We don’t need to consume less – we just need to design better products

The world doesn’t have a consumption problem, it has a design problem, says Lewis Perkins, President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and a member of the Global Future Council on Consumption. Instead of consuming less, we need to design products that are less harmful to our environment and the labour force that creates them, he argues in this interview.

Why is it important to think about the future of consumption?

The world’s population is growing, and consumption drives the global economy – so even if we wanted to cut back on consumption, it isn’t a realistic ambition. But I don’t think the world has a consumption problem, I think we have a design problem: we are still designing products to be made with rapidly diminishing resources, in ways that are toxic to our water systems, not mindful of the labour force that creates them, and so on.

There’s widespread acceptance now that we need to retool the economy, to change the equation around each of those components of design. But how we do this is a huge question. It’s valuable to have space to focus on one specific part of it: the standpoint of consumers. We are in a disruptive moment, both politically and technologically, and that offers opportunities to rethink how we consume – indeed, how we want to live on this planet.

What are the emerging trends in the shifting patterns of consumption?

I think there are three, and they all fit closely together. The first one is the circular economy: we are paying more and more attention to the materials that go into products.

The second is the sharing economy: we are shifting from models of ownership to models of service. There are limits to what we might want to share – toothbrushes, for example – but there’s a lot of potential to take the model that’s growing exponentially with Uber and AirBnB into other products, like technology, hardware or apparel. If current trend forecasting is correct, the rising generation of consumers will think very differently about the concept of ownership.

Finally, there’s a nascent but growing backlash against designed obsolescence – the idea that you buy an Apple or Samsung phone, say, and expect to throw it away and get another in 12-18 months. Products like the Fairphone – which is designed to be repaired and upgraded by replacing modules, for greater longevity – could be seriously disruptive to this kind of business model.

Are there examples of major companies embracing these trends?

Having mentioned Apple, they are putting out some videos about recycling – but it looks more like an added back-end system than a radical change in design. Companies that seem to be seriously rethinking their entire models include H&Mand Ikea, who made a bold statement that we’ve reached “peak stuff” and they plan to make their products easier to repair and recycle.

How they get there remains to be seen, but I do believe this is more than just the marketing speak du jour. Organisations are starting to see the risk of becoming dinosaurs.

What are the barriers to changing models of consumption?

For now, it still works to be a dinosaur. Most people are still buying phones to throw away in 12-18 months. It’s still cheaper to make stuff with raw materials. In many companies, well-intentioned people in sustainability offices are doing good work but keep running up against a brick wall.

So the big barrier is leadership: it takes a lot of guts to jump off your cash cow. If you’re a $10 billion company, are you willing to risk becoming a $9 billion company – or even a $5 billion company – if you believe that’s what it takes to invest in your longevity?

What role is there for governments and the nonprofit sector?

I think we’ll see more mission-based organisations, including nonprofits, getting into the space of solving problems for corporations by setting up systems to collect, sort and reuse their products – and the future may be in startups that eventually get bought out by larger companies.

As for governments, most likely we’ll see a market-driven process that evolves into standards, that ultimately become regulatory – although the pace at which that happens will depend on where you are. We’ll likely see earlier and firmer regulatory pushes from, say, the EU than the US government.

Where can you imagine we’ll be by 2030?

I can imagine that technology will have given us better systems to track materials. The concept of a “material passport” is getting more discussion now, and – at the risk of throwing out buzzwords – big data and the Internet of Things may have advanced sufficiently by 2030 that we will have a database of where all materials and components in each product came from.

Such a database would enable much more sophisticated systems to arrange the return of materials and components to the companies that manufactured them – and also for third parties to verify the source of materials and their quality, to check that they can safely be recycled into something else.

 This article was written by Lewis Perkins, President, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and first published on WefForum