Are you worried about the amount of rubbish in your bin at the end of the week? Do you lament at the amount of plastic not plankton in the ocean? Do you feel yourself harden against the worry every time the polar ice caps are mentioned?
As Richard Branson prepares a privately funded galactic craft to take paying passengers to the fringes of space just for fun, we might be tempted to think that something new, something ground-breaking, is taking place. In one sense, of course, that is true. But look more closely at this latest application of commercial technology and we are drawn back to the old axiom: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” When George Stephenson built his famous ‘Rocket’ in 1829 he received a prize of £500 and the admiration of thousands for being the best, the fastest, the first. The motivation for such pioneers may say more about their egos than their philanthropy. Richard Branson and his team may be following in the old traditions of the industrial revolution but it won’t change the market that has already learnt to demand more for less.
Today, engineering challenges are financed by companies motivated by the need to show profit. The ineffectiveness of this to do anything more is illustrated by the fact that so many products will aspire to being two plastic halves until availability of plastic is so depleted or environmentally caustic that it is no longer cost effective.
Although society was transformed by the industrial revolution, it was the ability to reduce the cost of manufacture that eventually released the market force that has shaped the world we live in. It is this correlation with cost that is our Achilles heel. Product development is now so well honed that today a DVD recorder can be bought for £26 – tomorrow even less. However, the beautiful simplicity of market forces is marred by life’s unrelenting need to balance the books. By working close to margins of acceptability in quality, performance and social conscience in pursuit of profits we have accumulated liabilities that are evident in the environment and in social behaviour.
This relationship with cost reduction has almost surpassed its usefulness as products now reiterate themselves many times over, each time displaying an array of glittering gimmicks otherwise given the more flattering term of USPs. The fatigue is setting in as the revolution slows to more of the same only in different colours with the occasional highlight – courtesy of an emerging technology. The scale and inevitability of a market preoccupied with financial values has created apathy towards change that reflects in the way we accept world order. Our trend towards not voting is an indication of the acceptance that political change will only be an alternative debate on the expenditure of education, health and transport. The fashionable interest in the fate of the world in terms of climatic disasters, world wars or biological epidemics is really a manifestation of our need for change.
Where will this change come from? So often we hear the sentiment that business only responds to market demand without the orator even considering the chicken and egg. That until the consumer demands green products companies are unable to do anything to help. It wasn’t the market that created the industrial revolution it was the techniques for mass production that created the market.
It is not our willingness as individuals to switch off a light, drive our car less, or wash our waste and fill our brown, green and blue boxes that will make a difference. No matter how concerned we may be as individuals, we are rendered useless to make amends for the collective problem created by all nations. We need to have lights that switch themselves off, cars that can be driven without impact, and packaging that is sustainable.
It is not put upon the individual to uphold the way we operate as a society we have policeman and doctors and politicians. So why dump it on the individual to tidy up after a society.
At a time when we have seen the greed we attribute to polluting the planet ultimately collapse the world economy we need to have faith that a difference will be made by sacrificing some profit in the name of being green. That by creating products that are sustainable we will develop a new market that is not all about more for less, a market where products have new values, use new materials and offer personalisation. People don’t just want more of the same, they want to be free to express themselves they want change.
Just ask around.
About the author – Austen Miller is Senior Partner of 3form Design