In conversations about sustainability, a huge amount of time is spent considering purchases and consumption. This past weekend at West Coast Green, the "vote with your dollar" mantra wove through nearly every talk. The question is not just about how much we need, but about how we think about what we need at all.
In our consumer experience, there are three things we value tremendously: choice, results and access. Each of these aspects feeds a cycle of spending, unpredictable satisfaction, and eventual disuse. Reducing overconsumption has to go beyond trying to make consumers want less, to giving their desire a new and more appealing target.
CHOICE: We feel a certain sense of power when we get to be selective. We want to be able to scan through hundreds of brands, and select a litany of special functions and features. Or at least we think we do. There are mounting arguments against this idea, suggesting that in fact our daily consumer decisions paralyze us and raise our blood pressure. But physiological effects aside, our purchasing patterns continue to indicate to manufacturers that the more choice a product offers, the more likely we are to buy it. iPod would be a rare example of a product with a singular offering that achieved phenomenal success, but even Apple has begun trying to hook new buyers with multi-functional models.
RESULTS: We have a perpetual tendency to conflate the outcome of an object's utility with the object itself. A classic example recurs on Worldchanging: Sometimes, we need a hole in our wall, so we buy a drill. But we don't need the drill, we need the hole. A system that offered the object on demand when we needed results would provide us with the hole but eliminate having a dusty drill sitting in our toolbox for 20 years.
ACCESS: We want our belongings at arm's reach on a moment's notice. There's safety and reassurance in ownership; it's the reason we buy the drill, and why we might even buy a shiny new model to replace the old one, despite the fact that they bore indistinguishable holes. It's one thing to recognize that what we desire is an end result, but another entirely to release our longing to be surrounded by all the means that take us to these ends. It's a deep shift that will lead us to long for an outcome, not an object.
A number of innovative teams (concentrated particularly in London) have been developing systems and infrastructure that can unsnarl the consumer paradox and take simplicity and sharing into trendsetting domain. At London Design Week, a company called Digital Wellbeing debuted with a "digital lifestyle" retail concept that puts heavy emphasis on the relationship between user and object, and the streamlining of options to facilitate more authentic customer satisfaction while marketing less stuff. For the week's events, they opened a temporary showroom where they could display their digital wares and services to a potential consumer public. They wrote about it on their blog:
This has been an eye-opener -- as a designer, having undertaken ethnography, projects driven by user-centred design -- to translate those practises in the context of the retail environment...
One thing I have also noticed is a lot of people desiring for simplicity but expressing complexity...On closer enquiry, I understand that this is what much of the current marketing around digital technology has been, and this is what people pick up. If you ask them how many pictures they take typically on a holiday, how many do they end up having time to really view etc, you get to see a very different consumption pattern than what's being advertised.
For me this geeky feature/tech posturing is best exemplifyed by the watch industry where watches can withstand surviving couple of miles under sea and still function, even though the diver might be long gone and not survive that level of sea-pressure. I guess it must be helping our psychological well-being to know our watch can survive long after we are gone...
Digital Wellbeing Labs doesn't directly address sustainability, but they do address a number of market issues whose transformation would shift consumer experience from the root, changing the way we form and pursue our desire to own things. Many of the products DWB will retail are high-end and high-design. The MultiPot, for example (pictured above), is an Italian-designed hybrid LED lamp that contains several electrical sockets in the lid where you can recharge your iPod, cell phone, blackberry, etc., all in one place. They are also selling the perennial favorite, DIY Kyoto's Wattson home energy monitor. The object list is long indeed -- and likely not in an IKEA pricepoint -- but deeply considered user experience holds value.
They also have included in their debut inventory one of my most beloved and relied-upon online tools, the Visual Thesaurus from Thinkmap, which I once considered my best-kept secret weapon; and Basecamp, a key implement in the Worldchanging toolbox. There are constructive digital games, robotic vacuums and several lighting products from the inspired Loop.pH.
All in all, the concept is a smart formula for a new consumer future, in which ubiquitous digital commodities don't come with a clutter of useless features and marketing hype. Because electronics manufacturers target early adopters, say the DWB curators, product competitiveness currently boils down to how many fancy functions a new product can be packed with. The Digital Wellbeing rebellion, then, preceeds early adoption, hitting the consumer who hasn't yet been told what to want.
For an individual, this model has fairly clear appeal: it's more customized and personally-relevant. But higher up the production chain, this argument isn't currently an easy one to win. Nevertheless, Digital Wellbeing seems to be forging ahead without a doubt that it's possible to transform patterns all the way from concept through production, to sale and use; it's only a matter of proving -- as with nearly everything in a sustainable future -- that the end result of changing old habits is an increased quality of life.
There are large classes of things where what we want is not so much an object or even "results" but rather experiences.
I think a camera is the perfect example of that - what we want isn't the physical picture, or the digital file, or even some kind of scrap-book. What we want is something to give us the "memory" experience later on, and a way to share that experience with friends and family. If that could be done without a camera, I think you'd find lots of people as takers!
So it's worth thinking not just about results but about the experience that those results give - and perhaps designing around that experience and dispensing with the "results" entirely. I don't know if that's even possible in most cases, but it strikes me as a good heuristic to use when you're redesigning something...
Interesting article, it got me thinking about how this type of mantra could ever transition to the mainstream. It seems to me that the consumer's paralysis/frustration/stress while shopping is at its peak when one is trying to become green or bright green. There's a great deal of education involved in the transition, even for highly motivated/interested parties. It's hard to put together the puzzle & make the truly responsible choice, find the best sustainable products. Especially if you don't live in an urban center or have access to a community of like-minded people.
Perhaps the success of the overall transition of current consumers to sustainable shoppers will rely on materialization of a green brand that is easily accessible, readily available and known to be comprehensive & trustworthy. Or at least a registered mark that various brands could apply for to signify their compliance with (X) standard. If the stress of trying to figure out how to be responsible is alleviated it will be easier for people to make responsible choices. The success of worldchanging type movements will ultimately rely on ease of use in some aspects, if everyone is to participate.