Product Sustainability – Moving Forward by Moving Back
My parents purchased a number of appliances and other household items between 1959 and 1963 as they set up their household. In this era, products were built to last and be maintained, and the cost of ownership over a lifetime was considered at the time of purchase. Sadly, my parents passed away in the past year but their appliances live on.
I inherited a toaster which has been used almost daily since 1959, a stand mixer responsible for thousands of cakes, and an electric knife which has carved hundreds of turkeys and roasts. All of these items were purchased fifty years ago based upon the promise of their reliability, longevity and ease of repair. I also inherited a set of glasses with handles which was originally filled with honey. The distributor of the honey designed the glass packaging to have a long and useful life after it had delivered the honey to the consumer. It was obvious to the generation that built our country that products were made to last and represented an investment in their future. Throwing things away was to be avoided at all costs.
Over the past 50 years, we have seen a shift in consumer goods and appliances from designs which are reliable, maintainable and for which parts are readily available through a repair network, to designs which are actually disposable. Products are now created for the lowest cost of manufacture to enable the lowest retail price, rather than the lowest cost of ownership over a lifetime.
As a result, many appliances have a design life of only two to five years. These products include valuable resources such as copper and other metals in their motors and wiring, rare-earth materials in their controls, and plastic which could last a lifetime if properly designed. Low-quality stainless is used and actually rusts away within a few years rather than producing a durable product which stainless steel is meant to signify.
We have created a multi-lane, super highway across the ocean between Asian factories and our retailers, a steady conga line of cargo ships. We get low-cost, low-durability items and in a few short years have nothing to show for having spent our hard-earned cash. If products are returned to a store as defective, they are destroyed and sent to landfill because this is cheaper than repairing them. As taxpayers, we support the cost of our ever-expanding landfills. Disposing of products is neither affordable nor sustainable, and creates untold pollution with which our children and grandchildren will have to deal.
Your reaction may be “What can I do about this? I don't design these products!” However, as consumers, we have a loud voice. We can express this loud voice by buying goods from manufacturers who build products for the long term, who back them with long-term warranties and have a plan to repair or re-manufacture items that are broken or worn out.
Further, we can expand the education of the young, innovative and creative minds that are designing the next generation of products. We can teach them the real value of resources and lead by example, by buying products specifically and innovatively designed for reliability, maintainability, and ultimate re-manufacture or recycling.
As a society, incorporating the concept of a longer product life cycle and the ability to repair and maintain products will create local jobs and value in our local society rather than spending our money on the economic and environmental costs of a landfill.
I will provide greater details on this subject in upcoming blogs.