The Need For Circular Design

Circular Design has long been at the heart of Arksen Founder, Jasper Smith’s business and life philosophy. The idea that products must be designed and developed with a holistic view, to maintain the Earth’s balance, is embedded in the company’s approach and in its product designs.

“Why is circular design important? I think the question should be more like ‘could you conceive of a product being designed in any other way?'”

Jasper SmithFounder of Arksen

We spoke to Jasper to understand how it has been implemented at Arksen and why it should be important to every business that wants to survive beyond the next five years.

Q. What’s your philosophy on environmental issues?

I have always had a connection to the natural world. I spent my early years adventuring with my family, have done a lot of sailing and climbing and most recently learned to free-dive with my children. Understanding how much we rely on nature for survival is something I learnt very early on, and this drives my feeling of responsibility to protect the environment I love to explore.

My own view is that every business has a moral and commercial imperative to have sustainability, responsibility and conservation as the core pillars of its strategy. As an entrepreneur with the means to operate in a different capacity and the influence to drive change, it is almost an obligation to do what is possible and be part of the solution, not the problem.

Q. Why is circular design important to you?

I think it’s become an essential part of any product design and manufacturing process. I’m not sure it’s something that 20 years ago I would have appreciated in the way that I do now, but I think it links into everything that humanity is actually trying to achieve, which is sustainability for us as a human race and for the resources on the planet.

You can only achieve that through circular design and I think it has to be front and centre of how any product is developed and brought to market. I think the question should be more like ‘could you conceive of a product being designed in any other way?’ I just think it’s how any product should be brought to market.

Q. How do you think it can make a difference?

It’s not just about protecting the environment, it’s about protecting the future success of businesses and unlocking new potential revenues and markets. By building sustainability into commercial and operational activities, companies can gain a significant competitive advantage that will drive investor returns as they create value that an unsustainable company cannot achieve in the future.

Q. What most upsets you about the environmental impact of traditional design approaches?

It’s short term gains for long term pains. It’s unsustainable. Now we have all the information, all the data, we are no longer unaware of how our actions impact the world. The blinkers are off, but people still choose not to see it.

I’m not naive about how difficult it is for well-established companies to change decades of manufacturing processes, it’s not going to be easy, but it has to be done. What we are talking about here starts with the design, it starts well before anything is produced and it must involve consideration of the full life cycle and beyond. It’s no longer ‘cradle to grave’, it is ‘cradle to cradle’ we have to look at.

Q. What businesses, in any industry, have most impressed you in terms of circular design?

Loop by TerraCycle is a great example. They have taken the old milkman model and upscaled it on a massive scale. Not only that, they have approached the brands of the products to work collaboratively with them to design reusable packaging and in some cases they have ended up re-designing the product itself. They have set a new bar for innovation and collaboration required across industries to unlock new opportunities.

A lot of my family work in fashion and I think it was the fast fashion industry that just made me see how insane everything was. Some of those in the industry, though, were actually quite early in trying to pick up on the circular economy. I found what Stella McCartney and some of the other big labels were doing really interesting. I don’t think they’ve ever got close to a solution, but if you could make a T-shirt last nine months longer, it has an extraordinary impact on water usage, landfill, and so on. There’s a company called Rollabye, they tried to create jackets that last 100 years. They’re quite an interesting company, and it’s a really nice argument they bring up.

Q. What is the state of circular design in the marine industry?

The marine industry is, to some degree, still living in the stone age. We’re still producing white plastic boats with very few options to recycle. I know they will come, and there are new materials being developed at the moment that will be environmentally friendly, but generally, partly because of low margins, partly because of market resale, there’s very little incentive to innovate, very little incentive to think about tomorrow. It will come, though. The changes in consumer mentality around sustainability means it has to.

Q. There are some clever innovations in nature, what have you come across that you have found interesting?

Yes, nature is pretty clever. The natural world is fascinating. It has evolved, innovated and self improved over millennia and it is really our primal R&D testbed. It’s no wonder there are lessons to be learned. Designers have been using biomimicry, taking inspiration from nature, for years and there are many examples across all industries. In the marine world, I liked the way the designers of the boat for the Plastiki Expedition used the approach throughout their development, including a hull inspired by a pomegranate and a desalination water supply design based on a beetle.

Q. How can a business benefit from a circular design approach?

Customers are now starting to demand a circular design approach to be at the forefront of the product, even if they don’t know it. People are placing sustainability very near the top of their purchase motivation, and I think that’s just going to grow over the next five years. Having really robust strategies in place for achieving that is becoming a necessity rather than a nice to have. In fact, I think sales are completely contingent upon that. If they’re not now, they will be very soon.

In addition, in many larger scale product industries such as ours, people also now pay more consideration to the value post-sale. That relies on having an aftermarket, and in our industry, for example, it’s going to be increasingly hard to sell second-hand vessels or products that don’t have the fully mapped out recycling action at the end of life. Those two key things require a circular design philosophy and they underpin the value of the product.

Q. How can business models change to integrate circular design?

The key to circular design is collaboration, and this has been a real challenge for many businesses throughout my career, so I’ve always focused on taking a more collaborative approach to business structure. Early on, people said this was way out in the left field. Now, more are aligning to this way of thinking. Whatever advances we make, we’ll never achieve the sum of our parts if we operate in isolation. The art of working together, rather than against, does not come naturally in business, but to achieve the essential movement towards a circular economy, this cultural shift must be ingrained in our business models.

