The market adjusts to what we value in our products and how we use them.
In the past half-century we have become increasingly good at making products cheaper, faster, and desirable. As the pace of new products has increased, the focus on long term usage of the product has diminished. The product only need last as long as it takes for its perceived obsoleteness to demand a new product.
The incentive for companies in the current system is to focus on the next big thing — you need only look as far as the cellphone industry ads to see that.
What is the impact of the current system? 1) We develop relationships with our products that extend beyond utility to emotional fulfillment — think of the tech and fashion industries. 2) Resource consumption and subsequent environmental destruction increase as we make and buy more than we need — think of the need for the self-storage industry.
Products are not inherently bad but the excess we create and the way we use them today is worth a second look. In this article, I focus on the consumer experience, with the assumptions that consumers are more price sensitive than environmentally conscious, consumers would make smarter purchase decisions if it were easier, and companies respond to consumer demand.
How we alter the course of the current system
Companies today are already good at creating new product to meet new consumer usage demand. Think about how much more of a reality autonomous cars are today compared to the pre-Lyft days or how many gluten-free things you can buy today compared to 10 years ago. We must gradually demand different types of products by gradually changing our usage of products.
Additionally, consumers today buy smarter when the decision making process is easy. Think about how you can walk into a Whole Foods and trust that what you buy meets certain environmental standards or how Amazon has revolutionized shopping at brick and mortar stores. We must make it easy for consumers to focus on how products are made. There is so much we have learned in tech and other industries which could effortlessly nudge and inform purchase decisions.
Products today, and how we use them
A product today has a short lifespan and one user. It’s most easy to address this problem in the reverse order: create new usage patterns that demand longer product lifespan.
We begin today by focusing on how a product can be used in a valuable way by more than one person in its lifetime. What this means is that the things we buy, instead of sitting dormant for most of their life, get used by others. There already exists such a model for housing (Airbnb) and transportation (Lyft). Now we have to continue doing this for everything else.
As products are used beyond the initial purchaser, products that last longer become the economic preference because money can be made during the entire lifespan of the product. The focus of the product becomes its ability to last a long time and be shared by many people, not the individual marketing created “happiness” of one person.
Here we develop a preference for utility, durability, and quality because there is increased economic reason for the consumer to do so. In this view, the next big thing is a phone that will last longer than two years, can easily have parts upgraded or swapped out as they break, and can be used in a valuable way by more than one person in its lifetime.
If we are lucky, the forced in-person social interaction and trust of this style of using products may unintentionally build community among a generation that has become so disconnected.
Products today, and how they are made
It is impossible to know where your product today comes from and who/what is impacted along the way. This is a function of it being difficult to keep track of supply chain, which makes it convenient for companies to not surface these details about their products. The consumer is left uninformed and is often times left with increased guilt the more they learn.
In order to create change here we must understand that at the point of purchase we are both logical and emotional (arguably more emotional) decision makers. The solution will need to address the informational deficiency but do so in a way that causes less mental strain than any normal purchase while helping the consumer feel their positive contribution. Again, think of how Amazon made shopping online so easy.
Certifications like organic/ecological, 1% for the Planet, or B Corp were the first iteration of this idea. But the next iterations will utilize everything we know today in the tech industry about user behavior to create new consumer preference that takes the hard work out of consuming in a way that has a positive social and environmental impact in the world.
If we are lucky, this fuels an evolved business value system which cares about treating people as humans, not just employees. Doing so will be the only way to attract the kind of people a company would need to provide the best solutions needed here.
The above is just one glimpse of business as a force for positive impact in the world, from the systemic level of the consumer experience. In short: 1) create new usage patterns that gradually demand products that last longer and have an economic advantage while 2) empowering consumers to purchase products that have a positive impact in the world by utilizing everything we know about how to make desirable products.
Let us not forget that consumers have the power here. It may be masked by modern day media but ultimately that media it trying to manipulate the power you have when you make a purchase. It follows that if companies, in the US alone, spend $220 billion a year on convincing you to buy something, your consumption of something is not insignificant.