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How Five Japanese Principles Help Us Design a Meaningful Life With Less Consumption

24. Jan 2024

This article explores how merging design and five philosophical Japanese principles might help companies take the next step toward a circular economy. A circular economy is a systemic shift we only achieve if we genuinely rethink consumption patterns, business models, and distribution of wealth – we need to redefine a meaningful life with less consumption. We believe design plays a crucial role in changing this on all levels

Long reads

I’ve always admired Japan. Four years ago, I went there after having a dream of experiencing the country for as long as I can remember. I’m fascinated by the culture and the minimalistic and beautiful design, the architecture, the hospitality, and the helpfulness you meet in Japan – and let’s not get started on their fantastic cuisine.

But what has stuck with me is their fundamental and holistic approach to life, beauty, and resources.

At DDC, we are inspired by Japanese culture and its traditions in our work with the circular economy (CE). As presented in the article, Debunking Misconceptions on Circular Economy, we lean on the three principles formulated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) to describe circular economy:

1) Eliminate waste and pollution 

2) Circulate products and materials (at their highest value) 

3) Regenerate nature

In collaboration with EMF, we have identified a crucial fourth principle we ought to follow to succeed with a circular transition:

4) Redefine a meaningful life with less consumption.

But what does it mean to redefine a meaningful life? How will it influence us on an individual, business, and systemic level?

Merging design and the five Japanese principles

The inspiration from Japan is especially relevant and helpful when starting to unfold this fourth principle. By taking a starting point in the country’s traditions and culture, we can explore what it means to live according to the fourth principle and, not least, how we achieve a different lifestyle and approach to our scarce resources.

In this article, you’ll meet five Japanese principles and philosophies I’ve collected in my work for the past years: Aikido, Wabi-Sabi, Kintsugi, Sashiko, and Kansha. I will elaborate on how I see the potential in getting inspired and applying these in our mindset and approach to circular thinking – whether it’s a business or individual perspective – and how they can help us redefine a meaningful life.

01 · Aikido 合気道 · Understanding the true enemy

Starting on a high note but also with the very foundation of the massive problem humanity is facing: (over)consumption.

The Japanese martial art, Aikido, means “way of integrating the spirit.” Here, you must understand your opponents’ strengths before being able to manipulate and gain control over them.

The point is that consumption is natural, but overconsumption is our enemy. We must resist and defeat this enemy to reduce our environmental footprint.

Inspired by Aikido, I think it’s interesting to highlight that the more we understand about the nature of the human need and desire to consume (i.e., the way the human brain functions and what drives our irrational behavior 95 percent of the time (Kahneman, 2011)), the more we can start gaining control over it, understand the underlying reasons behind – and in the end – defeat the true enemy that is standing in the way of a thriving planet.

An example of trying to understand the human ways and not least supporting companies in designing business models that work within a circular economy, we’re working on The Circular Behavior Initiative. We’ll publish a toolkit in 2024 that aims to provide businesses, organizations, and designers with a method for working with behavioral design in the context of a circular economy. The toolkit is designed to foster a mutual understanding and language on how to influence user behavior throughout products and/or services.

Even though the best thing would be not to consume and purchase (new stuff) at all, you can still regard the companies who have actively chosen the slow design approach in their business model as an attempt to fight current (over)consumption patterns and increase the reflection upon consumption. Examples of this could be brands that offer pre-order systems like Two Thirds.

Evidently, such systems should also be used cautiously, and we should still only be encouraged to obtain what we really need and not just purchase because it’s “slow” and, therefore, “better” by default.

02 · Wabi-Sabi 侘寂 · The acceptance of aging and imperfection

Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetical worldview where you accept and embrace aging and imperfection.

In a circular economy, we should work on embracing and supporting the natural aging of materials, products, and buildings. We can no longer perceive new as equal to good, and we must start actively designing for emotional durability. We must link materials and products to our memories, emotions, and identities to extend their lifetime to the greatest extent possible.

A way of achieving increased attachment is by applying the so-called IKEA effect to increase affiliation to products. That can happen during, e.g., assembly (hence the IKEA name) and by caring for and repairing products (yourself).

