Amber made a very thoughtful comment on a post a couple of days ago, which I thought deserved more attention than it would get buried in the comments. So I’m posting it here, and also trying to answer a couple of her questions. She said:
Tim, since your post on Crocs and their sudden obsolescence I’d been thinking about an innovation issue. Well, two actually. First one:
We’ve debated in a class on electronic waste. Because the development cycles for computers and related electronics have been so fast as technology has moved so rapidly, there is now tons of delivered poisonous waste from e-waste seeping into the systems of underdeveloped countries, where it is cheaper to recycle, and their governments don’t regulate the poisons their citizens are exposed to. In the case of electronics, it didn’t even need to be planned obsolescence, since the advancement of technology has moved so fast. But in cases of planned obsolescence – things that break after so long – it would be even better, since it contributes enormously to landfill waste.
One proposed solution is to have manufacturers bear the cost of recycling the very goods they made. This can be accomplished in one of two ways:
– Make manufacturers pay a per-unit deposit to the government redeemable upon recycle, not unlike when you pay a deposit when you buy a bottle or a can at the store. If you don’t return it, you don’t get your 5 or 10 cents back.
– Simply legally require manufacturers to request their goods back and make sure they are ethically recycled at the end of their useful lives.
That puts the onus on them to make their stuff easier to recycle once its useful life has ended, and get their things back from purchasers when they’re done with them rather than have their purchasers toss them into a landfill.
There has actually been a fair bit written about this. The outstanding Worldchanging site talks about related issues on their blog an a fairly regular basis – it is well worth reading regularly. The idea also shows up as ‘cradle to grave manufacturing’ or ‘life cycle assessment’. Regardless of what it’s called, I think it is a really important issue to consider. Like you say, electronics disposal in particular is pretty damaging.
Clearly, no one has ever been able to successfully design a business model that allows for a product that doesn’t break. Everyone knows the light bulb story: yes, there are light bulbs that will burn forever without burning out, but the companies that made them are long gone, some over a hundred years ago.
When considering the case of Crocs, the obvious mistake made was enormous business growth without recognition of the fact that with a product that never breaks, the useful (rather than faddish) rise in popularity for this product was going to only have a limited time. My question is: Would it be possible to plan a life cycle of a company that was going to wind down to a “maintenance only” stage at some point? Is that sustainable from a business standpoint? Because if that were the case, we could take all these older machines that were manufactured to last a very, very long time – washers, dryers, microwaves, VCRs, refrigerators, vehicles even – and simply maintain or upgrade them in the home.
Here where I live, we don’t tear down our old houses, we simply upgrade the technology used. This saves enormous amounts of resources. (In Japan, they do tear down one generation old houses. Pity.) We replace insulation with better insulation, put new siding on, put new roofs on, replace windows, patch cracked foundations – but it’s the exception to completely raze a house and start over. In my particular neighborhood, the only time old buildings are torn down is when they’re only one story and a multistory building with underground parking is going to take its place – in other words, a change so huge and so beneficial to the neighborhood that it is worth it to destroy something old. (In some cases they still don’t tear down the old building. Take the case of a former Chevrolet dealership turned Whole Foods Market down the street from me and a couple of blocks from Powell’s – it’s better seen than explained. In the old days of longer-lasted machines, this meant more work for repairmen.
Today, planned obsolescence means no fixing and the work repairmen find is in the sole(?) manufacturing industry where obsolescence isn’t planned – housing. The vintage version is more environmentally sustainable than what we have today. My question is – could planning for repair rather than replacement be brought back into being?
Another excellent question! I think that some manufacturers do think about building things for the long term. When I first bought Timberland shoes part of their pitch was that they lasted forever – and they did for me under very demanding conditions. So I’m not entirely sure that the Crocs problem is that they don’t require replacement. Of course, the Timberland strategy deteriorated once the brand became too big, and now they feature shoes and boots that are, umm, expensive but nothing special. However, I’m still convinced that the build-to-last business model could work.
And your example of houses is an excellent one. Part of the difference too though is the value of the asset. For most people it is well worth investing in keeping a house going, because they’re so damn expensive in the first place. I wonder if the average lifespan of cars might be stretching too these days now that they are better built and more reliable than they were 20 years ago? I’m not sure…
In any case, thanks again for the very interesting and thought-provoking comments Amber!