Overcome Obsolescence by Buying Sustainably

September 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, Economy, Front Page, Green Living, Household Goods, Sustainability


Even when this VW grows old, it will be sustainable, thanks to Volkswagen's plan to make parts available long past the required time period. Photo: Tara Gould

Even when this VW grows old, it will be sustainable, thanks to Volkswagen’s plan to make parts available long past the required time period. Photo: Tara Gould

Hello again! Regular readers will have noticed that Blue Planet Green Living has been on hiatus since May. We’re back, albeit with a sporadic publishing schedule that reflects the busy lives of our volunteers. If you’d like to volunteer a post or your editing talents, please write to joe@blueplanetgreenliving.com with the subject line: VOLUNTEER.  

Today’s guest post is by British writer, Tara Gould. As always, when our guest writer hales from a  country with conventions of spelling and punctuation that are different from ours, we publish it as written. We think you’ll like Tara’s thoughtful discussion of how to avoid planned obsolesence. ~ Julia Wasson, Publisher

I’ve been writing about sustainability and green lifestyle for a while now. But the recent demise of my kettle, after only three years of use, got me thinking about sustainable consuming in a way that was much closer to home.

I am in my kitchen, drinking a cup of tea, made with water that was boiled in a milk pan. It’s what I’ve used for the last few weeks because I made the decision never again to buy a kettle that is made deliberately to break. Trying to find a sustainable alternative has not been easy.  Planned, or built-in, obsolescence is common practice, especially in electrical products.

Unsurprisingly, I was not able to find an electrical kettle with a warranty that stretched beyond five years. But what I did stumble over in my travels across the net was the term heirloom design.

Heirloom Design

Heirloom design is the notion that we need to design, produce and consume products that not only last a long time and are fixable, but that are also beautifully and timelessly designed rather than faddish and disposable. Heirloom design counters both style- and mechanical obsolescence.

Disposability might be encouraged in the consumer landscape, but many of us, given the budget, would buy well-designed objects and products that promise a lifetime of use. Imagine a home furnished with gorgeous, practical things, which might even increase in value and be handed down through generations.

Saul Griffith is an inventor, sustainability expert and the man behind heirloom design. In an interview with Good Magazine, Griffith advocates the importance of reducing energy use, whilst trying to enjoy the best quality of life:

It probably means you will end up owning less junk, your life will be less cluttered, and your stuff will be more beautiful and serve you with more joy.

While championing this kind of exemplary design, Griffith cites a number of businesses that have been making heirloom products for generations. He challenges other businesses to do the same:

If an object performs its function beautifully, efficiently, and intuitively, it is likely an heirloom product. If not, you shouldn’t make it. Think about the beautiful, timeless objects: Le Creuset pots and pans, Bialetti or Bodum coffee makers, Iittala glassware, Vespa motor scooters, the Citroën 2CV, the Volkswagen Beetle, Lego toys, Zippo cigarette lighters, Montblanc pens, the Land Rover.

Many of these companies offer a lifetime guarantee on their products and provide replacement parts so that items are fixable.

Volkswagen for example, has a designated company that provides VW parts for out-of-production models, as well as vintage VW vehicles.

David Ward, CEO of VWHeritage — the officially endorsed UK vendors for Volkswagen — thinks it’s important to support sustainability in the car industry:

The current business model makes sense for vehicle manufacturers, who by law have to produce parts for ten years of the car being offered for sale, thereby encouraging people to buy new when the parts supply runs out. Classic and vintage VWs were built to last. They might not be perfect, but having survived 30+ years, people want to keep hold of them and we want to help them to do that. Classic vehicles are part of everyone’s history. VW Campervans and Beetles have become iconic because so many people have fond memories of them, and for that reason it is something that so many owners cherish.

Style Obsolescence

In his book, Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experience and Empathy Jonathan Chapman, explores how sociological issues should be considered at design stage. People throw things away, not necessarily because a product is broken, but often merely because it has become old and stale; it is obsolete in terms of style. Chapman states that we are searching for meaning, not matter, that meaning is symptomatic of empathy, but that empathy has a shelf life. Product longevity is not just about making things that sustain physically, but making things sustain emotionally as well:

Most products are capable of creating even a small amount of empathy at the point of purchase. From this point on, however, product longevity is soberly dependent upon the sustainability of that empathy. Like everything in this unstable world, empathy too has a lifespan, governed in this case by the type of relationship that is evident between the user and the object. Waste, then, is a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.

Chapman’s solution is for businesses to create products that adapt or change with us. His students at Brighton University designed a teacup with a pattern that reveals as the tea stain develops, and a pair of trainers [sneakers] with an illustration that becomes visible only as the trainers age.

Green Design with Humans in Mind

In terms of sustainable design and its central considerations, notions of human behaviour need to be explored. Sustainable design is about reducing waste and pollution, but it is also about creating products that work with the way people are. Reducing our current levels of consumption is crucially important, especially if you consider that an estimated 80% of the impact in the environment of a product is rooted within the design phase.

The business model as it currently stands is one that needs to make and sell the most products in order to make the most profit. But this is creating a waste crisis that our planet cannot cope with indefinitely.

As I return to my cup of tea and scan my kitchen, I have to admit that my toaster, blender, stereo, and juicer will soon, no doubt, meet their fate piled atop a mountain of broken electrical items in a landfill somewhere out of sight. I don’t want to be part of that anymore.

In my search for an heirloom kettle, I finally found two possibilities that I like, both stove top kettles with replacement parts and a lifetime guarantee—one made by Le Creuset and the other by PicqoutWare. Expensive, yes, but when you do the math, it works out cheaper than buying multiple kettles over the course of two decades. Meanwhile, until I save my pennies, the milk pan will suffice.

Tara Gould

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)


One Response to “Overcome Obsolescence by Buying Sustainably”

  1. Tara Gould, Contributing Writer | Blue Planet Green Living on November 11th, 2013 8:06 pm

    […] Overcome Obsolescence by Buying Sustainably […]