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  • Behnosh Najafi

Designing for humans in a circular economy

Circular economic business models, that is, those that seek to keep materials and products in continuous use, are increasingly considered as an important solution to our increasingly complex societal problems including our waste crisis, climate change, and even societal inequities. From the perspective of individual businesses, however, there are many challenges to transitioning from a linear to a circular model, or even launching a circular venture. One challenge often overlooked, is how businesses design these products or services, in a way that fulfills the needs of existing and prospective customers. Questions like: “How will customers engage with the circular offering relative to the existing or “new” offering? Will customers want to purchase previously used items? Will customers buy into a shift from a product offering to a service offering?” among many others, can feel daunting for a business to address.

Adding to the problem, is that many business owners may privately hold a pessimistic view that their customers are overly reliant on convenience and not likely to consider a different purchase or service model. The most extreme version of this narrative holds that humans in general, will maintain their overly consumptive behaviors if enabled, and sidestep any sense of environmental or social responsibility. I will not argue in favor or against any of these viewpoints, but rather suggest the need to lead and solve for a more open-ended inquiry like, “How might individuals/communities participate effectively in ‘X’ circular offering and why would they want to do so in the first place?”

The answers to these questions will vary across industries and product types, but there is an important need to surface them for individual businesses. This is where design methodologies can be valuable for a company to engage. In my own work, I help businesses and organizations begin to uncover the possibilities of circular ventures through an economic, social, and environmental lens, assist them in mapping out ideas for what these might look like, and use human-centered design methods to shape and ultimately validate these ideas with end-customers (see Circular by Design). Service-design methods can also support the design of systems across company departments to implement the new customer offering. Designing while centering the perspectives of end-customers and communities cannot be overlooked when discussing how to effectively launch a circular offering because bottom line is, if your new fabulous environmentally sustainable idea is not well received, it’s not going to be successful.

Below I’ve listed some of the areas and related questions around customer needs that businesses might have when executing on a circular venture; all of which, can be addressed from human-centered and service design approaches. The point here is not how to solve for them or to provide a comprehensive list, as there are a myriad of solutions and considerations depending on context, but to highlight a few important areas for consideration.


Why will our customers participate in a circular business model? Isn’t it extra work?

In contexts where a circular loop needs to be accomplished through resale, refurbish, or recycle business models, it’s worth considering the range of incentives that can support customer’s efforts to participate (e.g., as a seller, buyer, and/or promoter). Until you understand the routines, lived experience and perspectives of existing and prospective customers, and then subsequently try out new solutions based on that understanding, this will remain unknown. No one would argue that making participation in a circular business venture convenient is an important consideration, but there are other incentives to encourage customer engagement, such as:

  • offering lower priced goods (with reused, re-manufactured, refurbished items)

  • offering monetary compensation or future product discounts for the return of used goods

  • communication strategies that highlight the benefit of sharing (e.g., providing access to a wider swath of people, being less wasteful)

  • encouraging environmental stewardship (despite businesses who assume this is not high on customers’ radar, we have found, in particular, among younger audiences and for those whose livelihood is based on the environment, this consideration is often high on list)

  • ·which gets us to the point of values-based consumerism: engaging customers with their values in mind. Now more than ever customers are shopping and seeking brands that resonate with their worldview and principles.


How do we tailor communications to invite our customers to participate in our circular markets?

Part of this work relates back to the aforementioned section on consumer motivations to participate, that is, customers’ expressed sentiments on why they would like to participate should inform communication strategies for greatest impact. Other types of messaging might include:

  • highlighting quality, durability, or expert refurbishing to engender customer trust.

  • decoupling income from the purchase of used products to undo the notion that the circular economy is only for those who cannot afford to purchase new products. (In the US, this practice and belief system may be in part, grounded in our pre-conceived notions or experiences of shopping for second-hand goods where quality assurance and an optimal customer experience may be lacking).

  • finally, in the age of values based-consumerism, providing a compelling narrative on the actions and commitment a company takes to uphold its values or mission statement. It is imperative that companies do not simply give lip service to their ideals (aka greenwashing) and that it provides targets, specific actions against those targets as well as supporting data.

It is worth noting that in contexts where there are multiple and varied target audiences, multiple communication strategies will need to be layered and strategically positioned to target the right customer at the right time.


How do people want to shop? What information do they need to make a purchase?

We have much less knowledge on understanding how customers would like to shop and engage with circular products and brands relative to new product lines. There is so much potential here to unlock new modes of consumption and interaction that a circular business might offer, and this will likely vary wildly across industry and business types. Understanding your customer base(s) is critical in this regard. Many companies have rebranded their used offerings (think Patagonia Worn Wear or CAT Reman) and sell them through separate divisions and channels (e.g., in-store, online). But in some contexts, it may work better to sell used and new offerings together to raise visibility of used offerings or, perhaps as an in-store pop-up, to make purchasing between new and used more fluid. Each business will have their own solution based on customer needs and perspectives.

In addition, customers will likely want different kinds of information for used products before they purchase. For example, a business may need to offer information that customers can use to gauge the quality of the product (e.g., online photographs, year manufactured) or in the case of a marketplace, assess the trustworthiness of a seller. In other contexts, online communities can vouch for the safety and efficiency of a product or service and increase product desirability.


Customer attitudes may be shifting, and there may be generational, cultural, and socio-economic differences in relation to how individuals and communities engage with circular products and services. Across demographics, goals, and contexts individuals will vary in how they think about the value of owning something versus renting, when they would purchase a used instead of a new item, or even whether they would gift something already used. These various considerations can be answered through human-centered and service design methods.

While circular enthusiasts would likely agree on the importance of designing for customer needs, that lens of analysis does not garner as much attention as say, designing for circular materials or business models. Perhaps this is because for too long human-centered design methods have solely focused on “humans” without much consideration for their impact on the environment or their participation in relevant macro-level systems (e.g., education, policy, society). But we increasingly see that the power of design should lie at the intersection of frameworks that can analyze human perspectives and behavior in conjunction with systems, like circular economies. This is where we can design for maximum impact for businesses but also society at large; design approaches are good for handling complexity inherent to this kind of effort.

We need to leverage the power of design methods to create space for end-customers and communities to inform and charter this relatively less known territory inherent to circular economy. Moreover, approaches and findings in this area should be widely shared so that we can get on with creating economies of scale that are regenerative for the environment as well as equitable for people and communities. It is inherent to our more linear economies to see knowledge as a competitive advantage, but knowledge share, partnerships and collaboration will be critical to jump-start circular efforts. To this end, I invite you to add in the comments below any additional considerations or experiences you’ve had with topics outlined here!

Note: This article was originally published at and reposted here with the permission of the author, Behnosh Najafi.

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