Products have a life cycle, as is elegantly described in the online short film The Story of Stuff. Up until recently, our society was focussed on only one small segment of that life cycle: the point where a product shows up on retail store shelves, and the point at which we purchase that product. None of us seemed to give much thought to where that product came from, what went into its manufacture, or what happened to it after we tossed it away.
Slowly, ever so slowly, our collective consciousness has been awakening. Environmentalism, energy conservation, and sustainability are being discussed in the mainstream media. But what I don’t think has quite hit mainstream consciousness yet is the relationship between consumerism and the current environmental crisis.
We created a society of consumers because buying things makes the economy grow (albeit based on indicators that are artificially constructed to measure prosperity in that way). Consumers are driven by media advertising, by the whims of fashion, and by planned obsolescence. The availability of easy credit draws consumers to purchase more than they can afford and artificially increases economic growth (I say “artificially” because the apparent growth in the economy is fueled by borrowed money). Rising consumer demand for products whose life expectancy is either deliberately or carelessly limited by design is particularly relevant to this discussion since it is the scale of manufacturing combined with the problem of product disposal that has led to our current environmental crisis.
I’ve been hearing recently about a concept called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). In short, it makes manufacturers responsible for their products over that product’s entire life cycle, including (and importantly) its disposal. This morning on the radio I heard a waste management expert discussion the concept of zero waste and she specifically discussed EPR.
Honestly, I think this is the most brilliant idea I’ve heard in a long time. Making manufacturers responsible for disposing of their products sets off a chain reaction that leads to better solutions all down the line. And it’s nice to see economic forces working for the Good Side for a change. Here’s how it breaks down:
Disposing of waste costs money and municipalities are increasingly asking why they should pay the costs of disposal for products such as electronic items – costs not just in terms of money, but land use and environmental impact. EPR would transfer those costs to the manufacturer. So first and foremost, the manufacturer is going to want to offset those costs. One way is if the product can be recycled (even better, back into the manufacturing process – a closed loop system) and/or sold for its parts. Another way is to reduce the number of products being returned to the manufacturer as waste. These two factors alone could be enough to prompt change in both design and product longevity, and likely even the manufacturing process as it is tweaked to accommodate recycled product or parts. The notion of planned obsolescence, which was originally designed to increase company profits and drive economic growth, now becomes a financial liability if left unchecked.
It’s certainly not a panacea. Manufacturers won’t want a product to last too long otherwise sales and profits may become limited. It won’t stop consumer marketing, nor is it likely to curb our society’s obsession with accumulating Stuff. But it could result in some major changes to our viewpoint: perhaps we’ll start seeing products in terms of their whole life cycle. And of course the reduced waste will have many important benefits as well.
Here’s hoping EPR is an idea that catches on.