Re-thinking sustainability

The current efforts to battle climate change and pollution of our environment have failed. While in some isolated areas we do see improvements, as a whole our trajectory remains the same. Listening to this UN general assembly on climate change from 89′ makes one realise just how little the talking points have changed in 30 years.

…to secure worldwide agreements on ways to cope with the effect of climate change, the thinning of the ozone layer and the loss of precious species… we shall embark on this hopeful of success, not fearful of failure.
–Margaret Thatcher, UN climate summit 1989

In this article I examine what I believe would need to change in the way we consume and design products to become sustainable in the true sense of the word.

The problem with the current model of sustainability

The way we think about making products sustainable today is by minimising the impact they have on the environment. The problem is that however much we try to minimise the impact of a product on the environment, it will never be zero. There will always be some consumption of energy and material.

Product lifecycle

 

What is worse is that even when we accept this and only focus on lessening the environmental impact we run into problems. The products we create need to be competitive both on price and functionality, and in many cases these attributes are not aligned with environmental friendliness. The Fairphone for example, even if admirable in ambition, continues to be a niche product that loses out in specs and price when compared to less sustainable alternatives.

How we become truly sustainable

All iPhone models lined up
All iPhone models up to 2020 lined up

 

We need to accept that we will not get to real sustainability merely by decreasing the impact of the products we produce. In some areas where there is no functional need for a constant stream of new products we need to stop consumption all together. Part of how we do that is by building things that last. Today most products are designed to last slightly longer than the warranty period (see planned obsolescence) but there is no physical reason for why we cannot build products to last for decades.

To be clear I am not proposing we stop innovation. If Apple wants to continue releasing a new iPhone every year they are free to do so. There are some people that will always want the latest and greatest and they should be free to fulfil their desires. However I believe that the there are also many who would delay upgrading if their old gadgets lasted longer.

The need for new products will vary not only between people but also between industries. In areas where there is rapid progress (e.g. high-end computers) a new purchase every couple of years might be warranted, while in others where not much is changing (e.g. furniture) we can buy things to last several decades.

 

Implementation in reality

The negative environmental consequences of a stream of products with marginal improvements are disconnected from the consumer, both temporally and geographically. Because of this free market dynamics are not able to account for this hidden cost. In order to compensate for this I suggest governments apply a corrective incentive through a well known lever that has already been mentioned in this article: the warranty period.

Extended warranty

By extending the law on minimum warranty there would be a direct financial incentive for companies to build longer lasting products. Consumers would still be free to buy each new iteration of a product, they would however not be compelled to do so by having their old device break.

Some outcomes I expect from an extended warranty are:

  1. New iterations of products will come further apart
  2. Each new iterations will pack more innovation
  3. The purchase price of products will go up to compensate for more durable components
  4. The lifetime price of products will go down as you pay less for replacements and repairs
  5. Companies will shift to business models that make more of their profits on bits instead of atoms
Northface Backpack
The North Face is but one example of a company that already offers their customers lifetime warranty.

 

While the exact warranty period will depend on the specific product category, I feel confident it could be increased across the board. If we again look at smartphones as an example we have already seen that manufacturers are purposefully withholding technologies that would make devices last longer. One striking example is the near unbreakable Sapphire glass for iPhone screens than was leaked in 2014 but never ended up making it into any handset.

A healthy economy without consumerism?

Can a healthy economy be maintained in the face of decreased consumption? My original answer to this question is a pages long discussion on where we should and should not spend our efforts to move to a sustainable future. Instead of boring you with that, let me instead pose a counter question: can we continue consuming resources at the current rate without making the earth uninhabitable? As of the day I write this article the answer is no.

I am fully open to the possibility of innovations coming along that allow us to continue the current rate of consumption. However until we have clean energy, CO2 sinks and whatever other technologies are necessary to save ourselves, it is not prudent to carry on as we have.