Q. How does circular design affect customer relationships?

When selling to a customer, the ultimate aim beyond the initial sale of the product is to build a relationship, retain that client and continue to re-sell or up-sell in future. New ownership models considered in circular design can create much greater relationships. As an example look at the simple refill model. Rather than selling a product and the buyer having to dispose of the packaging themselves, they are encouraged to retain your branded packaging, return to a store and buy again, opening up more opportunities to interact and communicate.

A syndicate ownership model can also offer prolonged engagement, with mutual benefits and also a positive environmental impact. For example, our yacht syndicate offers customers the flexibility to have access to an explorer vessel without the hassle of full ownership and as a business, we benefit by increasing the number of owners of a single particular vessel, so we have more brand ambassadors and more reach. And from a sustainability point of view, it also optimises the usage of the yacht and maintains its value by ensuring its upkeep.

Q. How does it affect other business relationships?

As I mentioned before, collaboration is key for the circular economy to work. My business background is in software development, where the sector is hugely innovative, with some extremely bright minds pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. It is also very competitive. Despite this, collaboration is core to the industry. Individuals from rival companies regularly combine in large group ‘Hackathons’: a bringing together of minds to solve problems, innovate and advance technology for the greater collective good.

It’s not easy, but having a collaborative operational structure allows you to place trust in selecting the best partners. Being able to work with others to design out waste, cross-pollinate industries and maximise resource use is the only way we will achieve a sustainable future.

Q. Is there a juxtaposition between luxury products and the concept of material re-use at the centre of circular design?

Firstly, I think the definition of luxury is changing. Luxury is now more about experiences and time, and for us and our customers, I believe a luxury product is one that allows you to have those extraordinary times and experiences with people you love but does so in sympathy with the environment. The word sustainability means a thousand things to a thousand people but if you define it in its truest sense, which is ‘not to deplete resources today that a future generation will need for prosperity or survival’, luxury is about making things that fully take that into account.

In regards to material reuse, I think there is now very little discernible reduction in quality with sustainable materials, given the manufacturing processes that are in place today. For example, teak is not something we would want to use but there are some extraordinary materials now that look and perform like teak but are sustainably sourced. All of it’s a positive statement; so if we tell a client that rather than teak, we offer an alternative, the response is not negative, it’s more ‘cool, so you’re not cutting the rainforest down.’ There’s also cork materials, recycled from used wine bottles. I love that idea…

Q. Do you think all businesses can aspire to take a circular design approach in the future?

I think aspiring to it is not a strong enough commitment. If you want your business to succeed into the future, it’s essential. This needs to happen now or companies will be left behind. Throughout our own process of building a circular design philosophy with our suppliers and partners, we have found that while everyone is enthusiastic about the potential of adopting the principles, many are not completely sure of how to do it. This clearly shows that this approach needs to be given more airtime, and there needs to be more education for each industry to help businesses understand how they can adapt. I hope that by talking openly about the process, we can encourage others in our industry and many others to follow suit.

Q. How is circular design integrated in Arksen’s business operations?

Placing circular design at the centre of our business has helped us in communicating with the team, and the supply chain, and pulling them all together. If you’re all aligned on that core goal, everything else is much easier. The very nature of cradle-to-cradle design means you must consider where you source materials and where they go next. As a result, we have focused on building relationships with other companies who can supply suitable quality recycled resources or who can benefit from materials once they are no longer required in our product.

Q. How has it affected the design and build?

Firstly, the vessels are designed to last, built to survive tough conditions for many, many years. It goes back to the concept of extending the life of a t-shirt by nine months. Most yachts you buy, might exist for a long period of time but their usable life can be quite short. We wanted to build in such a way that the integrity of this vessel is so good that it will last for years and years. Secondly, we have made sure that the partnerships that go into building this product are aligned with the longevity of the product and the ability and need to recycle it..

I don’t think you could have done this two years ago. The fact that building our boats started with a partnership with this aluminium producer on the basis that they could already recycle the material at the end of its life was really nice. We certainly haven’t got that in every component, because there are still lots of electronic components on the product and it is just not possible yet to go through that level, but this shows the core of what we are about.

Q. How has this been implemented?

The biggest single component is the superstructure, and we chose to develop an aluminium hull. The reason for that goes back to the fact that it’s simpler to recycle and when we were looking at materials, this was the first decision. Our partner, Speria, formerly Hydro Rolling, is one of the largest suppliers of marine-grade aluminium, which requires quite a pure grade for longevity and structural integrity, and they are really focused on trying to reclaim old windows and boats etc. to ensure as much of the aluminium that is produced is recycled on an annual basis.

With the interior styling, Design Unlimited were briefed that we want to use sustainable materials. That kicked off a whole body of work looking at the supply chain, who are the suppliers, what are they doing, and that’s evolved massively over the last couple of years. When we first started, they only had a few samples of suitable materials, now they’ve got room-fulls of products that fit the bill.

Q. What about sustainability in propulsion?

There are many propulsion manufacturers out there but only a few are as committed as we are to environmentally friendly propulsion systems that are hybrid or moving towards hydrogen. We looked at around 50 different companies and selected the partner we did because they had focused on providing hybrid systems for the commercial sector. I went out and met the chairman, who picked me up in a Tesla and talked to me about his approach to circular design. I just think there was something really lovely about how he’d built his business and what his philosophy was for looking out 10 years ahead.

Q. What is your ultimate aim for Arksen in terms of circular design?

Our aim is for every vessel to have its entire lifespan planned out, from the source materials we use, to the plans for where component parts will end up once their usable life within the vessel has been reached. There is an understanding in our client base of where the industry and manufacturing is going and the urgency of the change that is required. They certainly feel the pressure of ensuring a future for the next generation.