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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Meet the Startup Guiding Companies Toward Net Zero — Via Circular Design

For the hordes of companies still struggling to make good on their net-zero commitments, comply with impending climate-disclosure legislation and figure out what ‘circularity’ even means, Pentatonic is here to help.

2024 will be a big year: Finally, it seems regulatory measures are catching up with corporate ambition and communication when it comes to tackling the world’s environmental and social problems — particularly in Europe and the US — and evidence suggests that companies are finding the pace of change a real challenge: According to KPMG, three-quarters of firms are not ready to have their ESG data audited in preparation for new regulations; while a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce shows that many companies still don’t understand what 'net zero' means.

Enter Pentatonic — a London-based climate-tech company that is using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and materials science to help companies on their sustainability journey and toward the adoption of circular business models. Originally launched as a circular furniture design startup, Pentatonic is now on a mission to “enable the planet’s largest brands to design, manufacture and recapture circular materials at every step of the value chain” using a blend of traditional consultancy and AI.

As co-founder Jamie Hall has asserted, “There is no path to net zero without circularity.”

Pentatonic’s platform helps bring theory and practice together, co-founder and COO Philip Mossop told Sustainable Brands®. He says companies' central focus should be on designing out waste through Material Lifecycle Management (MLM) — keeping materials in useful circulation for as long as possible: “We use AI to help visualize, adapt and engineer concepts before prototyping. This way, our industrial design team can hardwire reuse — and maximum material-recovery potential — from the outset.”

Rather than sifting through the thousands of options available when considering which materials to use in products, and what might happen to them at end of life, Pentatonic believes that AI-enabled tech can make the process that much easier and more efficient. Customers can build out a sustainable-material portfolio, using the tech to source from an integrated and verified supplier network — essentially a database of options, searchable across several categories, from post-consumer recycled to bio-based.

“True circularity requires an efficient end-of-life phase. Our MLM module is underpinned by AI-enabled, machine-learning sorting technology to separate, quantify and categorize customer packaging, products and materials at the point of recovery — via return, repair, reuse or recycling,” Mossop adds.

The module also includes a global end-of-life-services database — from logistics and handling to returns and damaged goods.

Recently, Pentatonic worked with Burger King UK to create a circular decommissioning initiative after it eliminated single-use plastic toys with its kids’ meals. The firm was charged with selecting and managing specialist recycling partners, assessing the returned plastic for quality and reuse suitability, and then coming up with new product-design concepts — including manufacturing schematics and production options: “The whole project saw us create a fully recycled and recyclable food tray from the returned plastic, which diverted the equivalent of three million single-use toys from landfill,” Mossop says.

Previously, it worked on a similar project for coffee giant Starbucks to reimagine its famous Bean Chair — a well-known fixture in its UK stores: “We optimized the Bean Chair’s design and manufacturing process for circularity — enabling the upholstery, cushioning, frame and legs of the chairs to be crafted from what was once Starbucks plastic bottles and cups.”

But Pentatonic's offering goes beyond design expertise: For the many companies now faced with navigating the legislative minefield coming into play this year in Europe and the US, Pentatonic’s AI Legislation Tracker searches, gathers and serves up information on what’s coming down the tracks. And while it doesn’t offer specific legal guidance, the tracker provides horizon scanning and context to help companies navigate the legal landscape and give people better information to act.

“The AI-powered interface contextualizes impact and implications for our users. But — like most other systems of this kind — without expert human control, it would not be the same tool,” Mossop says. “Of course, the larger brands we work with have significant legal resources to spend on compliance strategies; but that’s not the case for everybody. So, one of the original aims of the Legislation Tracker was to lower the barrier to legislative visibility and enable more companies to act and comply with climate-focused regulations — to theoretically scale its impact.”

While Pentatonic’s database might be powerful, is it really sufficient to replace the expertise offered by sustainability consultants? Mossop admits that solving circularity challenges still requires the human touch.

“Our approach is still very much human-led and expert-curated. But MLM, for instance, requires sophisticated data management. It is analysing and testing material characteristics, calculating the long-term lifespan and performance of these materials in use, monitoring quantities in circulation, and then working out the proportion recovered during end-of-life processes.

“All of this demands expert human setup and curation but generates significant data volumes — which need dedicated, digital systems.”

It's clear AI-enabled technology brings huge productivity gains; but Mossop stresses that it’s only as good as its human creators and the data that it’s fed: “That’s not to say it lacks transformative potential — more that it still has clear limitations.”