Emilio Hernandez

March 17, 2022

The lighting initiative GreenLight Alliance works together to aid the lighting sector to understand their role in adopting and promoting the circular economy. It works towards industry standards that are universally recognised, trusted and sought-after. Emilio Hernandez, Founding Member, provides darc with some comment on their approaches and advice. 

The GreenLight Alliance (GLA) has a regular piece in arc, and has now been invited to introduce circular principles in darc magazine. We’re focussed on creating a community to help the lighting sector understand its role in adopting and promoting the circular economy

Circular design sits under the umbrella of sustainability. At its core, its principles of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ seem simple, but dig a little deeper and you become embroiled in topics such as policy, right to repair, eco design, embodied carbon, reverse logistics, warranties etc… (this is what I’ve spent the last 18 month’s doing). 

It’s all hugely interesting and exciting to me not just because of the opportunity to reduce the mountains of WEEE (electronic waste) we as lighting designers contribute to each year but because I feel we’re reaching a plateau of how we add economic value as an industry, and circular economy offers a refreshing opportunity for relationships and conversations with new partners in different parts of the supply chain.. 

The best route to a circular design will vary and will be specific to the type of project and client you have. There isn’t a one size fits all in the same way that there isn’t just one way to value engineer a project. It’s also worth noting that a product can’t really be circular in isolation. This is a way of working and thinking not just a manufacturing technique and as such the project and indeed the supply chain need to employ these principles to ensure materials stay at their highest state of usefulness for as long as possible.

As lighting designers, recent years of focussing on ‘efficiency’ have seen us paint ourselves into a corner with the clients’ key perception of value being on payback vs capital expenditure, but there are some other ways that we can focus the client’s eye with regards perceived value. Here are some initial principles that we can follow as designers. 

Below we have laid out some approaches to countering obsolescence: 

Reduction: This is both subjective and objective. Aesthetic judgement on the how many lights we use & objectively using luminaires that either use less material or use recycled or reusable materials. 

Products are increasingly being supplied with a Life Cycle Analysis or EPD (Environmental Product Declaration), which can inform you for the origin and embedded carbon of components, which is a more accurate way to determine a product’s environmental impact.

Product attachment: Countering emotional obsolescence by selecting timeless forms, factors or products that will be loved, liked or trusted longer is not to be underestimated. There are countelss examples of long lasting products that are not inherently durable but survive because they are cherished. 

Product Durability: Addresses countering functional obsolescence by developing products that can take wear and tear for their designed life and beyond. We need to move away from a current trend of engineering out durability purely to reduce cost without considering the impacts on obsolescence. 

Standardisation: The goal here is countering obsolescence of the lighting system through use of industry standard components, protocols and formats that will outlast a particular technological trend. There is an argument that this can actually add cost, carbon and sometimes complexity to a product but again looking at the designed installation life cycle as a whole is critical rather than just on a product level.

Ease of maintenance and repair: Aimed at countering functional obsolescence by enabling products to be maintained throughout life. Recent legislation means this ‘right to repair’ is a requirement and while this counters planned obsolescence in products, it requires proactive maintenance and goes against the misleading  ’fit and forget’ motto that has been the selling point of so many LED upgrades. 

Upgradability and adaptability: This is aimed at countering systemic obsolescence by allowing for future expansion and modification. As a designer we should be mindful of specifying products that can only ever be used in one application. So while custom beam angles, finishes and materials are  great tools, its important to consider if these can be modified in the future of the product to have a second or third life. The end user or owner will also need to be diligent about who they approach for their repairs as quality and circular economy competence can vary immensely.  

Disassembly: With real world recycling processes in mind, disassembly should be considered at the design stage. ‘Material passports’ are being developed for new products by more reputable suppliers and manufacturers, which will help determine this. Specifying suppliers who are part of a WEEE compliance scheme is the bare minimum that should be written into your specs for when fixtures do eventually reach their end of life. 

I mentioned relationships at the start of the piece because I feel that a collaborative approach is the key to unlocking these new avenues. In promoting the Circular Economy we’re not trying to discourage other sustainable routes (such as energy efficiency or products made from waste materials) but to help people understand that while a circular product doesn’t need to ‘look’ different to a non circular one on the outside, taking the above steps, one at a time, to make the process more circular can have just as big an impact.