Designer’s Toolkit: From Planned Obsolescence to Design for Environment- III: Dematerialization


The third tool in the Design for Environment is Dematerialization – reducing the amount of material that goes into making of a product.

It’s an offshoot of the concept of  ‘increased resource productivity’ or making more from less. This tool holds the most promise as it’s a natural evolution of a product’s design cycle.

Also read 2 companies using “R2 (Resource Recovery)″ as a Proactive Marketing Strategy

We all have seen how technology has enabled electronics, computers and all its paraphernalia to get smaller than ever – how general lifestyle appliances and products have evolved over time into more sleek and light weight gadgets – how our cars have blended into stylized lines against the boxy clunkers of the era gone by. The challenge, however, is to embed it consciously into the design process more strongly.

Redesigning Commerce

Dematerialization, as the name suggests is to strip a product down to its bare bones – and if it can provide the same or enhanced function and beauty, then dematerialization is the best bet. Apple comes to mind with their minimalist designs.

HP was able to reduce its packaging to upto 98% in one of their pavillion laptops.

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing equipment company reduced its packaging of one of its products by simply wrapping a rubber band around the product instead of the usual cardboard or plastic packs.

Packaging is a huge area of opportunity for most companies in this space. The question we as consumers need to ask is: Do I need all the fluff and the cardboard along with my actual need?

But the ideal case would be to move further away from reducing the amount of product to removing the need of the product  alltogether.

Collaborative consumption through providing services

Another tool that is an extension of dematerialization is to move from ownership to access. This is achieved by what is called ‘Collaborative Consumption’ – simply put, selling services, where once actual products were sold.

Zip Car in US and Street Car in UK are leading examples in collaborative consumption, thereby removing the need to own a car – by renting them. Zip car’s slogan is ‘Get all the convenience of your own car but without the cost and the hassle’.

Also read Urban Mobility is fast becoming Social, Mobile and Peer-to-Peer

Street Car tag line goes – Self-service as-you-go-car. Their website claims that every Street car replaces 26 private cars off the road – especially from the people living in mega cities around the world. As owning a car becomes more expensive with all its associated costs, renting it at a small amount makes so much sense. Sure, this business model has limited options, only in certain countries and cities – nevertheless, the future is here.

Another example to the extreme in this model is Whip Car. It so happens that our cars sit idle almost 80% of the time – a highly inefficient way to use resources. They suggest a rather ingenious idea – why not rent out your own car. Well, their tag line is ‘Rent the car next door’.

Carrier, the air-conditioner company, has toyed around with the idea of selling ‘coolth’ – after all people want the comfortable temperatures – they don’t want to own compressors, fans and gases. It goes with the classic marketing principle of – People want a quarter inch hole not a quarter inch drill. Well, that has been taken to heart!

Upto the designers

There are other tools too that can be found in the designer’s kit – like Green Chemistry, Sustainability Helix, Total Beauty and they are gaining traction among the design community. But the 3 main ones have been explored in this blog.

Design has seen its evolution from a craft to tying into the core business strategies of the companies. The traditional system of making things, of taking from natural capital has come at a great cost. It’s now upto the designers to rethink the way they make products. And for that to happen, designers need a seat at the board table – sitting alongside the top leadership in steering towards Design for Environment product strategies.

We need compatible products that can sustain their entire lifecycle in the eco-system it lives in. If we are to move in the right direction at a brisk enough pace, then designers are left with no other option but to move away from planned obsolescence and move towards designing for environment.

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