We have to (re)learn how to love and respect what we own, see, and borrow – even though it might be old and worn out. We need to appreciate different new aesthetics, not just value ‘the new,’ and, to a higher degree, treat our products, resources, and nature with more respect – just like we (should) human to human.

Because, just like humans, our resources should be allowed to age gracefully.

It’s not easy for us to accept that things change over time. We have learned that new is good, old is ugly and that durability is when materials remain in the same condition over a specific (long) period. In other words, in many societies, we seem to fear the only constant in life: change – and, thereby, aging.

As a worldview, Wabi-Sabi helps us look at things differently and from a new perspective. It helps us redefine beauty as “imperfect,” impermanent, and incomplete – just like in nature.

Wabi-Sabi is closely related to patina, which we can see in different contexts. In Copenhagen, plenty of the buildings have a copper roof that turns into its characteristic turquoise color over time. We also see patina on high-quality leather and wood products made to improve over the years and last for decades. In Denmark, lots of furniture designed and produced in the 50’s and 60’s are still in high demand today and have even gotten worth more over time.

Another funny example is the essence of Italian culture: the Bialetti Moka espresso maker. My Italian friend once told me that the more you use it, the better it gets. He told me that the old Bialettis have high value, and the goal is to inherit one from the older generations.

Another similar example from the kitchen equipment section is a Chinese wok pan used for, e.g., stir-fries. The darker the pan is, the better. That is because, with each use of the wok, fatty acids in the cooking oil bind together and eventually build up a (natural) slippery surface – so the more you use it, the better the surface gets.

How might we help more businesses design products that enforce (extended) use, patina, and increase value creation like the above examples? Our Circular Toolkit aims to help businesses and organizations with this. But we also look forward to focusing more on these factors in our work.

03 · Kintsugi 金継ぎ · Fixing what is broken

Translated into “joining with gold,” Kintsugi is a Japanese repair technique with a beautiful philosophy. Kintsugi is about embracing brokenness, damage, imperfection, and flaws.

To be exact, you repair broken pottery pieces and put them back together, applying golden glue and creating an even more beautiful piece of art than before.

Kintsugi encourages us to embrace slow design and feel the satisfaction of fixing and repairing something – regardless of whether you do it yourself.

Every broken piece is unique. The repair highlights all the “scars,” and they become the essence of the new design. That is also a metaphor for how to heal people’s minds and teaches an important lesson: sometimes, in repairing damaged things, we create something that is even more unique, beautiful, and resilient.

Repair as a circular strategy is on its way, with, e.g., the right-to-repair directive pushing for systemic change around repair globally. We also see more and more repair cafés popping up in cities worldwide, which is terrific.

Kintsugi showcases how repair can lead to new aesthetics that we must learn to embrace and love as consumers and businesses.

Kintsugi is also a time-consuming crafting technique that takes time to master. But imagine how beautiful a scaling of this technique (e.g., businesses applying it as a circular strategy) could be.

Different artists and studios worldwide offer Kintsugi repair as a service, e.g., Heiando in Kyoto, Eva Lenz-Collier in Berlin, and Fukumaru Ceramic & Glass Art Restoration in Vancouver.

Another example is the floor in the living room of the ‘Xchance Apartment’ by the Japanese design and construction company, TANK (see pictures here).

In my research for this article, I didn’t find (bigger) companies that produce products from ceramics that have integrated a Kintsugi repair service. If you know of any, I’m curious to hear about them. I hope to see more of this in the future, though.  

Therese's example of kuntsugi

Therese repairs a bowl with the kintsugi method

RESI Slow Fashion in Vienna

RESI Slow Fashion, Vienna

04 · Sashiko 刺し子 · Wear – and show off – visible repair

Sashiko is a mending technique for textiles that dates way back. Along with embroidery, these visible (or invisible) mending techniques on textiles help us repair our textiles. Whether we’re talking about clothes, furniture, or kitchen/bathroom equipment, we can fix them and make the repair itself a part of our identities and what we show others.

If we focus on the visible mending of clothes, this is something that we can wear. It can help spread awareness of the importance of prolonging the lifetime of textiles to the greatest extent possible by being willing to compromise on the original and “clean” look.

