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.

Second one:

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!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “questions!

  1. I don’t think vehicles are better built or more reliable now than what they were in previous decades. I have empirical evidence since I live in a developing part of the world which has seen tremendous change in the last couple of decades, one of the consequences being mass importing of vehicles from Western Europe that didn’t meet the new pollution regulations there. Suddenly being able to purchase decent vehicles for next to nothing, people jumped to the opportunity in the nineties. Most of the cars imported back then were late 80s/early 90s models, ranging from cheap hatchbacks to luxury sedans. Now, 20 years later, a lot of those clunkers are scrap metal. But – quite a lot of them are still very much around and show no signs of stopping. Some models, like the Volkswagen Golf II, seem to be pretty much indestructible. It seems as though cars like that could run forever given proper care and a supply of (cheap) parts that have to wear down (like rubber and plastic parts, or tyres, sparkplugs, lightbulbs). Modern cars are not more reliable – they’re just more comfortable, technology infused, safer… but the probability of a malfunction has arguably increased as they’ve become more complex. Also, prices for replaceable parts have gone up as they get more sophisticated.

    There is lot of evidence of companies shortening the lifespans of their products on purpose, my favorite example being the hugely popular Orbit chewing gum. I have a habit (as many others do, I suppose) to chew on gum even after it loses taste, just for the chewing motion. In recent years I have noticed that the Orbit gum behaves differently – it starts to decompose and dissolve in your mouth shortly after the taste goes away. It’s disgusting and made me cut back on using it, but it’s a brilliant silent tactic – they must be making millions on that alone.

  2. I’d like to see some stats on that Budo, because in my experience cars have gotten much more reliable overall. Even stuff like the number of cars broken down on the side of the road is way down (at least in Australia & the US). My personal experience is a bit deceptive in that I used to drive a Triumph Spitfire, so I was very used to breaking down all the time. But I can’t remember the last time I was stranded someplace due to a mechanical failing…

    Do you chew more Orbit in response to that? My tendency would be to stop buying it… I tend to be very faithful to products (and services) that are reliable, and pretty ruthless about cutting those that aren’t, but maybe I’m unusual in that.

  3. I did say I cut back on gum in general in response to that. Orbit have sure scored low with me on that.

    Not sure about actual stats on the cars, just immediate observations. My father drives a 10 year old Škoda Octavia. That car has a great VW diesel engine and the mechanics are impeccable – the turbine broke down once and that’s pretty much it for the mechanical side in terms of breakdowns in the ten years. But everything else has failed one way or the other at least once: 3 out of 4 electric windows broke, the A/C leaks and needs to be refilled every summer at least once, the electric rear view window adjuster failed once, the logo fell off the back of the car, and the driver’s side door lock broke (my dad locks it using the trunk lock, since it has central locking), and worst of all – I think one of the airbags malfunctioned for no apparent reason. I may have forgotten something still.
    So, basically everything that has become the norm in the last two decades has proven to be unreliable when the car is driven for a longer period. I have to mention that the car is a bestseller and is in no way singled out as a particularly bad model, this is just my own personal observation from experience. It might have been just bad luck, or it might be food for thought.

  4. You did say that about Orbit, sorry. I wonder how many others did the same? If a lot did, then it isn’t such a smart move…

    The car issue is definitely food for thought. One big part of that issue is that the car fleets are so different from country to country – something I didn’t really realise until the first time we visited New Zealand.

  5. I avoid Orbit because of their commercials. But thanks for the heads up, Budo, I will continue. 😀 (side note – oh wow you say tyres there! I thought that was just a southern hemisphere thing)

    My initial reaction to the cars being made better now was the same as Budo’s. Perhaps I’m thinking of 1960s and 1970s cars versus 1990s cars, and not those from this decade. I, too, would have to research more and check more stats on cars overall – which do vary from area to area, good point Tim. We’ve been driving a rental Cobalt – which means relatively little anecdotally or as applied to other cars, I know – and it’s already showing signs of coming apart. (It’s a 2008.) In particular, I’ve heard they lose their transmissions after not too long. And the last time we were stalled alongside a road (well, it was a street – downtown, we were holding up traffic, which made me decide my bright idea to buy a cheap clunker for the rare occasions we needed a vehicle wasn’t such a bright idea after all) was in a 1986 Honda Accord. But we haven’t seen what a 2008 car will be like in 2028 yet – are we talking about stats from the years immediately after the various model years of cars were released?

    Budo, my experience with my first series of cars, three VW Rabbits from 1978-1981, was the same as your dad’s. The car’s (noisy, smelly, diesel) engine would run to infinity, it had a strong cage versus later cars of similar size, and the tiny little thing got 40+ mpg, but the rest of the thing was a nightmare. No odometer, speedometer, broken windows, lost reverse & first gear, radio.. horrible.

    I wondered if it were possible for large, expensive machines to recycle landfills, and there are two possibilities for that that I quickly found. Well, four, but the third and fourth options aren’t real or long-term options. That third one is ‘sealing’ landfills and putting other things, like parks, on top of them. That’s basically fatally flawed because no matter what, it will leak, and possibly dangerously. The fourth is incinerating them and letting the CO2 and methane go wherever it may, adding to atmospheric problems. So the two real options:

    1. Mining landfills. Using already-known methods to sift out (in this particular case, metals) from soil. That doesn’t begin to address the rest of toxic cleanup, though, nor does it sort out all the different things that could be recycled.

    2. Recycling landfills by non-toxic vaporization in a closed-loop plasma-arc gasification system. The gaseous byproduct is used to fuel the machine that does the work. The solid byproduct (slag) is used to make roads.. not exactly the least toxic thing that can be done, but better than nothing.

    My suggestion would be to take it a step further to something REALLY expensive and fancy! that can break down substances into macromolecular components. If enough research were done on how, we could probably figure out how to break these things down without too much trouble. (First, we apply x, and y results. Remove y. Then we apply z, and.. etc.) *solves the world’s problems quickly and expensively*

    There is more at work than the high price of the house, and most of it is psychological… Oh I’ll have to come back and finish my post later. Schoolwork calls. 😀

Comments are closed.