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Is Designing for Sustainability THE future?

Here we discuss a TEDx Talk by Michael Werner, by looking at Sustainable Design, the Circular Economy (CE) and asking the question: Can sustainability be profitable?

This video Chemical Materials and Sustainable Design (click the title to view) is 11 minutes and 39 seconds long, but travels a long way. The first part is a harsh dose of reality and a statement of the problem: Companies have not been paying the real cost of production. Not included are the massive amounts of materials that are only used once for a short while, nor are the costs of “disposing” of the waste, or the health effects of recycling materials not designed for it included. He describes this as a Take-Make-Waste economy, where the value of the materials is lost instead of harnessed and reused at lower costs.

However, if that is too much reality for you, the mood lightens when he starts to lay out his solution, and how it will save and make companies more money. At 5:49 in the video he describes a model for change: A circular economy1 and cleaner chemistry2. He then gives a description of a CE, the design elements of products[a tremendous opportunity for engineers and designers of all kinds] and the tremendous savings that a CE can bring not only in energy, air and water emissions, but also in new products, business models, services, and especially in materials costs (over $1 trillion, he claims).

Source: Michael Werner (Chemical Materials and Sustainable Design) TEDx.

Notice that Recycling is at the end of the chain. Why?

In an effort to deal with used tires, some well-meaning people began to recycle them as playground coverings. However, this was unintentionally harmful. Tire rubber was not designed for use on playgrounds and gives off harmful chemicals when in the sun.

In the video he makes the point that not only is recycling not enough, it can also be a problem, because materials get recycled for uses that they were not designed for, like coverings for playgrounds, that can cause further problems, including serious health problems.

These problems can be solved, and ultimately avoided, by the thorough application of DESIGN THINKING.


Then at 7:06 he begins discussing Patagonia, a rugged outdoors wear company which has shifted radically to a sustainable model, starting with the design of its products, new business sectors and ways to involve customers, from buying back and reselling its jackets, to reusing their textile fibers, to creating a community platform for customers to trade used garments. They are banking on the long term brand relationship with the customer, and, along with becoming a very profitable company, while reaping the benefits of:

  • Increased brand value

  • Deeper customer relationships

  • Stronger Market position

Patagonia ad. Source:

Then, to demonstrate that this is not a flash-in-the-pan fad, at 7:48 he mentions the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s list of the CE100 companies (see picture below) and their companies’ moves toward circular economies. These include reshaping their relationship to the customers by:

  • Selling temporary ownership

  • Customer self-repair

  • Second hand sales

  • Collecting and recycling goods

  • Product repair

  • Designing for endurance


The Challenge: What do you think? How is your company responding to these new trends? Have you already taken steps in this direction? If not, are there ways your company could begin to move in the direction of a circular economy and begin to implement elements of sustainable design thinking? If not, why? Please let us know in the comments section below.



1. Circular Economy: a Circular Economy (CE), very briefly, is based on the reuse of materials already available to us, and on designing products with the end in mind, that is designing for repair, reuse, refurbishment, and only then recycling. Example: computers designed for the disassembly line. This requires an element of Backward Design.

2. Cleaner chemistry: As it is now many chemical products are designed with only their primary function in mind, not with how they will behave in the environment, or how, when recycled into uses other than their original purpose, can become toxic. Example: old car tiers are shredded and used on playgrounds, even though they give off toxic chemicals.

Article about Patagonia

Other Examples of companies with surprising business models based on sustainable design and the circular economy:


Mud Jeans

Worn Wear


Project Ara


Eco-Mobius concept phone







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