We all have too much stuff, we are all making too much stuff, and we are all consuming too much stuff. We love it don’t we? That’s my first thought upon hearing this issue revolves around the theme of waste to wealth. Well, you might quickly relate it to the infamous 3Rs reduce, reuse and recycle campaign started in the early 1990s. Disappointingly, the reasons behind the short fall campaign are exhaustive, ranging from the availability and transparency of waste management statistics, political will, infrastructure and technology barrier, and public awareness. I can only hope that the upcoming compulsory waste sorting order in September 2015 to turn this around. To be fair, the positive testaments of waste to wealth in various sectors are slowly picking up recently. However, amid finding solutions in managing waste, why aren’t we questioning the hard truth of us using too much stuff?
Some of my previous, helplessly pessimistic columns have highlighted issues of over consumption, over population, as well as the debate of using nuclear power plants. But, these are the hard truths to be checked and balanced. I am a cautiously optimist when it comes to the recent marketing trend that revolves around one of the most abused word in this century, “Sustainability”. One of my favourite books in addressing this is “Green to Gold” by Daniel C. Esty and Answer S. Winston. It reveals various MNCs such as Toyota, IKEA, Sony and Walmart, acknowledging the need to embed the environmental thinking into their business strategies due to the multitude of factors ranging from finite natural resources, end user demand, branding, and regulatory pressure. Mismanaging these issues can drain value out of a company quickly and damage brand reputations built up over decades of careful cultivation. But, what frustrates me frequently is how companies are taking advantage of the little knowledge of public to their good use of green marketing openly. It is easy for any company to green wash their products than ensuring its entire operation respects its fundamental value in environmentalism. Which, points out very well in the aspect of consumerism, why is your company asking us to buy more than what we can use or wear anyway?
THE LIGHT BULB CONSPIRACY?
Why is it cheaper for me to buy a new hand phone rather repairing one? Why does the printer decide to retire much earlier even with dedicated maintenance? Welcome to the age of planned obsolescence. Ironically the light bulb being the symbol of idea, is also the first victim of planned obsolescence. Extracted from the documentary “The Light Bulb Conspiracy”, the little secret took place in Geneva year 1924, where the first world wide cartel, called Pheobus, comprising of Osrams, Philips and General Electric, was formed. Contradicting to the energy efficiency notion we hear today, Pheobus members’ bulbs were regularly tested and fines were levied for bulbs that lasted more than 1000 hours instead. This was when light bulbs with more than 1500 hours life span was common! The thought that the planet is abundant with natural resources has led things to be designed to fail. This has discouraged healthy competition and innovation in the light bulb industry for more than 20 years.
Paradoxically, the longest operating light bulb, hanging in Livermore fire station is switched on since 1901, and outlasted 3 CCTV cameras monitoring it (you can view it via www.centennialbulb.org). It also shows the sense of pride and ownership towards lasting item when close to a thousand people came to celebrate the light bulb’s 100 years old birthday. This also mean that often technology is not the barrier to create lasting things, but economic reasoning. Take another example, the first nylon pantyhose is strong enough to tow cars, but design engineers are instructed then (and also taught today) to minimize the lifespan of the pantyhose so to ensure business as usual. If things are designed to last, surely we will not have as many waste as we have today.
TODAY’S PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE
But, planned obsolescence is no longer a secret ever since the 1950’s American culture of abundance and consumerism, even so today. It has been redefined in such that out of fashion items will be thrown and be replaced by the latest trend. We live in a society dominated by a growth of economy whose logic is not creating because we need things, but for the sake of having it, because the media and people tell you that you need to have it. It is also no secret that the design industry, instead of looking on how to build an everlasting product, focuses on how to control the consumer behavioural aspect by creating new things. Terrifyingly, design engineers are “designing” ways to ensure a certain life cycle span of your product!
