Designing for Waste

Designing for Waste

It has become important for businesses and industries to take a stand about their waste, in order to reach the sustainable development UN goals and to incorporate and communicate their contribution to a clean and sustainable environment in their CSR, waste- and branding strategies, but sometimes silo thinking stands in the way for solving the waste issues. In the textile industry, the designers make waste issues to a management and recycling problem and this problem can be considered in a broader perspective that includes all design industries, and even wider.

Let us consider the silo thinking problem from a broader perspective that includes all design industries – and even wider, let’s say it includes all industries. With this paper, I will introduce models for ‘Circular Economy’ / ‘Cradle to Cradle’ / ‘Zero Waste’ as well as a model for breaking down the silo thinking – with Design Thinking.

Waste is a problem in all industries. In some part of the fashion industry, the management has outsourced the production and have therefore only the moral responsibility for production and waste. In other industries, the production is placed inhouse, and though it seems nearly utopian to aim for 100% use of resources in a specific industry, the process of redesigning/rethinking products and production can be the key, in order to minimize waste and to optimize a company’s utilization of resources, by using one of the “waste minimization” models below: ‘The Circular Economy’, ‘Cradle to Cradle’ and ‘Zero Waste’ models.


In a linear economy the raw materials are extracted from the earth, used and discarded, but the ideal is to cause a ‘Circular Economy’, in which raw materials are never depleted. So, this traditional circle model goes from ‘Raw Materials’ to ‘ Production’, ‘Use’ and ‘Recycling’.

Fig.1: The traditional model of ‘Circular Economy’.

As a circular economy is based on sustainable design principles, and a focus on re-use and reducing waste, it goes beyond recycling. The goal is not just to design for better end-of-life recovery, but to minimize the use of raw materials and energy through a restorative system. The circular economy model from the Canadian Government in Ontario below incorporates a lower use of raw materials and it expands the production phase and divides it into ‘Design’, ‘Produce’ and ‘Distribute’. But as the model shows, it all starts with the designing phase, where the products and packaging are designed to last longer – and to be more durable by using more sustainable materials, that can be easily be recycled at the “end-of-life”.

The Circular Economy

Fig.2: ‘The Circular Economy’ – Simplified model from the Government of Ontario.


‘Cradle to Cradle’ is a design concept inspired by nature, in which products are created according to the principles of an ideal circular economy, with infinite use of materials in cycles where waste materials in an old product become the “food” for a new product. ‘Cradle to Cradle’ distinguishes between two nutrient cycles:

‘The biological cycle’ where materials are returned to the biosphere in the form of compost or other nutrients, from which new materials can be created. In ‘The technical cycle’, materials that are not used up during product-use, can be reprocessed and used in a new product.

Good design is the key here, but the system also needs to be in a constant flow and balance, which makes it difficult as a concept in the clothing industry, where e.g. people are keeping their clothes in the closet instead of sending them back into ‘The biological cycle’.


Fig.3: ‘Cradle to Cradle’ – Model from Epea.


‘Zero Waste’ is a philosophy that encourages redesign, so that all products in the process are reused similar to the way resources are reused in nature. ‘Zero Waste’ goes beyond the three ‘R’s’: ‘Reduce’, ‘Reuse’ and ‘Recycle’, and focuses on a system to eliminate negative impacts of designing, producing, using, and discarding products and packaging.

The redesigning/rethinking process in the model ‘Zero Waste Hierarchy’ with redesigning/rethinking products and production is ideally facilitated with ‘Design Thinking’.


Fig.4: ‘The Zero Waste Hierarchy’.


Design Thinking draws on an understanding of design as a more general problem-solving tactic that can be applied to problem types, that have not usually been the domain of the classic designer. Where the traditional designer has often dealt with objects and their physical attributes (industrial design, architecture, etc.), Design Thinking can also be used for idea development and testing of services and business models. The processes are ideally carried out in repetitive rapid ‘agile’ steps, or as a flexible process with lots of ‘iterations’.

In the Design Thinking models, the flow is going back to the beginning, where the iterative process is starting over within the amount of time available. I think a problem here is that the models are designed like “old
school State-Gate models” which illustrate (and signals) a finished and closed process. The visuality of the models is not inviting for creative designers’ input for further infinitive improvements, and that can be the reason for the designers’ silo thinking – if they consider the waste issue to be a management problem.


Dr. Michael G. Luchs offers a model of Design Thinking which focuses on the ‘mindset’ as well as on the process. To get a closer collaboration between management and the designers, I suggest using Luchs’ framework for a nonlinear Design Thinking process, and to incorporate ‘Circular Economy/Zero Waste’ as a common focus point on the agenda.

Luchs explains, that Design Thinking is not intended to be a linear process. It’s as much about a way of thinking and doing as it is about the process. Using Design Thinking to e.g. finding solutions to the waste issue, helps to avoid investing too many resources too early in the project by giving the opportunity to test ideas. The Luchs perspective, with the infinite
visualization, offers a collaborative approach for identifying and creatively solving (design) problems. The model includes the two manor phases; ‘Identify’ and ‘Solve’. In the ‘Identify’ phase, the team ‘Discover’ and ‘Define’
the problem before moving to the ‘Solve’ phase, with the ‘Create’ and ‘Evaluate’ mode. After this mode, the processes continue making the next round of ‘Discover’ being based on the ‘Evaluation’. With the infinite model the process newer stops – the results are just being improved with iterations. I believe this nonlinear Design Thinking model can help to bring the right holistic and collaborative mindset to the table and helping both designers and management by its infinite visualization, to always be open for new insights and improvements.


Fig.5: Luchs’ framework of Design Thinking.


Braking down the silo thinking in fashion- and in other design industries, needs even more commitment in the Design Thinking process. Silos help establish boundaries and maintain order — and allow professional teams to operate in a focused, specialized way during “business as usual”. During times of significant change, when organizations must be agile and silos can be stubborn obstacles to creating a more effective path to growth and profitability. Sadly, the silo thinking mentality prevents stakeholders from designing appropriate technology solutions.

If we consider design as an act of future-making, then we already have designed our reality – and continues to generate our future. Yes, industries are designing for waste. But waste can be designed “away” with design, redesign, and rethinking – aiming for a ‘Circular Economy’, ‘Cradle to Cradle’ or ‘Zero Waste’ – or at least a kind of “waste minimization”. The waste minimization models, and the use of Luchs’ framework of Design Thinking, can help to break down the silo thinking by setting the right mindset with an infinite Design Thinking process, as an open invitation for designers to improve their ideas and results regarding ‘Circular Economy’, Cradle to Cradle’ or ‘Zero Waste’.

As a matter of fact. Waste is something we design because design is not only what we design into existence – it’s also what we design “away”. Designers need to act as translators and facilitators and make visions for the future. There is good reason to break down the silo thinking in order to use design as future-making and to create solutions for a more balanced world of the future.

Now it’s up to the industries and their companies to incorporate the focus point ‘Circular Economy’ / ‘Cradle to Cradle’ / ‘Zero Waste’ in the Design Thinking process – and communicate their stand about waste!

© 2019 / 2020, Anne Louise Stargate

The text is a short/edited text version of my paper ‘DESIGNING FOR WASTE?’ from the SDU talent program 2019 – New Nordic Design Thinking.