The answer is as simple as it is cynical. So we buy more stuff. It’s known as ‘planned obsolescence’. That’s where products are designed and made in a way that they’ll have to be replaced sooner rather than later. Your phone is a ‘perfect’ example. In a few years’ time it will likely need repairing. At that stage you’ll probably weigh up the costs of repairing versus replacing. A newer, shinier model will probably win out. Either that or your phone’s operating system will become so old that it’s impossible to update.
I was 18 and studying economics in the UK when I first came across the concept of planned obsolescence. Actually, it’s more than a concept. It’s an actual business strategy. I remember my teacher, Mr Smythe, using the car industry as an example. Like phones, cars in those days were designed to have a limited life. Sadly, that’s still the case for many products.
At the time that struck me as being a really bad deal for the consumer as well as being a complete waste of resources. That was my awakening to the urgent need to change the way our economy worked.
Fast forward to 2003. I had a growing family and we’d moved to beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand. As the manager of a coffee roastery, I was keen to find ways to maximise the useful life of all the materials we used. We worked with a designer to convert empty coffee sacks into lampshades. While it worked, and generated good PR, competing against mass produced alternatives proved tricky.
The experience highlighted the commercial difficulties of trying to buck the dominant linear economic system of ‘take, make, waste’. The alternative is a circular economy model that aims to reduce waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate nature.
There are multiple ways businesses can do that. However, I think a realisation that a fundamental shift is required in how we operate our economy and value our resources is needed to catalyse the scale of change needed.
With that realisation comes a drive to design and make products so that they last longer, and to plan what happens to them when they reach their end of life. It compels us to look for ways to reduce the carbon emissions associated with a product throughout its life. And it starts to accelerate actions that help restore and improve nature rather than treating it as a commodity.
Over the years at SBN I’ve worked with hundreds of businesses and we acutely recognise that achieving significant change is hard. A linear system predominates across value chains creating a form of ‘locked-in syndrome’ for businesses.
To break out and move towards a circular economy, businesses need help to access new and alternative solutions and technologies. No one organisation can make the transition on their own. Plus, many are unsure of who can help them or even what’s available.
That’s why we’re creating the first-ever business-to-business Circular Economy Directory for this country. In simple terms it will make it easier for businesses to find suppliers of products and services that can help them reduce their impact on the environment.
It’s launching soon, so if you’re a business with something to offer in that area we’d love to hear from you. Every day we’re being contacted by businesses with innovative ideas. Some have been around for a long time and others are relative newcomers like Critical, Mutu xChange and Again Again. In 2022, they’re leading the way. Soon you’ll be able to read about them all in one place.
There’s an increasing acceptance of the need to change how we operate our businesses. Within the next decade there will be a fundamental shift within our economy and the Directory will play a key role in the transition.
That’s my vision thanks to Mr Smythe.