Reducing refuse requires designing for demise

‘Let’s design products with their demise in mind’

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What happens when product design comes up against the ethics of sustainability? Joe MacLeod, author of ‘Endineering’, explains how to do things better.

“Whatever they are doing, whatever they are buying, I want consumers to ask one question,” says Joe Macleod: “I want them to ask how this ends.” For the organisations manufacturing and marketing the products we consume, the question is slightly different: “I want them to ask how should this end?” These two questions, which form the thematic bedrock of Macleod’s latest title, ‘Endineering’, focus on “how we can improve what we are making, and how we can go about reclaiming the materials and have better brand equity relationships so that we can get over the massive and wasteful problems we have in consumerism today”.

While he is specifically talking about the consumer lifecycle of digital devices, these questions could apply to almost any consumer experience, says Macleod. He’s identified a cycle that deteriorates from the life-​affirming experience of opening the box of your new smartphone to that “feeling of abandonment after your contract is up, drifting around unsupported with obsolete technology”. While the onboarding experience “is fantastic, and the set-up wizards will get you going in minutes”, by the end that warm fuzzy feeling has transformed into the cold, hard language of metropolitan recycling schemes.

‘Endineering’ is Macleod’s evangelistic attempt to make sense of a consumer cycle that starts with romantic poetry and ends with badly translated instruction manual prose. He calls this end ‘the gap’ and this is where the problems with consumerism are piled high: hoarding, pollution, unwanted apps, disused data providing security risks, mis-sold financial products and “electronic junk that just sits in people’s drawers”.

Given that there are more unused mobile phones in the UK than there are people, it’s a situation that offends the author. Not just because of the waste, but because compared with onboarding there is virtually no attention paid to the offboarding experience: “It’s like once they’ve got your money, that’s where it all stops.”

‘Consumers are abandoned by the company that created the product’

Joe Macleod

Manufacturers should bear more responsibility for the environmental implications of product life-endings, he says. And while lots has been done in the field of offsetting , “it doesn’t solve the problem, and it doesn’t explain why consumers are left to figure it all out for themselves”.

Part of the issue is product perception. When consumers buy a smartphone “they know loads about the product. They will know its value, what it can do, who makes it. The physical identity in the purchase transaction has a clear asset structure. We then use the product and become engaged with it. When we offboard, it goes into the recycling process, and it loses all of its identity assets and is reduced to componentry at the end.” Not only that, says Macleod, but all the responsibility for what happens at the end of the product lifecycle has now shifted entirely to the consumer.

We read it for you


A few years ago, veteran product developer Joe Macleod wrote a book called ‘Ends’, in which he describes how humans are often good at starting the lifecycle of products, services and lifestyle trends, and yet conspicuously terrible at planning in what happens at the end of the lifecycle. In his follow-up – ‘Endineering’ – Macleod transfers his attention from what these endings look like to what can be done about them. And the key word here is ‘offset’. How do we balance our ethical values and personal wishes with the reality of global economics? How do we build in a sense of responsibility for the fate of all these products that we plan, design, manufacture, market, support and create brand loyalty for? In ‘Endineering’ Macleod takes us through each of these lifecycle stages, along the way highlighting opportunities for developers to rethink their approach to what happens when our gadgets die.

‘Endineering’ is about how product manufacturers can ‘design in’ better endings for the consumer. “There’s a profound sociological construct around endings,” says Macleod, “but it’s got mashed up in our industrial-commercial model. And I thought that I had to write a book about it.” In fact, he has now written two: the first, simply entitled ‘Ends’, highlighted “why we overlook endings for humans, products, services and digital”. In ‘Ends’, the author argued that over centuries our changing relationship with death has influenced the way we consume everything: the end user lives in a guilt-free world blaming big business for everything, while society finds itself at a loss as to where to pin responsibility for the inevitable waste that ensues.

Having stated the problem, Macleod travelled the worlds physical and digital, spreading the word, listening to the reactions of others. Along the way he began to realise that there might be a structured approach to providing the answers he sought. That led to ‘Endineering’, the fruit of a strong compulsion to record his thoughts on the decline in the user experience in the digital world. “Put it this way: I’m dyslexic, so writing a book is not in my wheelhouse.”

Seen from the industrial perspective, Macleod – whose background is in design and mobile-phone manufacture – says that there is a familiar model. “Organisations mine out resources, get them shipped to manufacturing sites where engineers and designers are putting together new concepts for products. As you start to pull down into new offerings you start to merge that with marketing, who are basically there to decide what existing product you are going to replace.”

At this point the product transfers into the consumer experience, “with the purchasers all thinking that it’s great because they need a new laptop, phone, printer... These people then take them home and use them for a set amount of time. What’s happening here is a consumer-provider relationship for about 24 months, which is the usual length of a mobile phone contract.

That’s when the breakage in the relationship happens and the consumer is essentially abandoned by the company that created the product. Unless, of course, you’re constantly engaging with the company in repurchasing behaviour.” At the end of this cycle, both products and consumers are left in the aforementioned ‘gap’. “No-one’s grappling with this at all. The offboarding experience should be equal to that of onboarding: nurturing, collaborative and with reclaimed materials.”

Macleod thinks offboarding should be connected to the entirety of the preceding user experience, “through emotional triggers that are measurable and actionable by the user. It should identify and bond the consumer and provider together in mutual responsibility. Its aim should be to neutralise the negative consequences of consumption.”

The obvious question is how to achieve this. “I’m a big believer in measuring things,” says Macleod. “Consumers should be given a clear understanding of the impact of their consumption at offboarding. Further to this, the consumer can’t be abandoned to deal with this responsibility alone. It has to be done in partnership with the provider, tied to the neutralising of assets.”

Most of all, he says, the manufacturer has to take ownership of the whole product life cycle.

‘Endineering: Designing consumption lifecycles that end as well as they begin’ by Joe Macleod is from AndEnd Books, £16


Carbon Credentials

Human activity that creates emissions can be measured and expressed in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Companies or individuals can counter­balance their emissions by purchasing carbon offsets of equal amounts. One tonne of carbon emissions is equal to one tonne of carbon offset purchased. The offset is linked to projects that soak up carbon: an example is planting trees.

Carbon offsets don’t just compensate for carbon dioxide. They also cover methane, nitrous oxide, per-fluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. They also have common features that help provide legitimacy. The source of the offset refers to the project that is making the offset possible. This might, for example, be a re-forestation project in Ethiopia.

A certification scheme describes what and who endorses the offset. There are different companies which certify offsetting, thus providing some legitimacy to the scheme. Past schemes have lacked certification and so under­mined trust across the whole market. But recent improvements and a greater focus on this method of carbon reduction have helped build trust again.

There are two type of carbon offsets. First, a compliance market, where companies can offset the impact of their activities. Then there is a voluntary market, aimed at individuals and smaller businesses. For the compliance market, there are options for trading around the world. By far the most dominant is the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

The voluntary market is far more dynamic. Measurements for carbon usage can vary widely between companies, and prices to offset fluctuate equally widely. This has plagued the market.

Edited extract from ‘Endineering’ by Joe Macleod, reproduced with permission.

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