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Circular Design – A sofa for life

Written by: Saskia Goeres, Founder of Sofa for Life

A few years ago, while I was working on a project to reduce household waste, I realised that our whole economic system encourages waste. Products and packaging are designed for easy and cheap manufacturing, while planned obsolescence reduces the lifetime of a product and increases sales for the business. There is no incentive currently for companies to even think about the disposal of their products. Waste is something we all treat with the attitude ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. 

I then came across the term ‘Circular Economy’. I was intrigued – closing the loop of resources used while making money? How does this work? To find out more, I worked for the Research Institute for Energy Economics FfE to analyse and define circular approaches and their economic benefits. My first revelations occurred when I was looking into the history of waste; I realized that waste does not exist in nature – it is a totally human-made concept! And up to the 1950s materials were expensive enough to incentivise repair, reuse and recycling. It was the economic boom in the last 70 years, which caused the mountains of waste we are facing now. But the ‘Circular Economy’ is talking about a different future.

Most western countries are strongly dependent on imports of resources, resulting in political dependencies to countries with monopolies and financial insecurities due to extreme price fluctuations over short time periods. This and the increasing shortage of resources stresses businesses and whole countries economically. Furthermore, the global aim to reduce greenhouse gases requires a more efficient use of resources.

A circular economy reacts to these issues and discovers the potential of unused materials in current waste. It redefines customer relations and ownership and supports new business models to optimize the use of materials and to reduce the demand of primary resources.

As a Product Design Engineer I wanted to investigate if it were possible to redesign a product to be completely circular without compromising quality or economic considerations.

I decided to concentrate on sofas because I was particularly annoyed about the amount of fly-tipped sofas on the streets of Glasgow. I, therefore, went out and started talking to users, second-hand furniture shops, recycling centres and manufacturers about their problems with current sofas.

The inability to clean, wash or transport sofas easily were the main issues raised. Furthermore, repair is more expensive than a new product and users want a lifestyle that accommodates the constantly changing fashion. The materials used are neither renewable nor recyclable and therefore every single sofa ultimately ends up in landfill.

After dozens of concept and design iterations, I came up with a modular sofa design that is embedded in a circular service. Users customise the sofa online and continuously adapt the sofa to accommodate their change of style or life situation. It is portable, easily assembled, and is designed to be washed, maintained and repaired. The ‘Sofa for Life’ avoids the use of plastic foams and hazardous fire retardants, while establishing a more circular economy. All the materials used are renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable and therefore no part of the ‘Sofa for Life’ ends up in landfill.

By offering a discount on new components upon return of the old ones the user is encouraged to return used components to the business, which are resold, penetrating the second-hand furniture market, or recycled internally, providing cheap resources.

Kevin O’Malley, another Product Design Engineer, and I are currently working hard to optimise the current design for manufacture and get the ‘Sofa for Life’ on the market as soon as possible.

The ‘Sofa for Life’ is a trendsetter for circular product design and service/product-based business models but we have to start now to redesign everything we own to enable a circular economy and tackle global warming.

Visit the Sofa for Life website here

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