Several companies are already offering their customers the ability to repair and mend textiles. For example, the Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo has launched RE.UNIQLO – a service offering repair, remake, reuse, and recycling and a DIY clothing repair guide. The Danish clothing brand Dilling has done a similar thing and provided a repair guide to extend the lifetime of wool clothing.

There are also examples of companies originating from truly circular thinking, like The SeamSojo and RESI Slow Fashion, who apply repairing of textiles as their primary business idea

On a more private note, I once repaired a second-hand sofa with embroidery techniques (see the post and story here). I’ve also helped my colleagues repair some of their clothes and accessories – and we’re planning another repair café at DDC this Spring.

I’m even tempted to call it a silent form of activism – because everyone can participate. One thing you might realize if you do this is the feeling of increased attachment as well as the value perceived from the pieces you repair.

Take this glove I fixed for a colleague – I repaired the holes and placed a shiny moon on it. My colleague afterward told me that now, her children are asking to borrow the glove – it has become popular and increased its value after being visibly mended. And I relate highly to this – everything I have spent money or time on repairing, I regard as even more valuable than before. It truly does feel amazing to extend the lifetime of what you already possess – even though it might not always look “perfect.” 

Therese repairs a colleague's glove

05 · Kansha 感謝 · To DO gratitude

Kansha means gratitude and is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Gratitude turns what we already possess into enough and more than enough.

It’s essential to understand that Kansha is not just a noun but a verb and an action. It’s about DOING gratitude and not “just” being grateful. Something that takes time to learn, and we must practice.

In privileged societies (e.g., Denmark), we might already realize gratitude, but we must start feeling it and acting upon it. That means to be grateful for what you already have and own.

Talking about the available resources, you could argue that the privileged societies must start giving back more than we take as an act of gratitude. For example, Denmark consumes and uses nature 4,2 times faster than our planet’s biocapacity can regenerate, and our overshoot day falls in March (how’s your country doing?).

Speaking of Japan – despite the inspiring principles and philosophies mentioned, this country hits its overshoot day on May 6 – which is also too early in the year sadly.

To do gratitude is easier said than done as it requires us to fight our immensely irrational human brain, convincing it to overcome the intuitive urge to consume and always want more. However, we believe it is possible to change, and that design plays an integral role in this transition.

An example of this and of a product where you can claim that it aims to have humans embrace this philosophy is the Light Phone. A phone designed to be used as little as possible. By “Going light,” they have created a phone that “will never have social media, news, email, internet browsers or any other anxiety-inducing infinite feed.”

Choose the zipper

I see a clear link between the four circular principles from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the five Japanese principles. The question is how we turn them into hands-on action in people’s private lives, businesses, and organizations, as well as on a systemic and societal level.

The brands and examples mentioned in this article aren’t perfect, and most still have a negative environmental impact. Still, the point is to exemplify and highlight that they are doing something. And many companies could learn from starting in the small – eating the elephant one bite at a time.

The examples weren’t easy to find, which is a point on its own. Not many brands and companies offer repair, mending, and other life-expanding services.

It is also vital that we as individuals (again, in privileged societies) change our mindsets and become willing to pay for crafting and the more labor-intensive activities if we are to carry out the circular strategies in real life.

Nowadays, a new zipper in your jeans will likely cost the same as a new pair of jeans – but here, you have a choice. Choose the zipper.

A circular economy is a systemic shift we only achieve if we genuinely rethink consumption patterns and distribution of wealth – we need to redefine a meaningful life with less consumption for a just future for everything and everyone. Design plays a crucial role in changing this on all levels.

This article is exploring and unfolding the following actions to design our irresistible circular society:

  • Collective Action
  • Poetry
  • New Story
  • Courage
  • Planetary Perspective
  • Proximity to Manufacturing

Read more about our mission and ten actions to design an irresistible circular society here.

Therese Balslev

Strategic Circular Designer

Phone +45 2960 3869
Social LinkedIn

Do you know of companies and organizations that have integrated one or more of the Japanese principles into their businesses and practices?

Related articles, tools, cases, and projects:

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