By Tara Gould
Why do we hold onto certain objects for decades, while others we are willing to discard before they’re even broken or tatty?
‘The trick is keeping it fresh.’ These are the words of wisdom we often hear from married couples who have gone the distance and survived. In order to maintain empathy and sparkle long term it helps to enjoy new and varied experiences, both together and apart.
Empathy and objects
According to Professor Jonathan Chapman the same rule of thumb can be applied to the material objects in our lives.
Chapman is a UK-based sustainable design theorist, whose work seeks to understand and uncover the social and societal patterns of consumption and waste and find practical ways out of our current unsustainable, throwaway culture. He is currently in consultation with a number of businesses, including Puma, to look at how to design products that are not only sustainable and durable, but which support resilient relationships between products and people.
In his book “Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy” Chapman stresses that “we are consumers of meaning not matter.” He explores how we retain interest in things only when they continue, over time, to remain meaningful, and can adapt to our changing desires and values.
Our resentment of the old and stale, Chapman suggests is linked to Darwin’s model of evolution and our innate striving for progress. A product becomes obsolete not necessarily because it broke. It might have gone out of style. “Style obsolescence” refers to the state when a product becomes old and unfashionable, losing the identity and status it once had. If objects fail to sate the human hunger for new, fresh experiences they become objects of contempt, as Chapman asserts, “Waste then is a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.”
Playing for keeps
So what might an emotionally designed object look like?
In an earlier post on TriplePundit, student Marshall Jamshidi designs an emotionally durable microwave which, over time, gets to know the food you like, and how best to cook it for you. Students at Brighton University dreamed up a tea cup with an invisible interior pattern that only develops as the tea stain deepens, and a pair of trainers which reveal an illustration as they get dirty or worn or faded.
But products don’t necessarily require this kind of built-in novelty activator for us to want to care for and cherish them.Woody Allen has kept and used the same typewriter for the last 50 years. It’s an Olympia portable SM-3, circa late 1950s, he wrote all of his film scripts on it. My mother still uses the 45-year-old Morphy Richards toaster that belonged to her father. It toasts evenly, has been repaired only once, and evokes fond memories of her childhood home in Yorkshire.
An obsolete business model
Today’s business model, which strives to create maximum profit from producing and selling more and more products, does not encourage consumers to keep and care for things. Electrical items are unfixable, built-in obsolescence means shelf life is minimized, while rapid shifts in technology prevent consumers from keeping, and mending. Go online and try to find a kettle with a life-time or ten-year guarantee and it soon becomes clear that many of us are being forced into a throwaway society we didn’t sign up for. Unfortunately many businesses are still reluctant to more forwards because a fear of change, or habitual ways of working.
In an interview with the Guardian, Fiona Bennie, head of sustainability at design agency Dragon Rouge, says that people will increasingly demand products that last, “Companies are going to have to meet customers’ demands and needs with different business models and [in some cases] service-based systems. If they don’t, it’s increasingly likely a clever start up will.”
Icons and identity
A certain forward-thinking sector of the car industry offers us a great example of this. UK spare parts businesses such as VWHeritage, Mini Spares,UK MG Parts and Rimmer Brothers provide genuine original, heritage and quality reproduction spare parts, for classic, vintage or other out-of-production cars. David Ward, Managing Director at VWHeritage says:
“The current business model makes sense for vehicle manufacturers, who by law have to produce parts for ten years of the car being offered for sale, thereby encouraging people to buy new when the parts supply runs out. Classic and vintage VWs were built to last. They might not be perfect, but they survive 30+ years. People want to keep hold of them and we want to help them to do that. Classic vehicles are part of everyone’s history; VW Campervans and Beetles have become iconic because so many people have fond memories of them, and for that reason it is something that so many owners cherish.”
There are enormous environmental advantages to keeping the same car long term. According to a spokesperson from the Environmental Transport Association, a considerable amount of the environmental impact of buying a car is not in the driving, but the manufacture and scrapping, a factor which remains almost entirely overlooked:
“The tank-to-wheel fuel consumption is only part of the story. Petroleum and fuel transport and production consume energy, as well as car manufacturing and scrapping and the maintenance and infrastructure. The total energy consumption of car use is on average 54.7 percent higher than the tank-to-wheel energy consumption alone.”
A multipronged approach
In my experience, just the act of fixing a broken radio, restoring a car, or upholstering a piece of furniture creates a bond between product and person.
So if objects, electrical appliances, cars and even clothes are well made, and beautifully designed, we will want to hold onto them, we will have experiences with them, and we will want to repair them.
Emotionally durable design, then, needs to be so much more than just the creation of products that change or adapt, and maintain our empathy for longer. Alongside developing sustainable design, should businesses not strive to sell products that last, products that can be updated or restored, and equally importantly, products that can be easily repaired?
Tara Gould is a writer, journalist and blogger supporting ethical businesses and spreading the word on sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @EthicalBizTara
Image credit: jhorneman, Flickr