≡ Menu

Design Issues: Is Sustainability just Recycling Deferred?

Sustainability or recycling? – There’s a case for both approaches to dealing with the World’s runaway affair with personal possessions. But however we look at it, even the most durable of products will end up being recycled at some point, and therefore, sustainability is essentially about delaying the inevitable.  The problem with the concept of sustainable consumption lies in the consumers’ willingness or otherwise to embrace durability, in what is a largely fashion conscious, technology driven world.  Durability may be a fashionable design concept today but what of tomorrow?  New technology usually requires a new platform, so how do we achieve technical refreshment in an aging product? And how might we benefit from improved safety systems when we are saddled with a long-term product relationship? (Imagine how far behind the leading edge you would be now if the computer you were using had been manufactured in 2001!)

Physical durability is not really an issue these days – modern products built with modern materials are more than capable of lasting the 10-year benchmark set by advocates of sustainable consumption. Products with faulty parts fall into repair-or-replace categories according to their ‘write-off value’ and whilst it is probably not worth trying to save an electric kettle from recycling, modern thick film elements with overload protection will last for decades. Repairing may seem like an attractive alternative to junking, but warranty and safety issues have led manufacturers to ensure compliance with legislation by adopting factory sealed construction methods. And whilst it is true that all consumer products do have a finite life more often than not the fate of a product is determined not by its propensity to break down but rather by the vagaries of fashion and the users desire to refresh their possessions with the latest model.

If we accept the refreshment thesis then we should also accept that there are many products for which durability is largely an irrelevance. Take the mobile phone for example. In the last few years advances in technology have brought us tri-band network compatibility, built-in digital cameras, internet and email access and higher bandwidths making mobile video an unconvincing reality – follow this with multi-touch display/ interfaces, built in GPS, accelerometers, multimedia players and all the facilities of the latest smart technology and it’s obvious that a 10 year life is unrealistic. Many consumers will have changed their handsets a number of times to realise the latest advances, and unless they re-cycle their old phones as gifts to aging aunts, or recyclers supplying users in developing regions of the world, most of these devices will be collecting dust in the bottom of cupboards. And yet these handsets were probably exquisitely engineered and robustly constructed from expensive materials for a long, arduous life!!

Swatch pioneered the concept of high-tech mechanisms in low tech packaging 25 years ago. Although they were robust and brilliantly engineered, the cases of their ground-breaking mass-produced watches were then, and still are largely injection moulded. At the outset they were designed to see off competition from the newly emerging Japanese watchmakers and were attractive, affordable and of course, replaceable. Over the years they have acquired a unique fashion status celebrated by buyers for their high quality, low cost chic. And even though we often have an emotional attachment to these products as keepsakes, we do nonetheless continue to replace them regularly with newer models.

There is little doubt that the Mean Time to Failure of the plastic watch or the mobile phone, or similar, is anything less than sufficient to satisfy people who eschew fashion and keep their possessions for longer. But it is simply a waste of resources to over-design and over-engineer this class of product for such an eventuality. Consumers must be made aware of the environmental impact of excessive energy consumption in the products they replace regularly, and be encouraged to embrace fit-for-purpose packaging in the future. As the Swatch has already proven, products like watches, smart phones or tablets or cameras or indeed a whole host of devices at the cutting edge of technology, can and should be designed with realistic replacement schedules in mind, together with effective and easy to accept recycling programmes.

The concept of sustainability is fine for products where the embedded technology is so mature it has ceased to progress or where the manufacturers have anticipated technology advancement and made provision for upgrading, but the long term answer to our energy consumption problem must lie in designing fashion/tech products that celebrate their short life span and which are engineered for easy and efficient recycling. The worlds’ use of energy and materials will grow exponentially over the coming years – it is important that we, as manufacturers and designers, change the perception of value in consumer products in order to maximise our resources.


About the Author:
Bruce Renfrew is the Managing Director of Renfrew Group International who are a product design company based in the United Kingdom

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Gaby November 18, 2011, 9:39 pm

    Good article!…but if I see another freakin coffee maker as an example in a product design article I’m gonna chew my arm off. Enough with the coffee makers already!

    Geek No.2 !!!

  • Curtis Blades November 19, 2011, 2:41 am

    Hello Mr Renfrew
    Thank you for your article. I have a few comments.

    You’ve identified a good point in regards to fit-for-purpose, or appropriate, designed product longevity. And it’s great that you also pointed to the poorly thought-out safety/warranty legislation as being a barrier to resource productivity (i.e. better to repair/remanufacture, than using virgin material). On that note, what do you mean by ‘maximise our resources’? I’m sure you realise the earth, including the elements that we call resources, is finite?

    I like that you raised ‘perception of value’ as being something to focus on as product designers. Although considering perceptions of value of products alone could easily have us solving the wrong problems. The product-service system, not the product alone, should be the point from which perceptions of value are first assessed. I didn’t sense that from your words.

    I feel your use of the phrase “the concept of sustainability” in the last paragraph is inappropriate. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe you are referring almost exclusively to durability / longevity of a product. I would hope ‘sustainability’, whatever your point of view, is a much broader topic than that.

    Finally I’d like to suggest that, in our quest for ‘more sustainable consumption’, we learn to start the design process by turning our attention away from the product and technology. The roots of un-sustainability are in the loss of connection we have with each other and our environment. If we care for each other, and connect meaningfully with each other, we will learn again to care for our finite planet (this is different from ‘user centred design’). Our unquestioned faith in materialism and technology are what leads us further away from each other and the further away from the possibility of sustainability.


  • Michael Stewart November 21, 2011, 11:20 am

    Well written article which explores some crucial arguments. Until we reach a  stage where the possession of recycled consumer goods no longer equates to being grouped with “aging aunts and those living in developing regions of the world”, I suspect consumer demand will always be driven by those who are more concerned by what their ‘phone/camera/watch can do as opposed to what they actually use it for.

  • boiler repair charlotte November 22, 2011, 9:13 pm

    Nice article… you bring up some great points. Thanks for sharing!

  • justin Morris November 27, 2011, 10:12 pm

    You make some good points, BUT recycling can only go so far, most materials cant just be recycled over and over again, they become weak and unusable. I am afraid if we were to cater to the needs of the fashionista’s the world would go to the dog’s. Recycling takes lot’s of energy space, and is not very environmentally friendly most of the time, I feel compassion is what we need more of, but to be honest, with economic decline comes a more thrifty society, maybe economic decline wont be the worst thing for design.

  • Michael January 18, 2012, 11:39 am

    Some great points, ‘Going Green’ is very much a buzz word at the moment and many people are trying to jump onto the bandwagon but often in environmentally questionable ways. Is it really green to make a product recyclable if its useful life is halved in the process. We wrote a blog post that compliments this article very well http://www.4cdesign.co.uk/blog/client/going-green/

Leave a Comment