Never have we wanted, owned and wasted so much stuff. Our consumptive path through modern life leaves a wake of social and ecological destruction – trainers barely worn, ignored AI-powered digital assistants gathering dust, and forgotten smartphones languishing in drawers. By what perverse alchemy do our newest, coolest things so rapidly transform into meaningless junk?
Over the past century, economically aggressive corporations have mined, logged, trawled, drilled, scorched, levelled and poisoned the earth, to the point of total ecological collapse. Our material possessions connect us to destructive practices via invisible threads of commerce, politics and power. Rare elements are clawed from the earth by the fingers of children small enough to jam their bodies into fissures within ore seams, beneath rock and mud. A “smart” light switch houses a fingernail-sized microchip containing more than half the elements of the periodic table. Many are “conflict minerals” such as tin, tungsten and tantalum, linking us to violence, war and unimaginable human suffering in underregulated parts of the world.
Do not be fooled by the deceptive material lightness of Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service. The extended product network of an AI system reaches out to a globally distributed infrastructural stack comprising energy-hungry datacentres and swarms of planet-orbiting satellites. Consider all the material-rich products in a typical home. Cities, and the mountains of material-rich products within them, are the “urban mines” of the global north.
Despite our throwaway tendencies we also own objects we treasure, which hold intense meaning and significance beyond their monetary value. For years, I’ve run “object-handling sessions” to understand why we keep certain things and let go of others. Groups of people bring their cherished possessions and share the personal stories behind them.
At one session, a participant brought the white T-shirt she wore the day her boyfriend proposed. She was up a ladder at the time, paintbrush in hand, decorating the guest bedroom. She shared that it connects her to that moment and reassures her that she is enough, just as she is.
At another session, one participant brought a small blanket. Wrapped carefully inside was a model made of about a dozen multicoloured Lego bricks. He tearfully recounted the story of his young son’s battle with leukaemia, a battle the little boy tragically lost. Years later, the father gathered the strength to go through his son’s old toys and give them to friends, family, and local charity shops. He found this work-in-progress model in the Lego box: a precious object that connects him powerfully to his son, and a time when he was well enough to play.
Objects like these are, naturally, very rare, and occupy the very depths of our material worlds. Of course, most of our stuff occupies the more densely populated shallows. Up there, meaningful connections are weaker, product lifetimes are shorter, and cycles of consumption and waste are far more destructive.
We are surrounded by throwaway products with obsolescence built in. Electronics are particularly disposable by design. Apple’s AirPod earphones, for example, contain two lithium batteries entombed in glue and solder, making them impossible to replace when they can no longer hold charge.
Right-to-repair legislation is being introduced in Britain, the European Union and 14 US states, penalising manufacturers whose products are made to break and forcing them to create products that can be salvaged more easily. Although these policy instruments move fairly quickly, the industry shift required to deliver the change takes considerably longer.
The “circular economy” takes the beginnings and ends of product life cycles and bends them round to form a closed loop. Within this loop, materials remain in use for longer before being reprocessed into new products. In contrast, the established linear model of production and consumption is more like a straight line, with inbuilt social and ecological destruction at either end.
In the urban mines of tomorrow, gold will be extracted from old computers, not ore; cotton will be harvested from well-worn shirts, not fields; and cobalt will be processed from broken flatscreen TVs, not acid-rinsed from a million tons of rubble. If this all sounds like a pipe dream, note that the medals at the Tokyo Olympics are made of gold, silver and bronze recovered from the nation’s e-waste.
We are transitioning to a circular economy, with a shift to products designed to last and made to be made again. Levi’s in-store repair workshops offers adjustment and customisation services. Ikea offers furniture you lease rather than own. And the Adidas Futurecraft Loop performance running shoe is made to be remade. These circular design tactics, along with many others, can move us towards a more just, sustainable future.
However, such initiatives can also come with their own attendant problems.
Fairphone is the world’s first conflict-free modular smartphone. Its design allows users to make small repairs (replace a cracked screen) and upgrades (replace the battery). Old parts are returned to be recycled within a closed-loop system. All products should be designed this way and reimagined as dynamic, adaptive systems that evolve and change as their users’ needs evolve and change.
As with any sustainability transition, the risks of greenwashing are inevitable. Many companies falsely claim to recycle and refurbish end-of-life products to attract ethically minded customers. Others deny their reliance on conflict minerals, fooling us into believing their feeble carbon offsetting programme makes them good people.
Certainly, the prospect of selling fewer products sounds like commercial suicide. And if your business model is based on selling large numbers of impossible-to-recycle products designed for rapid obsolescence, this idea doesn’t work. But what we need is an economy of better, not more.
Simply having more stuff stopped making people happier years ago. We need new business models based on products and services that last – products designed to be maintained, upgraded and easily repaired, and which can be leased or shared, giving them multiple lives in the hands of multiple users. It’s a new vision for an “experience-heavy, material-light” sensibility that increases the quality and longevity of our relationships with material things, and which demonstrates why design can – and must – lead the transition to a sustainable future.