Originally Published in TriplePundit.
Technology is innovating at an exponential rate. New products and services are being rolled out on an almost daily basis — sometimes rendering their predecessors irrelevant and other times offering only cosmetic or minor improvements. But while the pace of the technology revolution increases, design innovation is failing to keep up in one key area: sustainability.
How do we make more things more sustainable? And how do we deal with them when they turn into waste? Most importantly, how does all of this apply in the new digital age, where physical and digital are blended in a way that becomes nearly impossible to separate?
Sustainability has been around for a while as an academic and boardroom agenda – a theory, a company policy, an ideology and even a marketing strategy. The latter to a large extent focuses on ‘greenwashing’ black products. From a bottom-line perspective, investing in marketing a product as “green” is probably more lucrative than investing in trying to develop products that actually are green. The reason: If we can’t make it green, let’s at least make it look green.
A few interesting corporate initiatives offer exceptions, operating at the intersection of marketing and real sustainable innovation. eBay, for example, set up a Green Team to engage customers to become more sustainable. And Dell is out to revolutionize its packaging for recyclability with the ambitious 3 Cs plan.
But putting out bins where people can “safely dispose” of outdated or unwanted computers and cell phones is no longer enough. We need to go one step further: commit to designing products that actually offer solutions to help heal and protect the environment.
To accomplish this, designers need to keep several factors in mind. First, it’s time to design products that we won’t be forced to discard every year so we can get our hands on the newest and greatest product. Second, we have to minimize the energy and materials that go into developing and distributing these products. Finally, we can keep the products we no longer need out of the landfills by making materials easy to repurpose.
Learn to adapt: Products – such as smart phones and tablets – should be designed with longevity in mind. This means creating products that are adaptable and can be altered in real time to incorporate the latest technical innovations. Several attempts have been made and show that there’s still a bit of work to be to decipher the blurry intersection of convenience, usability, and modularity. And, the desire to get new things before old things die, still runs deep in the human veins.
For example, Apple’s iPhone 6 shattered sales records in late 2014 — selling over 75 million smartphones in just four months. That’s 75 million phones that have either already been replaced by iPhone 7s, or will eventually be replaced. Rather than purchasing a brand new phone every time Apple unveils the latest iPhone iteration, imagine bringing your phone into the Apple store and receiving simple updates. These improvements could include switching out the old camera for the newest one, upgrading the software for new texting capabilities, or plugging up the headphone jack so you can use the new wireless earbuds. Basically, the skeleton of the product doesn’t need to change; it just needs to be adaptable.
That being said, Apple products have almost nine lives as opposed to disposable consumer electronics. There’s an order of succession with products being handed over from parents to children, dramatically expanding product lifetime and closing the loop in a circular economy fashion.
Less is more: This may seem obvious, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to reducing the amount of waste used to develop the products that consumers need. We must create processes that minimize the amount of energy and materials required to get a product from ideation to distribution.
Think about the shipping process alone – why stop at replacing packing peanuts with air cushions? Packaging is just one factor that contributes to waste. FedEx has a fleet of over 49,000 trucks. Think about the amount of fuel these trucks consume each day by going back and forth between distribution centers and destinations because someone wasn’t available to pick up a package or didn’t answer their door? Now, imagine if you could track your package in real time via an app on your phone, rather than relying on an email to let you know “Sorry we missed you!” You’d be able to determine what time the package would actually arrive (rather than a vague window) and ensure that someone is home to receive it.
Life after death: The good news is that technology companies around the world are already beginning to explore the possibility of redesigning products using existing materials. Doing so helps reduce the amount of waste piling into our landfills, thus potentially ensuring that every product created can have an endless lifecycle. According to the EPA, we can recover 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium from just 1 million recycled cell phones. There are an estimated 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world – so that’s about 172,500 pounds of recyclable gold!
The lifecycle of the products and devices we utilize on a daily basis doesn’t have to be cut short every time the “next big thing” comes along. If designers focus on increasing adaptability, reducing waste, and sculpting products with extended – if not endless – lifecycles in mind, we can fill the world with products that are as functional and sustainable as they are flashy.
We must also think about how we – in a way that makes the most sense – can replace physical products with digital ones. No matter how we look at it, digital leaves a different, and smaller, carbon footprint than a physical product. If we can design products and services for a true and sustainable sharing economy, we’ll be well on our way to success.