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What will it take for brands to design products that aren’t disposable?

The new book ‘Meaningful Stuff: Design That Lasts’ examines how product design can move from planned obsolescence to a new model of repair, reuse, and longevity.

What will it take for brands to design products that aren’t disposable?
[Source Images: Zszywacz/Sketchfab (phone mesh), Anton_Sokolov/iStock (photo)]

In a throwaway society, we take it for granted that products aren’t designed to last. If an electric toothbrush or a cheap sofa breaks, it ends up at the curb, not repaired. When the latest smartphone comes out, the model you spent hundreds of dollars on 18 months ago feels dated. When a new pair of running shoes wears out after a few months, it goes in the trash.

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For companies, there’s little immediate motivation to change, since short product lifespans mean that people end up buying more. But just as designers a century ago pioneered planned obsolescence—the idea that products should rapidly need replacement, either because of frequent upgrades, cheap materials, or because they’re intentionally made impossible to repair—it’s possible for businesses to embrace a new paradigm and redesign products that people want to keep for years or decades or longer.

[Image: MIT Press]
In a new book called Meaningful Stuff: Design That Lasts, Carnegie Mellon design professor Jonathan Chapman explains how product design can change course. Chapman started thinking about the problem as a design student at the turn of the millennium. “I would see things like a dumpster full of bricks and construction rubble, and then on top of it would be a Dyson vacuum cleaner that someone threw out,” he says. “Isn’t it strange that a couple of years ago, that product would have been in a showroom window, and now it’s sitting there with this completely worthless crap? It just got me thinking: Why does that happen? Why do things make that transition so quickly?”

The waste starts before a toy or toaster or smartphone ends up in a landfill. By one estimate, for every ton of consumer products that are manufactured, another 40 tons of waste is produced. Massive mining operations pull rare earth elements from rocks and soil to make things like computer chips that might be tossed out months later. Even when components are valuable, they typically aren’t recovered. There’s “approximately 80 times more gold in a ton of smartphones than in a ton of rocks from a gold mine,” Chapman writes. “However, because of the way we have designed our industrial systems, the rock-bound gold is currently considered to be more economically viable to extract than its phone-bound counterpart.”

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Part of the solution is to make products that can actually be repaired, whether it’s a vacuum or a computer. Fairphone, a Dutch phone manufacturer that uses conflict-free materials and aims to make its tech last as long as possible, makes it simple for people to take apart their phones and repair or upgrade parts. Beyond the practical value, it can help people care about their phones more. “There’s something about investing time and care in an object which then deepens your connection with the object,” Chapman says.

Chapman, who studies what makes people feel an emotional connection to some of the things they own, says that designers should think about how they can design a meaningful experience connected to a product. “Does it get better through time? The more you use it, does it open up new features or become more powerful? How can the object engage you in more complex interactions, and demand a little bit more of you as a user, rather than being a passive button pusher? It can invite you to participate in a more complex, interesting way,” he says.

He points to a simple example of brass pens from a Taiwanese company called YStudio. As you grip the pen to write or draw, your hand polishes the brass. It creates a “really interesting pattern which is, in a way, a reflection of you and how you use the pen,” he says. For any given product, the approach may be slightly different. Some kitchen appliances might be designed to last a lifetime. Other products that can’t last, like printer cartridges, can be designed for a circular system that reclaims the materials for recycling.

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While some large brands are taking some small steps toward longevity—Samsung, for example, recently released a repair manual for one of its smartphones in France, where a new law requires companies to grade their products for repairability—thousands of other companies aren’t even thinking about the problem yet. The best-known brands are most likely to be thinking about the issues, but “anyone who spends a few minutes shopping on Amazon will know that the majority of products that flow through our lives from companies you’ve never heard of,” Chapman says. A typical home might have 300,000 objects, he says, most of which aren’t from big names. And almost all of it should be designed differently.

As consumers start to make more purchasing decisions based on sustainability—and as companies face some sustainability constraints, like shortages of some rare earth materials—designing products that last makes business sense, Chapman says. “We’ve got this really old model, which is about just blasting products out into the ether, hoping somebody buys it,” he says. “And then when they get bored of it, which they will, they’ll come back and buy another one. That’s a dead system.”

Instead, he says, companies can focus on making money from service, upgrades, and repairs, rather than new sales. And they can also gain more loyal customers. “The second approach is more to do is more to do with seeing consumers as people, not consumers, and seeing them as people that a business should try and establish an ongoing relationship with,” he says. “By allowing people to upgrade and repair and occasionally replace products, you’re actually kind of using the product as a talking point that connects brands to people.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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