For designers of products that rely on fads, design for durability is the antithesis of their strategy. It’s probably not realistic that fads will go away—or that customers will stop responding to them—so it’s important to know the difference between a fad and a trend and how to develop accordingly. If faddish products are going to be produced at all, then by all means, they should be made to be recycled and disposed of easily—more easily, in fact, than all other products. If we know that a particular “faddish” product isn’t going to be around for long, then let’s not design it from materials that will prevent recycling. That’s called value engineering, and it’s a perfectly acceptable endeavor, as long as it’s not the driver of the solution. When decisions about materials, processes, and configuration are driven by a desire to decrease product life, then something is wrong, and we’re planning for obsolescence.
Forms of Obsolescence
Obsolescence takes different forms: technological, aesthetic, functional, and cultural.
Any of these may be planned, but several of them (particularly technological and aesthetic) are often natural evolutions that organizations can’t ignore. Technological development is often necessary to improve solutions, whether in production, use, disposal, and so on. Imagine, for example, if a technology were finally perfected that reduced power consumption by half while improving performance threefold. Should companies not release products with these new capabilities simply because they require some translation, learning, or adaptation from current devices?
While we may bemoan the fact that the computer, television, phone, or iPod we bought two years ago now seems obsolete, it’s not likely the case. Most of this feeling is only based on recently introduced versions with new features or performance. These products still work exactly the same as they did when we first bought them and almost always still satisfy our functional needs. If the new features were truly needed, then we might actually be experiencing functional obsolescence. If they weren’t (which is usually the case), then it is cultural obsolescence (driven by our emotional and not functional requirements).
While we may bemoan the fact that the computer, television, phone, or iPod we bought two years ago now seems obsolete, it’s not likely the case.
Some things we buy—electronics and digital devices, in particular—do become less functionally appropriate quickly. That’s a reality of fast-developing technology. It’s not that a laptop or mobile phone doesn’t do the job anymore, but that the systems it relies on have marched forward with progress, often stranding a perfectly good device that otherwise would have been useful. Typewriters, for example, work just as well as they always have. You can take an old, cared-for typewriter, put in a fresh ribbon (if you can find one) and a piece of paper, and type out a letter as reliably as you could for the past century. Not so with a desktop computer from even 10 years ago that runs with an operating system no longer supported and no physical connectors to a device or network usable today. Most schools won’t even accept donated computers more than three to five years old, now. While I understand all of the reasons for this, it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can fault companies for intentionally contributing to cultural obsolescence (and ourselves for falling for it), but we can’t fault them much for technological obsolescence, since this is an important part of innovation and continuous improvement—not that this makes us feel any better about the constant march forward in technology.
We Westerners live in a supremely wasteful society, and we’re promoting our way of life, already unsustainable as it is, to others around the world. Most of what we buy and use, we don’t use up—at least not the expensive, complicated things with the most impact. That’s fine if we design a system to deal with these partly used, often serviceable products. Some things get better with time, like wine (at least to a point). Some take on comfortable modifications that make them more valuable to us or exhibit their enduring, reliable usefulness. Others can find other homes. Still others have perfectly good components that don’t need to be scrapped along with the ones that have worn out or stopped working.
If we can find ways of creating products and services that meet needs over longer periods of time, we can save materials and energy.
For example, doubling a product’s useful life saves the materials and energy required to produce an entirely new product to replace it for that second half of its life. That’s a significant savings. This isn’t possible for all products, though. The smallest, portable goods are often the ones most tightly engineered with decisions that decrease lifespan in favor of increased efficiency or more portability. As we dematerialize products, this becomes an increasing challenge, but we have a long way to go before dematerializing small products conflicts with designing them to be repairable or longer lasting.