Rebels Without The Cause We Think: Part 2
Lets say you're a college student. You're brand new into the whole "thinkin' on your own" thing, and you are really digging on this whole green living idea (OK, we're only picking on the whole earth guys because we hit punks yesterday. It all shakes out in the wash). So, when you go to Target, and Wal Mart with your parents you make sure to buy wood stuff (wood is a renewable resource right?) and you don't buy any PVC, because you heard it's "like totally toxic". "Look" your mom says, "Lets get you this knife set for cooking, it's only 20 bucks that's a great deal!" Then, turning to the other side of the aisle, she exclaims "Oh my, lets get this instead. It's every kitchen utensil you could ever need for only 50 dollars!!!"
"Thanks Mom" you smile, after seeing the little ABS symbol on the bottoms of the slotted spoons. Next, at Target, you pick up a sweet deal on a "Genuine Hardwood" architect's desk. Maybe you see where we're going with all this or maybe not, but by the end of the shopping trip you've picked up a carload of great new stuff for not a lot of money at all. You head back to your apartment feeling great about your environment conscious choices, and anxious to get started with your first semester.
Then, four years, and probably a couple shopping trips later, you take all that stuff you checked so carefully for kosher-ity out in black trash bags and leave it at the curb as you climb into your car with some clothes and a skeleton crew of stuff and drive to your new apartment in FirstJobland (or, if you weren't so lucky, Parentshouseville). As this Salon article points out, every year college students throw the remains of their entire college careers away in order to start new and unburdened at their new digs.
And it's not just college kids. Today's young adults must be some of the most object-impermanent consumers in the history of consumers. Stores like Cost Plus World Market, and Pier 1 imports wouldn't have a chance if interior decoration didn't have the same yearly fashion turnaround as clothing; these stores change out their inventories almost completely on the same cycle as Old Navy or the Gap.
Whether it's that kitchen set you're mom went for, or a set of rubberwood (it's "Solid Hardwood") dining room chairs you got at Cost Plus, you run into the same problem. Even if you still liked the products four years after you bought them, they are so cheaply make that you have no other choice but to throw them out. The wood will be nicked and dented and the knives won't be sharp. Most of the time, it's a minor ding, or wobbliness in the table, or a blown fuse, or a burned out weird-shape halogen bulb. But since the cost of an enticing new item is much lower than the cost of a repair, or even the perceived cost of learning how to repair it yourself, it just doesn't get done. Evidence is ample in the decline of service industries as varied as shoemakers and consumer electronics
Unfortunately, no matter what material, green or otherwise, you use for your products, with a short enough lifespan any product can be unsustainable. This Treehugger piece does a great job of illustrating this fact.
So, again, after all that, what's a well-intentioned designer to do? Plenty.
The basic idea is simple, so we'll give it to you, and then go over a couple of concepts for implementation:
Get people to buy less.
Aha! you scream, we thought as much. It's our job to get people buying more, not less. How are we supposed to not do our jobs? Alright, fair enough. How about this for a concept:
Get people to buy less junk.
How about it. What would things be like if more designers (probably not ever all designers... That would be asking way too much) focused their energy on making longer lasting products, both materially and stylistically? What if we did everything we could to make products that could have replacement parts, or user-made repairs? What if we insisted on making, not only expensive office chairs, but all products easily disassembleable so that the parts could be repaired, re-used in other products, or re-cycled into new high grade plastics and metals.
What if we made products so cool, so beautiful, and in such a way that they grew even more cool and beautiful with age (Oh wait...This has already been done) that people wanted to keep them longer, rather than just buying something new all the time. Sure, we would need higher margins on the final product because we couldn't do the volume, but that would allow higher-wage workers in the US and Europe to get more chances to work in their factories again. Or, if we still wanted to go oversees, we could improve the working and living conditions of the laborers there.
Then, when we wanted to get new products, what if there was tremendous social pressure to turn in the products, either for recycling, parts re-use, or re-sale? Freecycle or similar programs are options for this trade/re-introduction of the product as new and useful to somebody, even if it's not useful to you.
Why are the only social pressures to donate our products related to helping the needy or receiving a tax break?
We understand that recycling is "good for the environment", and bottles and cans are practically worthless to us. Why can't we see that all the embodied energy of our Ikea bed and three halogen torchiers are worth all the bottles we could recycle for a month or two?
What if there was a new product imprint that went right next to the recycle symbol. It's non-specific, but it only gets put on more durable goods. There would have to be some sort of committee or lab like CE or UL that certified each product to receive the seal. But it means "When you're finished with this, it will still be good. Give it to someone else to use."
Maybe it's even somehow Ebay sanctioned as quality merchandise with a high resale value - sort of like a pre-emptive pawnbroaker.
If you think this is sounding a little fishy, take a look at Yvon Chouinard and Nora Gallagher's Patagonia ChangeThis Manifesto. Is that a big enough brand for you to believe in it?
Sure, this is a pretty naive suggestion. But radical. And we need radical suggestions to solve this. Maybe we can keep this rate of consumption up for 50 more years, or 100 or 500. Or maybe just 10. If our rate of use is increasing, and continues to increase, there has got to be a point where either we find a way to turn it around, or the system falls apart. If we're going to have to solve it someday, why not now?
Why not today?
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team