I recently had an interesting talk with a man who worked at Apple.
We talked about work and life, what would you do if you didn't have to work, the usual. Our conversation turned to large companies and their social and ecological responsibilities.
I recalled a conversation I overheard at a dinner table between two couples a generation older than me. They were discussing lawnmowers. Not the most exciting conversation to have grabbed my attention but hey I nosed in. Discussing the "best" lawnmower. One man explains that his reliable brand lawnmower had broken down after a couple of years. Without trying to discover or even investigate what could possibly be wrong with it. He had already made his decision to "throw it away and buy a new one!"
I explained to my new Apple friend how shocked and taken back I was by this comment. He was willing to buy a brand new lawnmower over even investigating what could be wrong! It could be as simple as changing a fuse!
We talked about how society may have come to this point. Why it's cheaper and easier to throw something away rather than to fix it? We came to the conclusion that product companies don't make it easy to fix things. In fact, quite often you are penalised for trying! "voiding manufacturer warranty". Making the experience for fixing a product so costly in time, effort and at times money, that it is absolutely easier to simply throw it away and buy a new one.
I asked him what his take on Apple was as an "insider" and how he felt about the company and industry as a whole?
His response was that he liked working for a company that gave great things to the public. Life-changing and innovative products. I would agree with him. I do think Apple products are brilliant, moreover have been society changing. They have raised the bar on quality, leaving the rest of the competition behind to catch up... at least in the past.
Although I agree that these companies and products add a lot of good to the world, I have a big problem with them. The business model. In fact, it's the same model for a lot of companies. I know that these companies have very complex business models and it's naive to focus on such a basic one. But it's an important one to focus on. The one that revolves around the top line!
Sell the product, then sell some more, sell, sell, sell, sell, sell. Release new version 12.0! Say it's "revolutionary", then market it in such a way that if you're holding the old version you're "a nobody", "a loser!"
"Oh is that [insert product name] 10.0xr! I used to have that one but it was soooo slow. My new [insert product name] is lightning fast in comparison."
"My new [insert product name] has an extra 8 cameras to do..."
These "new" products prey on social vulnerability. They exploit our need for social acceptance via the "latest release".
I know this makes me sound like an anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, lefty. But I'm not! I'm for capitalism. I'm for building great products and great companies that generate lots of money. But I want to see us be more responsible.
The exponential growth of technology is equaled only by the exponential deterioration and depreciation of the products it creates.
A laptop costing near to £3,000 will be half that price within a year. And unusable in a mere a few.
I am aware that many of these companies have great recycling and buy-back schemes. But this doesn't address the problem for our need to "have the latest thing".
I find this relationship we have with modern technology so wasteful! This throwaway culture has to stop!
And it starts with companies. It starts with rethinking how we produce, how we market and how we run our businesses.
The resurgence of the craft industry shows us that people's mindsets are changing. People are seeking long-lasting quality over a quick fix. The craft industry also shows us that their products can't be mass-produced. For any company or product to survive it must be of the highest quality.
I want to see companies make products that are "built for life". Iconic in design so that it doesn't have to change. Think of the work of Deiter Rams and Charles and Ray Eames. Their designs have lasted decades and will continue to last for decades more.
No company has the mindset of creating lasting products. I want to buy a product that's beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. But I don't want to swap it in a year or two. Why not the potential to upgrade it? We can cange our relationship with technology products. My phone becomes something personal, something I want to keep and upgrade, not throw away for something new.
It may be that in time our continuous upgrades turn into a totally new phone. But this means that a person has explicitly thought about the features that are important to them. Maybe it's a 300dpi screen, maybe a brand new 15megapixel camera? The point is we move away from buying the "must-have-latest item" and into a world where we buy what we value. And value what we have. The more value we attribute to something the less likely we are to throw it away.
I can't see this planet continuing if we have this mentality of endless consumption. We need to shift our mindset. I'm not saying you can't have a shiny, beautiful, brand new thing, you can! But we should be buying things that we value, that we can and want to look after, that we can fix.
I know there are companies especially in the clothing industry who are revolutionising their approach to production. I know there are great recycling schemes. But recycling is the end of the funnel. REDUCE -> REUSE -> RECYCLE
It's great that companies are focusing on recycling but we still can't recycle at the rate that we produce. REDUCE is where we should place our efforts. The problem is that reduce goes against the corporate business model. It goes against everyday consumerist ideals.
If companies were thinking more sustainably. If companies were thinking more ethically. They would be able to invest in lifetime products. They would be able to change their business models. They would create iconic long-lasting products that we want to keep forever. They might be even more expensive than they are now. But they will last you 10, 20, 30 years and onwards.
So the man from Apple and I ended our talk feeling rather small. Feeling that we didn't change anything. Nor possibly could we. But I have hope that even a small conversation might make a difference.