Nila Rezaei: Product design for a circular economy

Nila Rezaei: Product design for a circular economy

Nila Rezaei: Product design for a circular economy

Nila Rezaei: Product design for a circular economy

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted in Gadigal Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

This article explores the concept of sustainable design and its role in a circular economy. Nila Rezaei, an impact-driven product designer and thinker, shares her insights on how design choices can contribute to minimizing waste and maximizing product lifespans.

Nila Rezaei is a sustainability advocate with a proven track record in product design. Her experience spans companies like Vert Design, Zoomo and UNSW, where she teaches sustainable design principles. Nila also serves as the deputy chair at the Design Institute of Australia.

In this interview, Nila Rezaei delves into the connection between product design and circularity. She offers valuable insights on usability, design challenges and strategies for creating products that contribute to a circular economy.

Design for a circular economy

Our current design choices are driven by the overconsumption culture. Before designing a new product, we need to question if it's needed, and how it can solve a real problem.

Designing for sustainability means meeting genuine human needs. We organise a wealth of information, transform it into a deliberate and elegant outcome that addresses those needs.   

In the design process, we need to think holistically. Often, when we talk about sustainability, the focus is solely on materials. Using recycled or green materials could partially address the problem. 

We need to understand the product lifecycle and the impact at each stage—sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, usage duration and end-of-life. We can then minimise the impact and extend the life of a product. We've already seen great circular approaches like product-usage services and rentals.

Everyone in the supply chain has a role to play. Manufacturers and brands should take responsibility. As designers, we can educate ourselves and make a significant impact at an early stage during the design process.

Design products that meet human needs

Circularity may require new ways of interaction. If this is different from what people are used to, you need education and evidence to explain design decisions.

However, the fundamental goal is to design products that genuinely meet human needs. We can compromise desirability and user experience at the cost of sustainability, as the product will not be adapted.

Design must first fulfil human needs. Usability is not negotiable. Get that right first, then make sure you’re also applying principles of sustainability, longer lifetime and designing to manage the end of life of the product.

Overcome barriers to implementing circularity

The biggest barrier is getting people to take risks. Sustainability challenges the status quo—not only the existing infrastructure, but also our culture and the way we live. It requires a lot of changes.

That includes financial challenges as well. It requires big investments upfront. We can say for sure that there will be an impactful outcome from the investment, but it takes time to have those outcomes.

How we overcome them is by taking a step-by-step approach. We can't think about all the risks upfront because it's too overwhelming.

We can identify the smaller problems and take calculated risks. Break down a complex system into manageable compartments, and tackle them individually. Make improvement over time while keeping the goal in sight. All the small steps will eventually contribute to solving larger challenges.

I've worked with clients where we began with small local projects to demonstrate the impact of design and create a sense of change. It became easier to embrace larger investments and drive bigger transformations. It's about gradually building confidence and highlighting the potential for growth.

The biggest barrier is getting people to take risks. Sustainability challenges the status quo—not only the existing infrastructure, but also our culture and the way we live.

Encourage manufacturers to embrace a circular economy

But the manufacturing industry has long-established processes and infrastructure. It's difficult for them to change. But it's not impossible—if you can demonstrate the benefits, and collaborate with them to work out the necessary steps to change.

I've had positive experiences with manufacturers who are genuinely interested and willing to make changes. We had to do a lot of planning and thinking beforehand, which allowed us to make a stronger case when approaching them. We also involved them from the start, rather than making last-minute requests. It's a collaborative process.

Empower consumers to navigate greenwashing

Think holistically and make conscious decisions on the things you buy. Do you need one more water bottle? Can you buy second hand goods? Try to minimise your consumption.

Consider the entire lifecycle of a product. Don't simply focus on material choices and judge a product based on it alone. Materials are essentially physical matters, be it metal, plastic, glass or ceramic. They're not inherently good or bad. It is the way we use them that determines their impact.

Usability and longevity are important. A product may not be made from recycled plastic, but it's okay if it can last a lot longer. So it's not really a yes or no, recycled or not recycled question.

Sustainability is about the countless small decisions we make in our daily lives. From taking shorter showers and turning off lights to using energy-efficient windows, each decision accumulates to drive our overall impact and carbon footprint.

The future of products in a circular economy

I strongly believe in the product-service system, like the leasing or subscription model. Users can rent a product and return it, while companies take responsibility throughout the lifecycle.

We'll produce fewer items and share them among many users. We can reduce energy consumption in the manufacturing process. We can make sure the products are designed for durability and are responsibly treated at end of life.

If we can make things locally, it removes the need for transporting goods over long distances. That will be true circularity, but we'll need to get there step by step.

Learn more


This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at:


Interviewed and edited by Danling Xiao

Danling Xiao is the co-founder of ReCo Digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

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Learn more about Circular Sydney

A professional headshot of co-founders of ReCo Danling & Anett

Imagine a city where waste reduction, resource efficiency and economic growth go hand-in-hand. That's the power of the circular economy, a system that keeps resources in use for as long as possible.

But how does it work in practice? Circular Sydney brings you inspiring stories of local innovators and organisations who are pioneering circular practices in Sydney.

Through 35 interviews with 40 change makers, Circular Sydney showcases the exciting opportunities for a circular economy in Sydney.

Circular Sydney is proudly supported by the City of Sydney.

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