Design for Economic Sustainability

It is time to stop and think about Design for Economic Sustainability.
Businesses have argued that built in obsolescence is a good thing- it means that people will continue to spend money, and businesses will continue to grow. To make this more appealing, they have created goods that are ever cheaper, ever more disposable.

Mass production in the 1920s brought goods into the hands of the middle class which they previously could not have afforded. And soon after, an entire ecosystem rose up around the manufactured parts. Manufactured Automobiles? You needed mechanics and auto repairmen to keep them running. Manufactured radios and Televisions? You needed radio and television repairmen. You needed another industry creating spare and replacement parts. Manufactured clothing? There were still women ( and men) at home sewing clothes from scratch, or doing repairs and fittings. Manufactured shoes? The show repairmen were there to help extend their life, replacing heels and soles. Manufactured did not always mean disposable. Goods that were manufactured were still expected to last nearly as long as those which were individually hand-crafted.

Gradually, over the last two decades or so, we have allowed companies to convince us that goods should be disposable. It is cheaper and easier for them to manufacture if repair is not a consideration. If you are never going to open up electronics to repair them, who cares if they cut costs and use glue instead of screws to seal something? If you are never going to repair a shoe, who cares if the pieces are glued together instead of sewn? We have allowed the life cycle of goods to become ever shorter in exchange for cheaper purchase prices. One of the consequences of this has been that in addition to de-valuing the items themselves, we end up de-valuing the work it takes to make them, and the workers who do those jobs. Which makes you more excited: working to build cars that people are going to have and care for and maintain for decades, or working to build cars that people are going to junk in a few years? 

I say it is a time for a different plan:

  • Support businesses that design products you can repair, that are meant to last.
  • Go out of your way to extend the life of your products
  • Look for new ways to rebirth old things into something new and exciting.

Creating a product/market ecosystem that we can sustain over time is at the roots of what attracts me to the Maker movement, to Hackerspaces and keeps me excited about the entrepreneurs I interact with.
“Design for Sustainability” has been a movement for decades now. If you search Google, you get thousands of hits. The wikipedia article on Sustainable Design links out to many other articles, movements and manifestos. Sustainable Design has even leaked over into technology.

“Sustainable technologies use less energy, fewer limited resources, do not deplete natural resources, do not directly or indirectly pollute the environment, and can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful life.[22] There is a significant overlap with appropriate technology, which emphasizes the suitability of technology to the context, in particular considering the needs of people in developing countries. However, the most appropriate technology may not be the most sustainable one; and a sustainable technology may have high cost or maintenance requirements that make it unsuitable as an “appropriate technology,” as that term is commonly used.”

Consideration of the environment in design is simply not enough. I am not arguing about the importance of considering our impact on Mother Earth. It is important, but not sufficient. We also need to consider if the new products we design, or the new processes we use to make them, create an economic ecosystem that can support the consumers.

Now is the time for us to stop and take action. Now is the time for you to stand up and shout with pride how long you have kept that backpack, how long you have maintained your car or how well you hand-built something. This is the new pride movement. It is time for you to stand up, be counted and let manufacturers see your beliefs through your purchasing practices.

This Christmas, we will be wishing folks “Maker Christmas”. This means that presents will either be tools/aids for allowing people to become better makers, or items that someone else has made, upscaled or produced in a small business.  How will you make an impact?

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