Why we should buy less by buying better

If good products were designed well in the first place, this would work out cheaper and better for everyone in the long-term, argues Mark Shayler

Ok, time for another thought-piece. But what to ramble on about this time? I said I’d talk about better product design, but this a loaded term.

Does it mean better design of products? Or the design of better products? I lay awake at night pondering this. No, stop laughing, I really do.

I’ve been working on environmental design for 20 years. I’ve had a hand in designing everything from street, to houses; from pasties to packaging; from soap dispensers to satellite decoders. I’ve done my fair share of doing bad things a little better.

Shaving 10% weight off a product or package keeps many eco-designers in good business. It’s also not a bad thing; we clearly need to be more efficient with raw materials as we are beginning to see the end of the barrel.

Add to that the debate around conflict materials and embedding harm (I really should trademark that phrase) into products, the global economic crisis, and rising material prices mean that we should be more frugal with our resources.

However, making (and selling) more of a well-designed bad thing isn’t going to help us in the long run.

There’s a movement in the US called a ‘100 things challenge’. This was conceived by Dave Bruno and it is really simple. He has tried to get his personal possessions down to 100 things.

I was mulling this over whilst driving, and started to count up my things in the car. Clothes, watch, glasses, sunglasses, ipod, phone, bag, laptop, pens, notebook, earphones, reading book, ipad, shoes, running kit, thai boxing kit, folding bike, waterproof, safety boots, pen knife, binoculars, wallet, spare notebook, sat nav, travel washbag. Arrgghh, and this is just in the car.

I would clearly struggle to get all my “stuff” down to 100 things. We have surrounded ourselves with stuff, but research has shown that we are no happier than we were 30 years ago.

What’s worse, most of this stuff will have been replaced by the same time next year. This galloping consumption can’t be good. Replacing good times with things can’t be good for the soul or the environment.

I really do try to buy better and to buy less. There are some wonderfully designed products that last a long time and perform well. Durability in some products is the best way to reduce environmental impact.

After years of talking about the long life of Miele washing machines, I finally bought one a couple of years ago. It’s as good as gold. Never a problem. Huge warranty. But it was pricey.

Just before my eldest daughter was born I bought a Dualit toaster. It was £180. For a toaster. Mrs Shayler doubted my sanity. But 18 years later it is still going strong. Furthermore, when it needs a new element I can buy one and fit it myself.

I can even buy the more efficient elements as they are backward compatible. This lifecycle thinking – building in design that reduces impacts on raw materials, manufacture, distribution, use and disposal – is essential if we are to develop better products.

I help my clients with this kind of challenge. As part of the process that I use with them we talk about great products and we list the attributes they like about those products – 90% of them use words like: reliability, durability, built-to-last, upgradable, quality, dependable, simple, intuitive.

I then ask which of these words apply to their own products. The answer is usually, none. This is justified by phrases like “we are in the business of making money”, or “we make what people want, and that’s usually cheap stuff”. Yet they’ve just listed what they value. Why is this different from others.

And cheap stuff needs to be viewed across the full lifetime of ownership and in social, environmental and economic terms. Owning a Dualit six-slice toaster has been cheaper than replacing my toaster every 12-15 months.

Owning a Miele will cost me less that than owning a series of cheaper machines. They also work better. And, surprise, surprise, the companies that make them still make profits. We confuse price and cost and it’s about time we built better products, better.

Mark Shayler is managing director of Tickety Boo

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