How to reach Net Zero: transitioning to a circular economy


To meet decarbonisation targets, continuing with a linear economic model won’t cut it. Now is the time for a new, circular model to take its place.

Being a successful business is about more than just selling products. Today’s businesses track their health and profitability using a range of social and environmental indicators.

Greenhouse gases are the most revealing of all. Take carbon, for example. Managing carbon is a great way to save money, cut risks and create exciting new business opportunities, while also limiting environmental impact. 

Good product design in isolation is no longer enough. Consumer trends, preferences and laws are changing. A product design that fails to consider its impact on wider ecosystems will be rejected.

To achieve Net Zero, the balance of new greenhouse gas emissions must equal those being removed from the atmosphere. This is humanity’s biggest challenge – as manufacturers, we need to understand how we can help.

The best place for us to begin is to reassess the systems we operate through; to adopt what is often referred to as systems level thinking.

Changing the system

Designers today need to be great systems thinkers. Stakeholders, funders, customers and suppliers are increasingly asking about the environmental impact of processes and products. We need to be ready for this.

Decisions taken in the design stage can determine 80% of a products environmental impact. Prioritising waste reduction, resource efficiency and life cycle extension in design briefs can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s an appetite for use of recycled, recyclable and sustainable materials, which manufacturers can take full advantage of. Using such materials can be a clear point of difference for many products; a genuine move towards sustainability in an age of greenwashing that customers are becoming increasingly aware of.

Indeed, consumers are more informed than ever before. Many are intrigued to dig into the green credentials of businesses they buy from, evaluating their practices before making a purchase or aligning themselves with brands.

Why circular?

Many businesses have a clearly documented strategy describing how they will overhaul their operations to move closer to achieving Net Zero, often by using elements of the circular economy.

The circular economy model is not a new one. Sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as much as possible means we extend the lifetime of the items we manufacture, limiting their impact on the environment. 

In an ideal world, the circular economy will replace the linear economy, which is based on the idea that consumers throw away the items they use. This older model still exists in many businesses, predominantly those that rely on cheap, easily accessible materials and energy.

With the world’s population growing, demand for raw materials increases. Extracting raw materials from the earth has a major environmental impact. If we can slow the extraction of raw materials by adopting a circular model, we will ultimately be able to reduce carbon emissions.

There are other benefits, too. Manufacturing in a circular economy can increase competitiveness, stimulate innovation, and boost economic growth and jobs, all while providing customers with durable, high-quality products that last longer.

Sustainable manufacturing in Wales

Several Welsh businesses are already leading the charge towards a sustainable, circular economy. Notable examples include Orangebox’s cradle-to-cradle product design and Splosh’s complete systems approach, which can be seen in both their product design and business model.

The linear economy we have relied on over the last 300 years is fundamentally flawed and unsustainable. There’s no point in decarbonising a broken system – we must instead change the system itself, moving towards a decarbonised, sustainable circular economy.

Many decarbonising measures continue to focus on the linear economy. Although these reactionary efforts may be positive in helping us transition, they shouldn’t be the end goal. We need to design from scratch, looking at the full life cycle value of the resources we use and designing products that epitomise the innovative potential of the circular economy.

This article was written following a session led by Gethin Roberts (ITERATE), Chris Probert (Welsh Government), Eoin Bailey (Celsa Steel) and Alan Mumby (MADE Cymru) at the MADE Cymru Industry Summit 2022. We’d love to hear your thoughts. You can contact us on 01792 481199 or email [email protected].

MADE Cymru is a suite of programmes designed to navigate organisations through Industry 4.0 via collaborative research, development and upskilling. Funded by the European Social Fund/European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government. Delivered by University of Wales Trinity Saint David.