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Material matters: Striving for circularity in the retail sector

Ahead of the Melbourne Design Week panel, industry experts and moderator Genevieve Brannigan explore the potential of bio-based and upcycled materials, envisioning a sustainable circular future spanning retail and beyond.

Material matters: Striving for circularity in the retail sector

Ahead of the upcoming Melbourne Design Week panel discussion ‘Emerging Bio-based and Upcycled Materials for Everyday Use,’ industry experts Suzette Jackson (KFive Furniture), Riley Aickin (UPPAREL) and interior designer Jade Whittaker (Breathe Architecture) join Collectivity Talks moderator Genevieve Brannigan to discuss the role of bio-based and upcycled materials in a sustainable circular future for the retail sector and beyond.

Genevieve: Can you tell me about the importance of circularity and how retail sector can begin to embrace this concept for a more sustainable future?

Suzette: It’s a challenge for industry to adopt circularity processes and understand the implications and benefits of closing and optimising the materials and product loop. It requires a departure from our ‘business as usual’ approach and a shift from current thinking that it’s too expensive and too challenging to change these processes. It’s not just the products themselves, it’s our process, and about communicating what is needed in design specifications. Education and awareness are the first steps to changing the mindset.

It’s also ensuring from the outset of a project we are requiring manufacturers and suppliers are transitioning to a circular economy. The continued use of toxic and petroleum products not compostable, decomposable, or recyclable in the environment is accelerating negative health and wellbeing impacts on the human population: the latest being microplastics finding their way into human organs. We have seen the impacts of the linear economy and toxic materials over the last half century, so there is a real urgency to invest in research, pilots, and shared knowledge now.

Riley, does there seem to be a common mindset about recycling among specific client groups who use UPPAREL’s services?

Riley: There’s definitely not a common mindset when it comes to recycling. A lot of the time it comes down to ethics, clients wanting to do something good. When people come in to buy recycled products from us it’s often because they’re trying to find a point of difference for their own business – whether its architecture, a fit-out, or similar. They want to have some point of difference that aligns with their customer’s own business ethos based on using green or circular materials.

Breathe, photography by Tom Ross.

Would you say there’s a lack of awareness in the industry about bio-based and upcycled materials in terms of education and knowledge of what is actually available?

Suzette: We’re in the early phases of shifting from a linear to a circular model, and some of this is about amplifying emerging materials, and shared learnings. There certainly appears to be a lack of information across the design industry on what biobased and upcycled materials are already available in the marketplace and what is currently in pilot phase.

For example, there are several emerging regenerative materials in test and pilot phase in Australia. We have been exploring a range of bio-based regenerative materials including mycelium, the root structure of fungi, for local production. While some small-scale testing is possible, production capacity is not yet available in Australia. Then there are materials such as hemp, cork, and lichen material alternatives that are readily available in products. There are also timber products that have timber plugs and joiners, removing the need for metal or plastic joiners, with components that use natural finishes, are readily available, repairable, and designed for longevity.

What do you think are some of the barriers to embedding more sustainable and upcycled materials in our precincts, buildings and retail products?

Jade: There are a number of factors but I think trends and a lack of intentional interrogation of a product’s environmental impact are two barriers that stand out. Rather than specifying something purely because it is beautiful, we really need to question if it’s fit for purpose, necessary for the project and how it will be dealt with at the end of use.

I think if designers deeply considered the impact of their specification beyond its use in a project, we would start to see more sustainable and circular materials being used. The value management process can also make it hard to get certain products across the line, so it’s important to approach with a ‘build less, give more’ attitude and think about where resources and spending will have the most positive impact.

Suzette: I’d have to say big business and media as a big driver of consumerism. We live in a society where products are designed for continuous consumer growth constantly improved, and changed to suit trends, and then discarded. We have the capacity to change, and include repairability, disassembly and reuse however society does not currently value this over new.

Other barriers include a lack of local research in processes, bio-based materials sourced and made here in Australia. Testing of new materials for Australian regulations also create barriers for application. Moving from concept to commercial application takes time and money.

