental service that enables customers to rent designer clothing for a fraction of the retail price. The rental model supports circularity by extending the life of garments and reducing waste from fast fashion. Rent the Runway has a loyal customer base seeking affordable access to high-end fashion while reducing their environmental impact.
Extending product value
Extending product value is a strategic approach that commits to prolonging the useful life of products through take-back programs and refurbishment. The market involves brand-owned and third-party facilitated examples with the common goal of extending the life cycle of products and materials.
Swappie buys and sells used iPhones. Smartphones are one of the world's fastest-growing contributors to waste. Purchasing iPhones and refurbishing them in their refurbishment centers extends the life cycle of each product and reduces the demand for new phones. As a result, the pressure on dwindling resources, such as cobalt, is relieved while the end user benefits from access to cheaper products.
Ikea has many initiatives underway to promote a circular future. One of them is a buy-back program where customers can return their used IKEA furniture in exchange for store credit. The returned items are then resold in the "As-Is" section or recycled. This approach extends product value, reduces waste, and promotes reuse. IKEA benefits from increased customer loyalty, enhanced brand reputation, and reduced environmental impact and material costs.
Patagonia designs high-quality outdoor clothing and gear meant to last for years. The company is a pioneer in sustainability and has circular thinking implemented throughout its value chain. The company could be highlighted as an example in several different categories promoting circular design, but in this article, we highlight the company's Worn Wear program that enables customers to trade in their used Patagonia clothing and gear for store credit.
The items are then cleaned, repaired if necessary, and resold at a reduced price. This approach supports circularity by extending the life of products and promoting a "reuse before recycling" mindset. Patagonia benefits from increased brand loyalty, positive PR, and an additional revenue stream from the surging second-hand clothing market.
REI, an outdoor gear and clothing retailer, runs a program called REI Used Gear, where REI members can trade in their used outdoor equipment for store credit. The used gear is then resold at a lower price giving the products a second life. This approach encourages reuse, reduces waste, and extends product value. Because the program is available only for loyalty program members, it fosters customer loyalty in addition to other benefits.
H&M proves that environmental concerns are taken seriously in fast fashion. While the company is undoubtedly aware that fast fashion is a sunset industry, its circular adaptation is, in any case, a positive signal for a better tomorrow.
The company offers a garment collection program where customers can bring their used clothes (from any brand) to H&M stores for recycling. In return, customers receive a discount voucher. This approach supports circularity by encouraging textile recycling and reducing waste. H&M benefits from increased foot traffic to stores and enhanced brand reputation.
Classic long-life model
Several examples from the designing long-life products section also apply to the classic long-life model. In addition to developing and manufacturing products with extended lifespans and durability, the business model perspective also takes a marketing approach where manufacturing durable products is a core value proposition for the whole company.
Miele, a German manufacturer of high-end domestic appliances, designs products with a long lifespan and easy reparability. While moving down-market could potentially boost sales, the company has refused to compete on price. Moreover, the company has kept all its production in Germany rather than transferring it to countries with cheaper labor. Miele has built an iconic brand around performance and durability, which allows them to charge premium prices for their products.
Vitsoe, a British furniture manufacturer, is known for its modular and adaptable shelving systems designed by Dieter Rams. The company focuses on creating products that last for decades, using high-quality materials and construction methods. Vitsoe supports the circular economy by minimizing over-consumption by designing for long life and modularity. Customer loyalty, a strong reputation for timeless design and durability, and the ability to charge premium prices for their products are just examples of what circular design helped the company to achieve.
Airstream, an American travel trailers and motorhomes manufacturer, designs its products to last for generations. The words of their founder, Wally Byram: "Airstream doesn't make changes - only improvements", speaks a lot about the company's values and approach to product development.
The company uses high-quality materials, such as aluminum and stainless steel, to ensure durability. Combined with the iconic "silver bullet" design that won't go out of fashion, longevity is ensured.
