Can We Mass Produce Circular Design?

Circular World™ Media
4 min readApr 7, 2024


It is a big question. A good place to start is with furniture. Ikea is the undisputed king of mass-produced furniture, and according to them, “What is a circular product? For IKEA, it’s a product with built-in design features and capabilities for convenient reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and, at the very end of life, recycling. Not all products have the same possibility of being circular, and therefore, there is no single recipe for circular product design. Instead, it is a combination of various circular product design principles that together create a built-in possibility for all products to last as long as possible and eventually become a resource for new products. At IKEA, we have described these principles to better understand how we can design products with circular capabilities.

The flip side to their grand circular ambitions lies in Ikea’s latest strategy to lower prices. The furniture and meatball purveyor was forced to raise its prices during the COVID-19 pandemic as the cost of raw materials rose. Now that supply costs have started to become more accessible, the retailer is lowering its prices going into the end of the year and beginning in 2024.

Ikea are able to reduce costs by making their furniture flimsier. It is now using ‘paper foil’ (thick contact paper that’s faster to apply) instead of wood veneer on the Billy bookcase, aluminium instead of zinc (which doubled in price after Russia invaded Ukraine last year) in its bathroom hooks, and plastic instead of wood in its cabinet doors and drawers. The way Ikea is constructing furniture is changing too. The Rönninge dining table, which sells for $500 and came out last year, has reinforced, hollow veneer legs instead of solid wooden ones, sparing the company the costs of dealing with an unpredictable lumber supply and market.

Honing in on Ikea’s business model does not answer the question regarding the application of circular design principles to mass-produced furniture. In fact, are we asking the wrong question? We have been led to believe that decisions made at the design stage influence 80% of a product’s environmental impact. Although that may be true, the fact is that the manufacturing process constrains most designers. By designing for manufacturing, furniture designers can ensure that their creations are not only aesthetically pleasing but also functional, durable, sustainable and cost-effective to produce.

Fast Furniture and the Theory of Constraints

From a business perspective, there will always be low-cost producers for consumers who are sensitive to price changes. They will more likely shop for products that offer the lowest prices — especially if the goods or service is relatively homogeneous. The global manufacturing shop floor for furniture is in China, so any shift to circular design principles should start here.

The Theory of Constraints considers constraints as anything that prevents the organisation from making progress towards its goal. In this case, a manufacturing process may require adjustment to fit a particular circular design. In manufacturing processes, constraints are often referred to as bottlenecks. Interestingly, constraints can take many forms other than equipment, such as material shortages, lack of people, lack of space, company policy, deeply engrained beliefs or habits and where overproduction exceeds sales.

“…every process has a single constraint and that total process throughput can only be improved when the constraint is improved. A very important corollary to this is that spending time optimizing non-constraints will not provide significant benefits; only improvements to the constraint will further the goal.”

Policy constraints deserve special mention. It may come as a surprise that the most common form of constraint is the policy constraint. When a policy constraint is associated with a firmly entrenched paradigm (e.g., “we must always keep our equipment running to lower the manufacturing cost per piece” or “we have always done it like this”), a significant investment in training and coaching is likely to be required to change the paradigm and eliminate the constraint.


  • Designing for furniture manufacturing involves balancing design creativity with practicality and manufacturing efficiency.
  • Designs that are optimised for the manufacturing process can result in higher-quality products.
  • The designer needs to choose appropriate production techniques for the selected materials and the desired outcome.
  • Circular furniture designs can be scalable, meaning they can be produced in large quantities without compromising quality or cost.
  • Finishing techniques can include painting, staining, and coating with various sealants or varnishes.
  • Different materials and finishes require different manufacturing processes and techniques, affecting production efficiency.

We are not going to shift to circular design principles just because we need to. By considering the whole manufacturing process as a system, the constraints will become glaringly obvious. Due to the large number of SMEs involved in the production of furniture, assessing each company’s constraints is neither feasible nor practical. Consumer demand for inexpensive furniture that meets basic circular design principles or fits the Circular Rs will be the driving force for businesses to shift. Otherwise, there is no incentive to change.


Ms Adrienna Zsakay is the Founder and CEO of Circular Economy Asia Inc, and this article represents her opinions on the circular economy. Circular Economy Pick of the Week is brought to you by Circular World™ Media — a brand owned by Circular Economy Asia Inc.


‘Designing for a circular future’ from Ikea company website

‘Ikea is cutting the price of furniture as customers feel more inflation pain’ by Emily Price, published by FastCompany, 13 October 2023

‘Ikea’s Answer to Inflation? Make Things Flimsier’ by Diana Budds, published in , 04 May 2023

‘Designing for Furniture Manufacturing: A Detailed Guide!’ by Nalini, published by Deskera.

‘Theory of Constraints’ published by

Originally published at



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Circular World™ Media is owned by Circular Economy Asia Incorporated. Registered in Australia, based in Malaysia. We focus on resource management & efficiency