5 roads to a circular economy – Part I: product life extension
In a circular economy, the intention is to produce no waste or pollution. Instead, products, parts, and materials are used, cared for, repaired, reused, and recycled as much as possible. This requires new and innovative business models. In our circular economy miniseries, we’ll address five ways to apply the circular economy and LCA in your business. Today: product life extension.
Product life extension (keeping our stuff in use longer) is, according to Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, “the single best thing we can do for the planet” as individual consumers. And luckily, Patagonia is not the only company enabling its customers to do so. These companies focus on making parts accessible and repairing the products easy. Over time, extending product life through proper care and repair reduces the need for people to buy more. Unfortunately, this simple act of avoiding CO2 emissions, waste output, and water usage is not a common trend yet.
Wearing out is built into the design
In 1953, the movie ‘The man in the white suit’ was nominated for an Oscar. It tells the story of a chemist who invents an everlasting fabric that resists wear and stain. Initially, he is lauded as a genius, until business and labor realize the invention must be suppressed for economic reasons. Similar incentives are in play nowadays, as most companies make cheap stuff that breaks and must be replaced. Customers keep this cycle going by their constant tendency to look for the best price.
Reducing the time between repeat purchases is supposed to generate long-term sales. The official term for this policy is planned obsolescence: planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete ─ unfashionable or no longer functional ─ after a certain period of time.
At one point, planned obsolescence was even promoted as a way to end the economic depression. In 1932, Russian-American real-estate broker Bernard London proposed the government would impose a legal obsolescence on consumer articles, to stimulate and perpetuate consumption:
“My plan would take Government finances out of their present speculative status and would put Government income on a more stable basis, by receiving annually at least between 25% and 50% of the net income of all the buildings, machinery and other commodities which have been declared obsolete after their allotted time, and nevertheless allowed to function longer in the event there is ample employment.”
Customers as product owners
Luckily, there are also companies who believe that customers should be product owners rather than consumers. The essence of being a product owner rather than a consumer is to repair your products, not to inflict something new on the planet if you don’t truly need it. Companies such as Interface, Fairphone, Ricoh, HP, DeWalt, Caterpillar, Lenovo, and Patagonia make repair an essential aspect of their business model.
Furthermore, the movement of turning customers into product owners is joined by multiple organizations. The international organization Halte à lóbsolescnence programmée (HOP) raises awareness, does investigations, and lobbies with industries and decision-makers to end planned obsolesce. Phonebloks is an independent organization that is helping the mobile phone industry to steer development and production towards products that produce less electronic waste. For now, they are focusing on modular phones that you can easily upgrade, repair, and customize. And there is also good news for the customers with two left hands! Worldwide, there are more than 2000 repair cafés, where professional volunteers repair broken goods.
Optimizing lifespan, not necessarily maximizing it
Is product life extension always a good idea in terms of sustainability? Not necessarily. Making products with the longest possible lifespans usually means using more resources to achieve a sturdier build. If a product’s lifetime is longer than the user actually needs it, these extra resources are wasted.
The best thing to do would be to optimize the match the product to the user’s needs. Products do not need to last longer than a customer will use them. For instance, tools such as a drill do not need to function for a total of 25 continuous years, as an average handyman might need it for, let’s say, 3 years in total. And the fabric of a baby towel does not need to last until the child is ten years old.
Erring on the side of longevity
Nowadays, most products break down before their owners want them to. As long as companies keep the match between product lifespan and customer needs in mind, extending the life of their products is a simple but effective direction for circular business model design.
To find out what would be the optimal lifespan of your products, and which design option would be most favorable for the environment, you need a complete and robust assessment methodology like LCA. You can avoid burden shifting by using a multi-indicator impact assessment methodology such as ReCiPe, and scenario analyses will help you understand the impact of the choices you make in your supply chain. If you combine the robustness of LCA and the circular metrics then you have a holistic approach for innovation.
Through LCA, it’s possible to test the impacts of circular business models, validate their assumptions and get feedback for improvement. In addition, it can help define targets and indicators to measure and foster circularity over time.
Learn more about circular economy and LCA
Other stories from our circularity mini-series:
I am eager to increase the environmental awareness of our society, and I believe that everyone can contribute to a more sustainable world, every day. At PRé we provide companies with both the knowledge and the tools to improve their products and services. I am excited to work for an organisation that is involved in developing sustainable initiatives.