I write my first post from a small island of cushions in the midst of a half building site / half car boot sale that is currently the living room of my new house. Having moved in a month ago, we spend most of our spare hours either doing DIY or in the hardware shop, more often than not, looking a little lost.
Last weekend, my husband purchased his third drill in as much time.
The first one wasn’t strong enough to make a hole in the wall (fundamental flaw); the second one had a faulty battery, we’d lost the charger and the model was now out of circulation. The third, we were assured, would deliver the hole we required. As we took the drill out of its box, agreed where we needed the nail to go, I stood back. Within moments we both realised that the drill (while powerful enough to go through a wall made of gold) didn’t quite reach the wall we needed to drill. One further trip to the shop to purchase a (very) long extension cable, we now have a mirror in our bathroom.
Personal lack of foresight aside, I couldn’t help feeling that this whole episode encapsulated one of the biggest challenges we face today – perpetual and unsustainable consumption. I consider myself to be relatively informed on the current state of affairs – on the finality of the planet’s resources, the risks associated with overconsumption and the consequences of depletion. And yet, the impatience to get the hole in the wall overcame my conscious telling me to find another way – no one on earth needs three drills. Arguably, no one even needs one, they just need a hole.
So why did it come to us needing three drills and a large extension cable for one mirror? The answer lies both with the drill, the user (I’ll share the blame with my husband for this one) and two key questions that the episode has invited me reflect on:
Why are we able to buy products that don’t work?
I’m not shy of self criticism, but I can state with certainty that the issue with the first drill was that it simply would not go through what could only be described as a run of the mill, normal, plaster wall. It was not old, not faulty, it was simply weak. Sadly, it’s not alone – there are numerous forums, articles and YouTube videos full of consumer complaints about toasters that cannot fit a standard slice of bread, or other products that fail to deliver on promise. Each of these products will have been sourced, manufactured and transported before reaching the consumer, often using up valuable natural resources and requiring energy to turn those resources into the consumer-ready product, not to mention get it to them. These products will be subject to tests to assure health and safety requirements and a specific level of quality. However, no test exists to ensure all this energy and effort in producing the product balances against its predicted value.
If that first drill had come with some sign on its packaging that indicated the amount of natural capital and energy that went into making it and how that matched up to its life expectancy (or number of holes it is expected to make), would we still have bought it? Would we have compared it to another, slightly more expensive drill? Would that have made a difference?
I wonder whether more responsibility should be placed on companies to be more transparent about the value deficit of the products sold to consumers. This would, of course, require a clear and universally acknowledged definition of ‘value’ to exist – no mean feat. And this would need to be meaningful. How would consumers know what is ‘good’ value? Could a traffic light system be created to identify products that are resource intensive, but are likely to malfunction or be obsolete in a year, much like products containing high saturated fat are now called out to consumers? We are a long way from a world where this solution is a feasible proposition, but I wonder whether it could support just a small shift in consumer behavior, which, at the current rate of consumption, could have significant impact.
Why didn’t we use the shared economy?
I have to admit, on a number of occasions during drillgate, we discussed the option of using the shared economy. The offer was there for the taking, but it wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t easy. Our friends down the road were out, our other friends’ drill was broken, we hadn’t met our neighbours yet and The Library of Things – a wonderful library for borrowing ‘useful’ products – was closed.
As consumers – of products, food, information, we are spoilt for choice and ease. At the touch of a button, or click of a mouse, we can have any of these things with us, or at least on their way to us, immediately.
If the more sustainable option is to be adopted as the norm by the average consumer, it cannot be more difficult. The sustainable option must also be the most efficient and easy option, the sustainability of that choice being an added extra. If the shared economy option could have been delivered to us tomorrow morning, would we still have made the trip to the hardware shop?
There does need to be some responsibility lain at the consumers’ door. In an ideal world, we would all make responsible and long term investment purchase decisions. However, the truth is that consumer behavior is challenging to shift; it is intensely powerful and arguably intrinsically linked with human nature. In such a world, the shared economy and the truly sustainable products need to up their game and begin competing to be not only the most responsible choice, but also the easiest choice.