Riley, what is the impact of UPPAREL’s work in the retail or B2C sector? How do you work with brands to build awareness about upcycling materials in a circular economy?

Riley: A lot of major retailers have our bins in their stores, and these are tangible ways to demonstrate what happens to unusable textiles beyond just a vague mention of ‘recycling’ which many shoppers can understandably be sceptical about. Out of 1800 partners, I would say a good 30 or 40 of those are retail brands, including Macpac, Kathmandu and Paddy Pallin have their stores setup as free drop off locations for customers. We have a lot of bins and presence in retail stores across Australia, and this means more visibility and awareness which is very important across the board.

What do you see as some of the key challenges facing our sector, the built environment, in terms of our effect on the planet and society?

Jade: Shifting the mindset seems to be quite challenging at the moment. People are slowly starting to shift away from the business as usual approach, but the take up is slow and we are still working within a linear model. Construction is expensive and upfront costs are driving decisions rather than considering environmental impact or ongoing operational and maintenance costs. A circular approach to a fit out can save a considerable amount of money in the long run, we just need to encourage thinking around the long term financial benefits.

Greenwashing can also get in the way of making the right decision. There are a lot of manufacturers out there who are doing amazing work in sustainable materials and there are some who are doing the bare minimum, with great marketing. Designers are often time poor and without standardised certification it is often hard to understand which product has the best impact.

Suzette: We are in this early transition period between linear and circular models. The challenges include understanding the frameworks and the models we need to use, how we evaluate criteria and how responsible we are in the context of material selection, application, repairability, and take back programs.

A key challenge is how we begin the process and demonstrate the shift. The first principles of sustainability have not changed, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle. Our challenge is not just awareness of the negative impacts of a linear economy, but it is finding the driver for all industry to begin the transition, and to showcase those at the head of the curve.

Mapping the data is another challenge in a shift to a circular transition. European countries are more advanced in this due to regulation and governance requirements for circularity. The WBCSD has released the Circular Transition Indicators (CTIs), which provide consistent indicators and metrics for comparison on the transition towards circularity.

A circular economy is shifts away from toxic materials, processes and waste including fossil fuel-based plastic use so it’s important we have these conversations early in our project. As we apply circular thinking we’re identifying solutions to the linear economy, however, as is often the case, change will occur faster and more effectively if we are working together.

Looking ahead, what changes would you like to see to ensure a more circular future – where continuous use, upcycling, and use of biomaterials is the norm?

Suzette: I’d like to see government legislation drive greater adoption of circular economy strategies with reporting including circularity transition indicators. I also think the media needs to debate circular economy and impacts. We need to transition from trends and consumerism to a focus on biobased materials, design for repairability and valuing materials and crafts people in the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

We need more investment for research into circularity and biobased materials here in Australia. There is more we could test and prototype regarding regenerative materials, such as sea grasses. We need to have performance data on these new materials to demonstrate use and then funding for local production capacity.

We have a long way to go in Australia, but we’re seeing some change with amplification of circular opportunities in business, shared learnings and education on products and experiences. The Australian Circular Economy Hub is a shared platform for industry, and some local governments and Australian universities have active circular economy hubs. Working together and sharing the outcomes will help the transition and uncover opportunities.

Don’t miss the full panel discussion ‘Emerging Bio-based and Upcycled Materials for Everyday Use’ presented by Atelier and Collectivity Talks at Melbourne Design Week 2024.

Atelier and Collectivity Talks is proudly presented as part of Material Matters 02, the second edition of a sustainable retail-focussed exhibition set inside the immersive and experiential space Atelier at BETA by STH BNK’s Hanover House. Situated in the heart of a dynamic international arts precinct, three floors of the soon-to-be-demolished 1970s office building have been converted by Sibling Architecture into a series of creative experimental spaces exploring the future of sustainable retail, as part of a creative program initiated by Beulah.

Melbourne Design Week 2024

Next up: The fascinating journey of timber on show at Melbourne Design Week

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