Consume less stuff (but please keep buying ours)

As more brands start to consider the sustainable consumption problem, it’s interesting to see how they negotiate this perennial dilemma: a sustainable future is one in which we consume less, but most brands’ business models are built on us consuming more — or at least more of their products. There are a few approaches emerging:

1. Move upmarket. Make your product of such high quality, and give it a hard-wearing and timeless design, so it doesn’t need to be replaced. You still have the embedded carbon cost of manufacturing the products people buy, but they’re buying fewer of them at a higher margin – a win for planet and profit. Porsche is an unlikely sustainability hero playing that card (maybe more out of convenience than values):

All structural elements, switchgear and trim are made from fully recyclable materials. Better still, it is highly unlikely that your car will ever need recycling at all. After all, more than 60% of all Porsche vehicles ever produced are still on the road today. This exceptional longevity is fundamental to the Porsche philosophy and, in particular, our approach to the environment.

2. Shift to a services rather than a product model. I’ve recently been working in a project with E.ON, the energy company, in which they’re collaborating with their customers to, amongst other things, create new products and services that help people consume less energy — the same energy that E.ON sell. This didn’t go unnoticed in the community, and in fact many of the ideas that developed were around ways of commercialising these energy efficiency services. We were fortunate in that we were engaged in a collaborative process where these kinds of apparent paradoxes could be worked out.

live|work are also big on this approach, you should go and check them out.

3. Dematerialise. If you make each of your product units out of less stuff, you can sell the same number, or even more, and still be using less stuff over all. Simple examples abound in media: MP3 not CD; iPad app, not newspaper; cloud software, not boxed retail release. Even if you’re selling a product that really has to be physical, there’s a big opportunity to reduce embedded carbon through better design. And often the benefits of dematerialising compound to positive effect:

Mass decompounding is an emergent property of “whole system design”, designing the car as a whole system – rather than attempting to squeeze a fuel cell into a car architecture that is designed for a combustion engine and then trying to persuade it to behave like one. The reduced size of the fuel cell, and elimination of a gearbox and driveshafts, results in a weight reduction. This leads directly to a lighter chassis, as this is usually designed to hold on to a heavy engine and gearbox in accidents. This in turn means less power is needed, which means lighter components, which means a lighter chassis, meaning less power and so on, and this effect is magnified by using lighter materials, composites, for the chassis as well. Furthermore, all these weight reductions lead to narrower tyres and make power assisted systems for brakes and steering redundant, which again leads to further mass decompounding and improvements in efficiency.

4. Reframe ownership. OK, this is a bit of a stretch for most brands, but I came across this comment by ‘Pastabagel’ (via Frank Chimero) and it just seemed like such a natural rethinking of the nature of ownership:

Coveting possessions is unhealthy. Here’s how I look at it:

All of the computers on Ebay are mine. In fact, everything on Ebay is already mine. All of those things are just in long term storage that I pay nothing for. Storage is free.

When I want to take something out of storage, I just pay the for the storage costs for that particular thing up to that point, plus a nominal shipping fee, and my things are delivered to me so I can use them. When I am done with them, I return them to storage via Craigslist or Ebay, and I am given a fee as compensation for freeing up the storage facilities resources.

This is also the case with all of my stuff that Amazon and Walmart are holding for me. I have antiques, priceless art, cars, estates, and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice.

The world is my museum, displaying my collections on loan. The James Savages of the world are merely curators.

As I am the curator of their things, and thus together we all share the world.

Clearly this is a space that retailers can exploit, but I’d like to see manufacturing brands think about this too.

Smart against dumb

Given that so much hard thinking has been put into solving this problem, why are some brands failing to grasp it properly? Unfortunately for most brands the response is still to ignore it. That’s the nature of a disruptive change of course – most people don’t like it. But almost more bemusing is a half-step towards a less consumption oriented model.

For example, Smart USA have launched a marketing campaign to support the rollout of their small, economical cars in America. There’s a slickly animated and well-scripted ad that sets out a simple, if slightly patronising, proposition: Smart Car owners don’t do dumb stuff, like buying things they don’t need. And of course there’s a Facebook campaign page where you can ‘share your dumb’.

The video says, “We buy stuff we don’t need left and right. That’s dumb. We buy things without the least concern for the planet. That’s even dumber.” Immediately alarm bells go off — so you’re telling me I should share my lawn-mower, and not to fit that pool in the back garden (sorry, ‘yard’), but I should go out and buy your new car? How does that work? On the face of it, it seems like they’ve adopted the messaging of post-consumerism without even considering the paradox of using that language to power a marketing campaign.

Not only does it read strangely, but in a world where Greenpeace (or even just an angry mob of Facebook users) are all too happy to take a company to account for a poor environmental record (think Apple, Nestle, BP, etc.) it’s just plain dangerous. Looking at their Facebook page, they just don’t seem to have thought this through. They even have a ‘you buy a car, we plant a tree‘ programme. Don’t they know that’s a red rag to an environmentalist? They might as well offer to offset your first year’s mileage (oh hang on, Land Rover already did that).

In amongst all the press releases copied and pasted onto the page, there’s very little about how Smart cars are any less dumb than other cars, let alone public transport or a bike.

The best I can find is this: “The smart fortwo is produced at “smartville” in Hambach, France. Protecting the environment, energy efficiency & preservation of natural resources are hallmarks of our brand. The smart is also classified as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV).”

Clearly there is less material in a Smart car than, say, a Land Rover, which is a good thing, especially in America, where they like their cars super-sized. And they do tout the recyclability of the car’s components, but even that’s not a panacea:

One approach is for design to lower the user’s consumption, without degrading the consumer’s experience. The question is whether the new breed of ‘eco’ products adds to the crisis, or makes a real difference.

They may be adding to the crisis if the design method follows the ‘rules of thumb’ for that infiltrated the design community in last two decades. The reality is that these techniques do have potential to make a difference, but are often ineffective. Take design for disassembly. A designer in an appliance company designs a product for disassembly although there is no effective product stewardship scheme to collect the parts from reclaimed models. The design driven benefit is not delivered, rendering the methodology a waste of time.

I’m not saying that Smart cars aren’t green (though they may not be) nor that they shouldn’t use the language of post-consumerism, but just that they need to think it through. How can they really help us to be ‘less dumb’? What would be really smart? If Smart Cars solved the ‘I need to get around’ problem instead of solving the ‘I need a new car’ problem. If Smart took responsibility for the end-of-life re-use of the car so all that effort that went into recyclability wasn’t wasted. If Smart looked at a design that wasn’t so modish it would look out of date in two years and ‘need’ replacing. There’s a gaping hole where there should be environmental leadership in the automotive sector. Smart might be well placed to fill it, but not based on this campaign.