Consumerism today has revolved around these 3 deadly factors namely, advertising, planned obsolescence and credit card. It is utterly nonsense that we are living through a period of borrowing credit to buy things that we don’t essentially need. The damage of this implied greedy consumerism globally today is unacceptable on a planet with finite resources. Aside from the waste management problem, the issue of cross border waste is one many advanced nation could not apprehend. Electronic waste makes its way to third world country such as Ghana illegally as “second hand goods” which links to a much complicated environmental pollution issue. While it makes sense for us to think about closing the loop via cradle to cradle concept, recycling is not solving the core of the problem. For every tronne of recyclable waste we think can we prevent it proceeding to the landfill, there are already folds of waste generated during the upstream manufacturing process. Also presently, not necessarily everything can be recycled but rather down cycled due to the complexity of the product design.
THE COMPANY THAT LED THE DIFFERENCE – PATAGONIA
So the point is made, use lesser! And one company has already responded to that call. Patagonia, a multifunctional outdoor clothing establish since 1973, has weaving environmental good into the fibers of their operations long before “green” became a buzzword. For them, abusing sustainability purely as a marketing strategy deflates the concept’s complexity, dilutes company value, and ultimately disserves their customer. They did not attempt to lend themselves to sexy marketing statements. Sincere sustainability approaches in operations is not inherently sexy, however, it is about values and principles, which is sexy because that’s what every human has. Patagonia’s common threads initiative, famously introduced through the company’s Buy Less campaign, has successfully landed them in the most successful two years sales and 50,000 people took the campaign pledge to reduce excess consumption. But how did Patagonia survive by asking people to buy less? How do you equate increased sales with consuming less stuff?
It is really dependable on the dynamics of your customers and industry you are in. For the case of Patagonia or sustainable clothing lines, value chain is the key. Patagonia line of products is considered one of the most expensive along with its rival such as Columbia in the United States. But, given with the value of free repair service and recycling services which reflect the strong environmentalism belief, Patagonia has targeted its discerning consumers convincingly. Not that they have made fortunes compared to their rivals, but one thing is distinct. Patagonia exists to prove that it’s possible to do the right thing for the planet and still make a profit, while noted that most of its rivals approach the other way around. Patagonia enjoys the advantage of not needing to please a range of dividend-hungry shareholders. It drives sustainability from the inside, focusing on supply chain integrity, resource reduction, and risk management. But achieving these in the truest sense, and building brand loyalty in the process, requires external collaboration, which is the consumers.
CONSUMERS AS THE PARADIGM SHIFT
The ultimate question is how do we make the transition? Consumers are the decision makers for the market, and when they are equipped with such values, the brands will shift their goal posts as well. The Regeneration Consumer Study is an online survey of consumer attitudes relating to sustainable consumption among 6,224 respondents in international markets such as Brazil, China, Germany, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is interesting to note that 76% of those in developing markets and 57% in developed markets inclined to believe that “as a society, we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations”. Similarly, consumers in emerging markets are much more likely than consumers in developed markets to “feel a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society” (82% to 49%, respectively). But this statistics can be further discussed, as we still have a ‘value-action’ gap today, where some people’s pro-environmental values and attitudes are not matched by their behaviour. There are still other collaborative parameters needed to shift the consumer choice and change their behaviour (these details can be read further from Sustainable Practices Research Group www.sprg.ac.uk).
USING LESSER INSTEAD OF PRODUCING LESSER WASTE
The advancement we have in the waste to wealth, or recycling sector is definitely a vital one. However, as elaborated above, the elephant in the room is uncontrolled consumerism. If happiness was dependant on our consumption level, we will be 100 percent content. But today, we consume 26 times more than marx’s time, but are we even 20 times happier than how it was? Public at large needs to look into being selective in the purchasing needs they make instead the quest for the heavily publicised “green product”. I recall this interesting answer which Yasmin Rasyid, founder and president of an environmental outreach NGO Ecoknights, gave when she was asked on her thoughts on “sustainable palm oil” in a BFM podcast series. She answered the fundamental well, “The people in RSPO has done their best in any way they could, but what matters most is that consumers are the ones driving the demand for these highly controversial crop.” Simply put, as how I believe it, it is not only about how do you minimize waste, or how “green” your product is, or even how “green” your home is, but it all boils down to the fundamental question, do you even need it?