Stuff and nonsense – we need to design to last

As consumers, we accumulate vast amounts of stuff that then needs disposing of. It's time to end cheap crap by designing better, and for longer, argues Mark Shayler

I reckon that 80% of everything is crap. I think that 8 out of 10 things we buy disappoint in some way. They don’t work properly, or they fail early, or they use too many consumables, or they have some kind of obsolescence built into them.

But that’s how we’ve built our society, isn’t it? We gear growth around selling more stuff and we are constantly reducing the price of stuff until it’s so cheap that it cant be made in the UK, so we off-shore it.

With it goes the manufacturing impact – bad impacts include energy use and water use, good impacts include jobs and taxation. These products become waste. Many of them can be recycled, but they become waste in Europe and the USA, while the demand for raw materials is in China or India.

So we ship the recyclate back to these countries to recycle and use in new products, which then get shipped back across the globe. Phew! Exhausting just thinking about it.

This downward pressure on the price of things has numerous impacts. I don’t think it means that we save money. I think we just buy more stuff with the money we’ve “saved”. In turn we value what we have less as it was so easy and cheap to come by.

Add to that the historic ease of getting credit and we find that many things have broken or been thrown away before they’ve been paid for. Negative equity on a sofa – who’d have thought it?

It’s our fault you know. We’ve demanded cheap crap – that’s what the retailers say. It’s not their fault for selling it, it’s our fault for buying it. Clearly it’s not as simple as this, but we consumers do need to take some blame.

We have somehow confused quantity and quality when we are assessing value. We seem to measure our progress by how much stuff we own. This can’t be healthy. Indeed, we know it isn’t.

Just looking at electronics alone, during our life we are expected to use and dispose of 3.3 tonnes of electronic waste. The world average is under 20g per person. So when the developing world wants what we’ve got, what will happen?

Firstly we wont be able to produce enough stuff as it’s not going to be possible to get the raw materials, energy and water to make these things for such a large population.

Secondly, we will have significantly more waste to deal with and more energy required to power them. There simply isn’t enough stuff to go around. And the stuff we use is travelling too far.

So we need to do things differently. We need to design products that last longer. We need to design products that can be delivered as a service. We need to redesign many business models so that businesses can still make money from things that last longer.

I work with companies on eco-design and the benefits are massive. This has saved my clients over £80 million. However, I’m fed up with making bad things a bit better. I want to help make astonishing things now.

In my next two articles, I will look at how companies are designing better products and better services, highlighting the practical benefits and the dos and don’ts along the way.

Mark Shayler is managing director of Tickety Boo

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