The Green Dilemma
Sustainable or Not? That Is the Question
Society is placing more emphasis on eco-friendliness and our clients are sometimes struggling as their business models do not always allow them to use avant-garde biodegradable materials or sustainable manufacturing innovations. This got me wondering; what is the status of green product development and are there alternatives for our clients to be greener while staying economically viable?
Consumers are increasingly interested in sustainable products and the trend will not go away as we are confronted with matters such as climate change and the COVID pandemic. This has resulted in companies making green promises with products that tout “sustainable”, “Eco-Friendly” and “responsibly-made”. But examples of unverified or unsubstantiated eco claims exist in almost all product categories with marketing campaigns that are overstating and greenwashing environmental benefits.
Actually, almost all products require the extraction of natural resources and cause wastes and emissions. To be frank, in most cases there is no such thing as a green product. There are products that have less environmental impact but they still add to the accumulated carbon footprint of what we are buying. They do not somehow fix the environment or have zero impact.
A Feel Good Activity
While repurposed woods and steel is more sustainable, even if the original harvesting is not, plastics are the worst as most of them end up in landfills. Five of the seven most commonly used plastic types are almost never recycled and what is recycled is actually “down-cycled” into lower-quality products, such as park benches, flower pots or trash bags. We need to stop promoting the belief that mass consumerism can continue with consumers thinking everything we throw away can be recycled.
A large part of the problem is the public thinking that recycling works. You separate your trash and it turns into new things; this puts people’s conscience at ease as it is our responsibility to put waste in the right recycling bin and others will take over from there. This makes recycling a ‘feel good’ activity that may result in more, not less, consumption.
Studies have shown that the positive emotions associated with recycling can overpower the negative emotions associated with wasting. Subconsciously it becomes a balancing act between “environmentally friendly” and “harmful” behaviors. This creates the misconception that green behaviors can compensate for unsustainable ones. As a result, consumers may end up using more resources.
In an experiment where people were asked to wrap gifts, half of the participants were told that they could recycle the used scraps while the others were asked to discard leftovers. Researches consistently found that people used far more resources when they had the recycle option as recycling frees us from the guilt.
So it seems, at least partially, that prevailing sustainability practices have a negative effect. In many occasions green products are not truly green and while recycling works, it creates a wrong rationale that it offsets unsustainable behaviors. This may result in more consumption, not less.
Long-cycling and Fix-cycling
So should we stop aspiring to do better? Of course not, but it seems to us that we’re focusing too much on recycling instead of the source of the problem.
Instead of selling as many ‘green’ products as possible we should try to redirect society to consume less and value more. The reality is that waste reduction and reuse are more important than recycling. We should focus on finding ways to keep things out of landfills. Yes, recycling has its place but even if a product is sustainable, not buying it and using something you already own is the best way to lessen your impact on the environment.
We should deconstruct our consumer society but that goal stands in direct contrast with current economic principles, which aim to expand and sell more. We need to find a new balance that can make business sense to companies as well as allowing them to cause less environmental harm. We think there could be two acceptable yet environmentally viable opportunities: we dubbed them ‘Long-cycling’ and ‘Fix-cycling’.
In the case of Long-cycling we want to educate consumers to use products for longer times, remember the best recycling is keeping goods out of landfills. If companies design products with more premium and durable materials such as metal, glass and wood we can extend their life cycles. Superior materials are also easier to repurpose so we can also keep whatever we build out of the waste cycle for longer times. Yes, we will have to educate people that the upfront cost is a little higher but consumer goods will have an improved quality and user experience. The price increase will also offset some of the losses incurred by not selling seasonal goods.
Product design can further promote long term use by designing goods with longevity in mind. Items can gain character and cachet the longer they are used and through their ‘patina’ they will express eco-friendliness over time. Similar to how leather jackets get cooler the more you wear them. The eco-conscious consumer of today will be proud to show off a high quality product that tells a green story the longer it’s used.
Modularity Is Key
We replace products when they become technologically outdated or when they break down. With Fix-cycling we propose to anticipate these problems by designing products with modularity in mind. The goal is to only replace a broken component or module rather than trashing an entire product. In many cases we discard items that are still 90% operational just because of that one part failing on us or, that one technology being outdated. Fix-cycling also allows companies to redirect their revenue streams towards selling replacement components and by adding repair and refurbishing services. Fix-cycling will compliment Long-cycling as materials used have longer life expectancies that can be repurposed at the end of life.
Imagine someone refurbishing their cell phone by buying new modules or there being an option to send in their mobile to get upgraded where needed. This doubles or even triples the life expectancy of the device all while brands can sell more expensive premium Long-cycling products and offer Fix-cycling modular upgrades and replacements.
So, any strategy solely based on selling green products will always have to reckon with the fact that all products have environmental impacts. Of course, recycling is better than just throwing things right in the trash and it helps our sustainability goals. But, reality is that the greenest option will always be not throwing things away at all. Long-cycling and Fix-cycling allow companies to create a ‘net green’ strategy by reducing and avoiding business activities that have an environmental impact while working with materials that are better suited for recycling.
Yes, it will take effort to convince the consumer to spend more upfront but if products not only create a premium user experience but also increase the user’s eco-friendly cachet and standing, we feel it may be worth exploring.