03/26/2024 • 6 min read

5 Trends in Circular Design

Exploring innovations driving sustainable practices in the furniture industry

by Haworth, Inc.

Nearly 10 million tons of office furniture end up in landfills in the US every year. This waste impacts carbon emissions, contributing to climate change. As we have seen recently, each year breaks a record for the highest global temperatures. Extreme changes in the weather are making an impact on the built environment. According to the Gensler Design Forecast—the inclusion of sustainable design is no longer an option but an obligation.

Circular Design Principles at Haworth

In the furniture industry, most pieces have a life cycle that begins with the extraction and processing of raw materials and ends in a landfill, perpetuating a linear economy. In 2021, US consumers spent $4 billion more on desks, chairs, and patio furniture than they did in 2019. The problem is that most of those items were not built to last and will eventually end up in a landfill, if they haven't already. But imagine if the furniture industry were to approach product design with an entirely different mindset—one that supports the indefinite use of products and materials through a circular economy.

At Haworth, we aim to design 100% of our new products using these 3 circular design principles by 2025:

  • Sustainable Materials: Using sustainable materials means excluding harmful substances and prioritizing sustainable qualities like recyclability.
  • Product Use Extension: Extending a product’s useful life through repair and refurbishing is one of the best ways to minimize waste and pollution and to keep products and materials in use.
  • Responsible Product End of Life: No matter how well designed, every piece of furniture will eventually reach the end of its useful life. What happens next depends on the durability and recyclability of a piece’s raw materials and how easily those materials can be repurposed for something new.

Trends in Circular Design

To get closer to our goal, we look toward the trends in circular design to help guide us now and in our future projects.

1. Long-Term Impacts

Real estate investors and businesses, themselves, are looking for workspaces and interior products that will last. When people move their homes, they usually don’t plan to move again anytime soon; they also don’t throw out all their possessions and buy new stuff. A switch in workplaces will be approached the same way: Choose a space that can adapt and longer-lasting products, so you don’t have to start from scratch whenever a change is needed.

Each choice surrounding a space's interior elements—from design and specification to use, reuse, and what happens at the end of a product’s useful life—may seem small, but together they add up to be extremely impactful on people and our planet. Today, through initial construction and tenant improvements, interior elements account for over 50% of the lifetime embodied carbon in buildings.

2. Smarter Materials

Designing our products with closed-loop materials as much as possible helps to extend the life of each part. We look for items that can maintain their quality through many cycles of reuse. New opportunities are available in using materials like biodegradable textiles and by-products from plants like bananas, hemp, and mushrooms. We also look for ways to give new life to used materials like post-consumer plastics. Each of our digital knit Fern chair backs are created from a recycled polyester that diverts 17 plastic bottles from the landfill, and the casters on all our office chairs are made from old fishing nets.

3. Extended Life Programs

More and more, companies are assisting consumers with repairs and other ways to extend the use of their products. Programs, such as Zara’s clothing donation initiative, are increasingly popular for giving a second life to garments. Patagonia is known for providing high-quality products with sustainable materials but they also assist customers in repairing or trading in used gear to reduce overall consumption. At Haworth, we work with organizations like Green Standards to find options for our products when they no longer serve the needs of our clients. By extending the life of any product through repair and reuse, we keep them out of the landfills.

Another option for furnishing a workspace is to work with a company that offers a product-as-a-service model. Essentially, the products are leased and paid for their use over time. In this type of agreement, the service provider owns the products, which—when no longer needed—can be refurbished and used by the next customer. This model has been popular for rapidly evolving businesses, such as mobile phone service companies, because it helps businesses commit less up front and adapt their spaces with more flexibility.

4. Carbon Regulations

How a company manages its carbon emissions needs to be part of their standard business operations moving forward. Regulations around reporting carbon emissions and embodied carbon are increasing. Discussions on whole-building life cycle assessments are evolving to address carbon in furniture and tenant improvements. So, specifiers are focusing on reducing emissions through their product and material choices. Stepping up our game at Haworth, we have now received validation from SBTi for both our near-term and our net-zero targets.

5. Technology

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the way the world works in many ways, and it’s helping accelerate changes in circular design. AI has been used by fashion house, Shelly Xu Designs, to help cut down on the waste created in garment making by redesigning mockups that generate less pre-consumer waste. Other organizations are using AI to help design their own fabrics, create customized products to eliminate waste, and optimize textile sorting for recycling.

Two-thirds of people globally are okay with the idea of halving their consumption for the sake of the planet. This significantly impacts decisions made in workplaces. At Haworth, we want to help, with flexibility on our part, to keep adapting to the next best option when designing or decommissioning our products. Our commitment to 100% circular design is aimed at making sustainable space design decisions easier with products that can be trusted.

Environmental, social, governance, and carbon neutrality goals are growing in importance in the energy world. The energy sector is looking at what it means to take carbon out of the circular economy with carbon capture and sequestration.

Vince Flickinger

Global Energy Leader at Gensler

Learn More about Circular Design

Discover the transformative potential of circular design in the workplace with our recorded webinar, “Insights into a Circular Future.” Hear from expert panelists as they share valuable insights on how circular design benefits organizations and their people.


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