Monday, 21 March 2011

Sustainable Consumption: Task 2b Reflections

Task 2b: Sustainable Consumption, Industrial Design Studio 3A at UNSW

I recently watched two videos about "designing for the dump" and long-life product design--the first is called "The Story of Electronics" by The Story of Stuff Project, and the second is called "Life Psycle-ology" by The Secret Life of Things.

In the first video, "The Story of Electronics", I was surprised to hear how much of the problem of people being wasteful can be accredited to corporate managers and the bosses of designers.  I knew for example that electronics companies often like to make adapters, chargers, and accessories of previous models incompatible with newer models (i.e. each model has a version-specific adapter), because this means that consumers then have to buy these new adapters and accessories when they buy the new models...which in turn means more profit for the company.  This is particularly evident in cell phones and computers, as new models are perpetually being sold every 6 to 18 months or so.  But I don't feel that the video gave enough credit where credit is due to consumers themselves: wastefulness and short-life product use is only so big of a problem in our society as it is because people have such high demand for new phones and new computers that come with the latest and greatest speed, connectivity, and gadgets.  If Moore's Law is indeed true, that processor speed will double every 18 months and higher capacity memory storage will increasingly come in smaller and smaller packages, then it seems to me that people will always have a high demand for new products that make their old ones obsolete.

I like the idea that a change in corporate outlook might give designers more freedom to design longer-lasting, safer, more compatible devices, but would attacking the bosses of designers really solve the problem?  I'm not entirely convinced that consumers would be okay with keeping the same cell phone (or computer, for that matter) for much longer than they do now.  I personally have had the same Samsung phone for over 4 years now, and though it is a great product that has lasted the test of time, it is showing signs of wear of tear, and dirt and grime have collected over the years in its crevices.  I can't imagine that everyone would be willing to hold on to their products for longer than they already do, because people DO drop things and spill things on their electronics--after a while, people like to start over with a clean slate and a brand new product.

Even if designers move away from things that are "hard to upgrade, easy to break, and impractical to repair", would a typical consumer be okay with holding on to the same product for years and years and just buying new add-ons and accessories as upgrades?

The part of "The Story of Electronics" that definitely rang true to me is the idea that we as consumers should demand that corporations "take 'em back"--that is, collect the used or broken products and safely salvage materials from them--so that we can build more products in at least a semi-sustainable fashion and avoid letting people in third-world countries break, smash, and burn parts (poisoning themselves via the toxic chemicals that are used to make electronics).  If companies are held accountable for the toxic materials that go into their products, and by association are required to collect used products and safely recycle parts, I believe that people can actually begin to care about striving towards longer-life electronics and the impacts of quickly disposed products.  This was also the main point of "Life Psycle-ology", the second video, which focused on the end of life of a mobile phone that was left in a drawer and dubbed obsolete as soon as a newer, prettier, flashier model came out into the market.

I think this second video was more successful than "The Story of Electronics" in motivating everyday consumers to care about these problems.  While "The Story of Electronics" placed almost all of the blame on corporate bigwigs who only care about money (which I don't entirely believe to be true), "Life Psycle-ology" used a Freudian-esque story which largely removed human beings from the equation, instead personifying our products as beings who want to live as long as possible and not be forgotten.  The main character, Eric-sun (an "obsolete" mobile phone), is used in the video to help reveal that a product can "live longer" simply by being designed to be disassembled in a way in which its valuable and reusable materials can be put into future products.  Watching Eric-sun live on through his salvaged materials in the form of three new electronics products, I realized that the video focuses more on the goal of the situation than on the blame.  I think after watching both of these videos that if we continue to blame each other for the way that things are now, little or nothing will be done about it.  No one likes to be blamed and held accountable (even if it should be so), but many people are very goal-oriented and can better see the end of the road through smaller milestones.  In my mind, the plan that works best is one in which everyone is given a proposal regarding something that they could change in the way they currently do things (consumers, corporations, and designers alike)--not necessarily forcing or demanding anything, but giving a goal perhaps with a reward for successfully reaching that goal--rather than just blaming each other all day and making each other feel bad.

If we're all held equally accountable to save our products in order to save ourselves and our planet, then I think we might just be able to make some differences in the way that things are done in the field of consumer electronics.

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