Encouraging consumers to buy less but better is actually a very effective strategy, especially for premium brands. Where most circular design strategies focus on the supply side and production, sufficiency focuses on reducing the absolute demand. The sufficiency approach is more social and requires a fundamental shift in promotion and sales tactics.
Mud Jeans offers a "Lease A Jeans" program, where customers can lease a pair of jeans for a monthly fee and keep or exchange them for a new pair after a year. The company embraces the "own less" culture instead of owning multiple pairs of jeans, thus promoting sufficiency and resource conservation.
In the leasing model, the company retains ownership of the product, and the customer must return the jeans at the end of the contract period. As a result, MUD Jeans has created an exceptionally efficient materials cycle, where old jeans are either upcycled as vintage or recycled into new pairs of jeans.
Library of Things
Library of Things is a UK-based organization that allows people in local neighborhoods to borrow items they occasionally need, such as power tools, kitchen appliances, and camping gear. By promoting access over ownership, Library of Things encourages sufficiency by developing services that make borrowing simple and desirable. So far, the organization has helped people save £145,000 by offering an alternative to buying while reducing 88 tonnes of emissions and 40 tonnes of waste.
Extending resource value
Exploiting the residual value of the materials used in products and converting otherwise discarded resources into new innovative products and materials is an effective way to reduce the use of virgin materials. Innovative inventions are often the result of long-term research, which is why partnerships are common.
Adidas has partnered with Parley for the Oceans to create a collection of shoes and apparel made from recycled ocean plastics. By turning plastic waste into a new raw material used in novel products, Adidas reduces waste and raises awareness about ocean pollution. This initiative enhances the company's sustainability credentials and appeals to a growing market of environmentally conscious customers.
Terracycle is a waste management company specializing in recycling hard-to-recycle materials, such as coffee capsules, toothbrushes, and snack wrappers. They partner with manufacturers and brands to develop recycling programs and create new products and sustainable materials from waste.
GreenMantra Technologies is a company that converts waste plastics into high-value specialty polymers and chemicals. Their patented technology allows them to upcycle plastic waste into new raw materials used in various applications, such as construction and packaging.
Industrial symbiosis refers to using the byproducts of different processes within a network of multiple stakeholders. The idea that one man's trash is another man's treasure is at the heart of industrial symbiosis.
Interface has already been mentioned earlier for its use of recycled materials, which underlines that sustainable design often combines multiple strategies and innovative solutions.
Through partnerships with vendors and global communities, the company uses discarded fishing nets to create new carpets from recycled nylon. Interface reduces environmental impact and protects sensitive ecosystems by collaborating with multiple stakeholders and using waste materials.
Steelcase, a leading office furniture manufacturer, is building a collaborative ecosystem of partners and dealers to support sustainable asset interception through reuse, donations, and recycling. For example, Steelcase partners with Designtex, a company that produces high-performance textiles, to repurpose its fabric waste for use in Steelcase's office furniture.
Kalundborg Symbiosis is an industrial ecosystem in Denmark where multiple companies collaborate to use each other's byproducts and share resources. For example, the Asnæs Power Station supplies surplus heat to a nearby fish farm, and in turn, the fish farm provides nutrient-rich sludge to be used as fertilizer by local farmers. This approach supports the circular economy by optimizing resource efficiency and minimizing environmental impact.
As we can see, circular design can take many forms, touching on product development, business models, and collaborations between companies. While many pioneers are already well advanced with their circular economy strategies, there is still work to be done. In particular, small entrepreneurs without enormous resources, networks, or know-how need support to adopt accessible and practical strategies.
Fortunately, solutions are already available if there is will. The new generation of entrepreneurs is born circular and understands the importance of responsible consumption for the environment, society, and business profitability.
Since the current commerce infrastructure is built for a linear model, it is a mistake to assume that widespread adaptation of circular business models will occur on top of these platforms. Circular business models need their purpose-built infrastructure where the life cycle of products can be tracked and managed from start to end — not just to the point of purchase.
With a platform designed for circular business models, Rentle removes one pain point on the journey to the commercial adaptation of the circular economy.