Northhave we ever wanted, possessed and wasted so many things. Our consumptive path through modern life leaves a trail of social and ecological destruction: trainers are hardly used, ignored artificial intelligence digital assistants gather dust, and forgotten smartphones languish in drawers. By what wicked alchemy do our newest and coolest things so quickly turn into mindless junk?
Over the past century, economically aggressive corporations have mined, exploited, swept away, drilled, burned, leveled, and poisoned the land, to the point of total ecological collapse. Our material possessions connect us to destructive practices through invisible threads of commerce, politics, and power. Rare items are ripped out of the ground by the fingers of children small enough to jam their bodies in fissures within ore veins, beneath rocks and mud. A “smart” light switch houses a fingernail-sized microchip that contains more than half of the elements on the periodic table. Many are “conflict minerals” like tin, tungsten, and tantalum, linking us to violence, war, and unimaginable human suffering in poorly regulated parts of the world.
Don’t be fooled by the deceptive lightness of the stuff from Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service. The extended product network of an artificial intelligence system reaches into a globally distributed infrastructure stack comprising power-hungry data centers and swarms of planetary orbiting satellites. Consider all the material-rich products in a typical home. Cities, and the mountains of material-rich products they contain, are the “urban mines” of the global north.
Despite our throwaway tendencies, we also possess objects that we treasure, which have intense meaning and meaning beyond their monetary value. For years, I have conducted “object handling sessions” to understand why we hold certain things and let go of others. Groups of people bring their prized possessions and share the personal stories behind them.
In one session, a participant brought the white T-shirt she wore the day her boyfriend proposed to her. She was climbing a ladder at the time, brush in hand, decorating the guest bedroom. She shared that it connects her to that moment and assures her that it is enough, just the way it is.
In another session, a participant brought a small blanket. Neatly wrapped inside was a model made from a dozen multi-colored Lego bricks. With tears in her eyes, she recounted the story of her young son’s battle with leukemia, a battle the boy tragically lost. Years later, the father gathered the strength to go through his son’s old toys and give them to friends, family, and local charities. He found this work-in-progress model in the Lego box – a precious object that powerfully connects him to his son, and a time when he was well enough to play with.
Objects like these are naturally very rare and occupy the very depths of our material worlds. Of course, most of our stuff occupies the most densely populated shoals. Up there, meaningful connections are weaker, product life is shorter, and consumption and waste cycles are much more destructive.
We are surrounded by disposable products with built-in obsolescence. Electronic devices are particularly disposable by design. From Apple AirPod earphonesFor example, they contain two lithium batteries entombed with glue and solder, making them impossible to replace when they can no longer hold a charge.
Legislation on the right to redress is being introduced Brittany, the European Union Y 14 US states, penalizing manufacturers whose products are made to break and forcing them to create products that can be more easily recovered. Although these policy instruments move fairly quickly, the industry change required to make the change takes much longer.
The “circular economy” takes the beginnings and ends of the product life cycles and folds them to form a closed loop. Within this cycle, materials remain in use longer before being reprocessed into new products. In contrast, the established linear model of production and consumption is more like a straight line, with social and ecological destruction built into each end.
In the urban mines of tomorrow, gold will be mined from old computers, not ore; cotton will be harvested in worn shirts, not fields; and cobalt will be processed from broken flat screen televisions, will not acid rinse a million tons of debris. If this all sounds like a pipe dream, keep in mind that the medals at the Tokyo Olympics they are made from gold, silver and bronze recovered from the country’s electronic waste.
We are transitioning to a circular economy, with a shift towards products designed to last and made to be manufactured again. Repair shops in Levi’s store offer fitting and customization services. Ikea offers furniture that you rent rather than own. And the adidas Futurecraft loop The high performance running shoe is made to be remade. These circular design tactics, along with many others, can lead us towards a more just and sustainable future.
However, these initiatives can also bring their own problems.
Fairphone is the world’s first conflict-free modular smartphone. Its design allows users to perform minor repairs (replace a broken screen) and upgrades (replace the battery). Old parts are returned for recycling within a closed loop system. All products must be designed in this way and reinvented as dynamic and adaptable systems that evolve and change as the needs of their users evolve and change.
As with any sustainability transition, the risks of greenwashing are unavoidable. Many companies falsely claim that they recycle and refurbish end-of-life products to attract ethically minded customers. Others deny their dependence on conflict minerals, misleading us into believing that their weak carbon offset program makes them good people.
Certainly the prospect of selling fewer products seems like business suicide. And if your business model is based on selling a large number of unrecyclable products designed for rapid obsolescence, this idea does not work. But what we need is a better economy, not more.
Just having more things stopped making people happier years ago. We need new business models based on durable products and services: products designed to be easily maintained, updated and repaired, and that can be rented or shared, giving them multiple lives in the hands of multiple users. It is a new vision for an “experience-heavy, material-light” sensibility that increases the quality and longevity of our relationships with material things, and that demonstrates why design can, and should, lead the transition to a sustainable future.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism