How car brands are looking at new ways to approach sustainable design

Paul Smith with MINI Strip by Paul Smith

The automotive industry is struggling to find its rhythm in the post-combustion age. A symbol of the fossil-fuel industrial age, car brands are desperately trying to reinvent themselves as progressive and inclusive. Some companies have even repositioned themselves as lifestyle or tech brands. They know that they need to create sustainable transport solutions and introduce new ways of shared vehicle ownership to speak the language of younger consumers who come with very different demands and expectations. Yet, most car brands are struggling to adopt a fully circular system.

Waste not, want not. This, in simple terms, sums up the circularity movement. The buzzword of the moment, it is about inventing, designing and making products, brands and systems that promote a circular economy – as in an economic system that tackles our current global challenges: climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, pollution. Instead of a linear mindset, design for circularity asks us to consider the next life, and the many lives after, at the very conception. If the stuff or experiences we make are to add meaning to us as consumers, then it follows that they should either gain value with time, or their components – be it materials or ideas – reused and repurposed in new and exciting ways.

For larger traditional car companies with a labyrinth of global suppliers, tracing every footstep of the production, sales and aftersales chain is no easy task. New brands like Polestar and Lynk & Co (both electric sub-brands within the Geely and Volvo Group) are in a better position to set up their business models based around sustainability. Polestar, for instance, has pledged complete transparency, promoting supply chain traceability to include environmental damage from manufacturing and mining, and extending this to monitoring human rights violations. Meanwhile, Lynk & Co’s entire business model is based on car sharing rather than sales, promoted through lifestyle ‘clubs’ in key European cities.

MINI Strip by Paul Smith

Although not all carmakers have been able to completely reposition their brands, there appears to be a genuine shift in actively introducing a circularity mindset within their organisations. In the context of design, there has also been a drive to engage with creatives from outside the auto fields as a way of introducing fresh conversations. One recent example is MINI who partnered with the fashion designer Paul Smith on an electric car concept with some inventive results.

The MINI Strip is a custom-built product that sets out to rethink process, production and materials. A ‘classic with a twist’, as Smith calls it, the design is an expression of the car as a functioning industrial product, all the while showing explicitly where and how the car can be dismantled, the materials recycled and reused at the end of its life.

The ‘Strip’ of the title refers to the process in which the MINI Electric car was stripped apart and reduced to its structural skeleton, then reconstructed with only the very essential elements. Everything here is designed to celebrate process. For instance, the body has been left in its raw state, a thin transparent film protecting it against corrosion and revealing factory marks from manufacturing. Since Smith is a cycling enthusiast, as a nod to the bicycle, visible screws in the add-on parts show how easy it would be to take the car apart and recycle the material. ‘I think we have created something truly unique, by going back to basics, reducing things down and stripping the car,’ says Smith.

MINI Strip by Paul Smith

Inside the MINI Strip, novel ecological fabrics and materials are introduced for a leather and chrome-free cabin all of which can be fully recycled. For instance, seats are upholstered in a sustainable knitted fabric, floor mats are made from repurposed rubber, the dashboard pad, door shoulders and shelf assembled using salvaged cork without synthetic binding agents, while the bright orange pull handles in the door shoulders and seatbelts are of reused climbing ropes. The overall impression is of an electric vehicle that is in tune with our times.

MINI is by no means alone in exploring circularity through design. Most other credible car brands are researching and developing their own systems – much of which will be behind closed doors. ‘Projects like the MINI Strip are one-offs, but they signify the desire and willingness to make change happen,’ says design writer and forecaster Nargess Banks. ‘What they do brilliantly is to create a sense of excitement and wonder. These projects help car companies see the possibilities of thinking in new ways. I certainly sense this when talking to the creatives at car design studios.’

Change is possible (and inevitable) but it requires brands to adopt a more elastic approach, and not being too afraid to lead rather than follow consumer behaviour. Designing out waste – physically or conceptually – needs a forward-thinking mindset. And it helps to have courage and be a touch radical.

Images MINI Strip by Paul Smith © MINI

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MINI Strip by Paul Smith
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